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BARRY LEVINE: Pete Seeger: An American icon dies

Pete Seeger (Special photo)

Pete Seeger (Special photo)

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Clockwise from left are The Weavers - Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, as seen in this 1950s photo. (Special photo)

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Barry Levine

The music industry — and the human race, as well — lost a genuine treasure when 94-year-old Pete Seeger died Monday of natural causes. The iconic folk singer/songwriter dedicated his decadeslong career using music to fight for social change.

In late 1939 and early 1940, Seeger worked at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington. While there, he helped catalogue and transcribe recordings taken from throughout the U.S. that helped preserve music, which would not otherwise have been heard.

Beginning in the 1940s, Seeger played an instrumental role in the rise of folk music as a popular genre. As a single performer and also as a member of the Weavers, perhaps the greatest folk group of all time, the banjo-playing New Yorker followed in the footsteps of legends like Woody Guthrie, bringing traditional tunes sung by common Americans to a wider audience as well as composing original tunes like “If I Had a Hammer.”

Seeger became a national star in 1950 when the Weavers’ cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” became a No. 1 smash.

Yet Seeger’s blossoming career was short-circuited in 1955 when he refused to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee about his associations with the leftist movement. Seeger’s subsequent blacklisting severely limited his ability to make a living through music.

On Aug. 18, 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the HUAC. Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the “Hollywood Ten” for contempt of Congress, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment, which would have asserted that his testimony might be self-incriminating. As the “Hollywood Ten” had done, he refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights.

"I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs," Seeger said. "I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this."

Seeger's refusal to answer questions that violated his fundamental Constitutional rights led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress. He was convicted after a jury trial in March of 1961 and sentenced to 10 one-year terms in jail, to be served concurrently. In May 1962, an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction

Seeger didn’t give up in the face of such intimidation — not then and not ever.

Even though he was blacklisted as a performer and barred from network TV for years, he continued to sing on street corners and in saloons, in migrant labor camps, hobo jungles, union halls, schools, churches, concert auditoriums and college campuses. His efforts, and the gradual change of the political landscape, helped spawn the early 1960s folk movement.

Seeger doubled his musical activism, working to rally fellow citizens in support of labor unions and the budding civil rights movement.

When Seeger finally returned to television in 1967 on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on CBS, his popular anti-Vietnam war song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was censored. But after his performance was broadcast the next year, it was credited with helping to cement public opinion against the war.

After first hearing “We Will Overcome” in 1947, Seeger is frequently credited with changing the title and the chorus of the spiritual “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome.” He also added extra verses and performed it frequently at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. heard “We Shall Overcome” for the first time at the school. King reportedly said that the song stayed in his head. During the early 1960s, “We Shall Overcome” became a focal point and unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Later in the decade, Seeger was one of the Vietnam War’s most outspoken opponents.

Through it all, Seeger tunes like “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” were frequently covered by younger artists.

Seeger also played a major role in the great Bob Dylan’s rise as a performer. Although the story of an angry Seeger threatening to cut the electric cables during Dylan’s infamous electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 is often told, Seeger did much to support Dylan during the early 1960s.

One of the reasons Dylan signed with Columbia Records in 1961 was because Seeger — a huge influence on the young singer -- was also on the label. Seeger also helped bring Dylan to the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, which turned out to be his breakout performance.

Seeger continued to seek new causes throughout the 1970s and 1980s, becoming a powerful voice in defense of the environment and Native-American rights.

Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Seeger also is credited with assisting in the cleanup of the Hudson River, a major waterway in New York State.

For most of his life, Seeger lived in Beacon, N.Y. The pollution in the nearby 315-mile Hudson River inspired him and other local residents to build a giant boat which would go up and down the river and draw attention to the pollution. In 1969, he also started the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Foundation, which still exists today and is dedicated to protecting the river.

In January 2009, Seeger performed Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the inauguration ceremony for President Obama.

At Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration in 2009, Bruce Springsteen called him “a living archive of America’s music and conscience and a testament of the power of song to nudge history along.”

Barry Levine writes entertainment stories for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.