Pete Seeger is responsible for bringing some of America’s most important songs to the public consciousness. Using music as a tool for activism, he marched for civil rights and sailed on behalf of the environment. He was banned from American television for nearly two decades because of his political views. For the past half century, the American pub- lic has had a love-hate affair with him as he roamed the planet with his banjo, uncovering songs and “passing them on.”
Pete had a string of hit records in the early 1950’s as a member of The Weavers, includ- ing Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” which topped the charts for 13 weeks until the group was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960’s, his other hits include “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and he introduced the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” into the American mainstream.
After college, Pete tried his hand at journalism, and failed. He attempted to be an artist, and failed. In 1939 he got a job at the World’s Fair in New York City as a janitor and met his future wife, Toshi Ohta, who was a waitress at one of the food pavilions. After two months of “litter picking” Pete took off for a summer giving puppet shows through upstate New York, discovering the banjo in his travels and soon tried his luck as a musician.
Pete was introduced to Woody Guthrie by folklorist John Lomax. The two musicians found that they shared a strong passion for people and music, and decided they would see America together by hitchhiking across the country, singing at labor camps and union halls.
It’s true, they were communists; but this was before it was synonymous with being ‘anti-American.’ Back then, it was commonplace to have communist can- didates at every level, including presidential, and the negative connotations of more recent years simply didn’t exist.They believed there should be no rich or poor, everybody should get a fair wage for their labors. Pete and Woody liked that concept, feeling kinship with the story from the Bible book of Acts, when the Apostles sold their material possessions and distributed the proceeds equally to the poor.
Pete and “This Land Is Your Land.”
In 1940, the hit song of the day was “God Bless America” and the lyrics trou- bled Woody so much that, on Friday, February 23 of that year, he finally sat down, pulled out his guitar and completed a satirical protest that he called “God Blessed America for Me.” He wrote the words down in his notebook and promptly put it away.
Pete finally heard the song in 1944 when Woody recorded the tune, renamed “This Land Is Your Land,” during a marathon recording session in New York for Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records. Although the song didn’t impress Pete at first, he started to sing it for friends, then concert audiences. It quickly be- came a rallying point for everyone who believed in fairness and equality. Pete recorded it on his next album and taught it to younger folksingers. Soon, teachers had millions of children singing “This Land IsYour Land” in schools across the nation.
Two decades later, as Woody lay in a New York City hospital, the song took off like a blast of lightning across the country and around the world. By the time Woody died on October 3, 1967, his friend Pete Seeger introduce “This Land Is Your Land” to a global audience, now universally recognized as America’s greatest folk song.
Among his list of awards, Pete Seeger has received:
The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1993)
National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts (1994)
Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Honor (1994)