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Published: Friday, 1/31/2014


America’s troubadour

When we think of Pete Seeger, the folk singer who died this week at the age of 94, it’s impossible just to talk about his recorded output. For every tune he wrote that became part of the American songbook — “If I Had a Hammer,” for instance — fans could spend an hour discussing the causes to which he was devoted.

After he discovered the allure of folk music in the late 1930s, Mr. Seeger dropped out of Harvard University and sought to popularize what he considered the most honest music in the world. With the zeal of an evangelist, he traveled the country, performing the songs that would eventually spark the folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s.

He became friends with the pillars of that community, including Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. He wrote or co-wrote songs that would become anthems: “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” among them.

His passion for economic justice led him — briefly — to the American Communist Party. His leftist politics earned him a spot on the blacklist of the 1950s, which prevented many artists from plying their trades openly.

During the Red Scare, Mr. Seeger appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating alleged communist infiltration of the arts. His defiance, both gutsy and humorous, of lawmakers’ bullying earned him admirers around the world.

As a champion of labor, civil rights, and environmental stewardship, Mr. Seeger rarely met a protest he didn’t support. One revolution he did reject was the electrification of folk music, led by Bob Dylan in 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival.

In 2008, Mr. Seeger performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Bruce Springsteen at President Obama’s inauguration. He leaves a legacy of politics that put people first and a catalog of songs that are first in listeners’ hearts.

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