Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

“I’m not as optimistic as people think I am. I think we have a 50-50 chance of there being a human race in 100 years.” That was Pete Seeger, speaking to the Guardian newspaper in 2007.

pete seeger

Pete Seeger with the banjo he used to change the world. (Flickr/DoKwan)

It’s hard to think that there will be no more interviews, concerts, benefits and albums (he recorded more than 100) from the protean force known as Pete Seeger. Born in 1919, he was 94 when he died in Manhattan on Monday. It was only months after the death of his wife and close collaborator, Toshi.

Yes, folk music would be immeasurably different without him, and he was a prolific and deeply influential songwriter, but Seeger’s mission was primarily political. He wanted to change the world through music, and wielded his banjo in that cause.

“My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet,” he said in 2009. Maybe he wasn’t the best performer of Spanish or African songs, but he made up for it in enthusiasm. His environmental work saving the Hudson River (he lived overlooking it in Beacon, New York) will prove perhaps his most enduring contribution.

Someone should write a book about the Seeger family. I tried, but my agent told me there was no money in it. Seeger’s half brother, Mike, was probably the foremost performer of and preserver of old-time country music, and his half-sister, Peggy, formed an enduring duo with husband Ewan McColl that was considerably influential on the British folk scene. His father, Charles Seeger, and his stepmother, Ruth Seeger, were both important musicologists.

Pete inspired a generation of protest singers, including Joan Baez and Phil Ochs. I always thought Steve Earle was most deserving of Seeger’s crown (not that he’d ever wear one), and in 2008 I tried to bring the two of them—both coming to New Haven, Connecticut for concerts—together for a joint interview.

Earle was eager, but Seeger, alas, wasn’t, conveying through his grandson, Tao-Rodriguez Seeger, that he thought everything worth saying had been said in his autobiography. Still, I asked Earle what Seeger meant to him. “Pete’s an example for everybody as a person, as an activist and as a musician,” he said. “I was lucky enough to record ‘Walking on Death Row’ for one of his Where Have All the Flowers Gone? anthologies.”

That’s the great thing about influential people. Even when they’re gone, they leave a whole lot of themselves behind.