“To everything, there is a season,” Pete Seeger’s song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, tells us. “A time to be born, a time to die.”
Seeger died Monday at 94. In the spirit of that song, he spent his time on earth planting, healing, laughing, building, dancing, loving, embracing, and advocating peace.
Seeger brought the world closer together with his music. Every day, every minute, someone in the world is singing a Pete Seeger song. For over six decades, he introduced Americans to songs from other cultures, like “Wimoweh” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) from South Africa, “Tzena, Tzena” from Israel (which reached number two on the pop charts) and “Guantanamera” from Cuba, inspiring what is now called “world music.” The songs he has written, including the antiwar tunes, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and those he has popularized, including “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome,” have been recorded by hundreds of artists in many languages and have become global anthems for people fighting for freedom. His songs are sung by people in cities and villages around the world, promoting the basic idea that the hopes that unite us are greater than the fears that divide us.
Seeger was a much-acclaimed and innovative guitarist and banjoist, a globe-trotting song collector, and the author of many songbooks and musical how-to manuals. In addition to being a World War II veteran, he was on the front lines of every key progressive crusade during his lifetime—labor unions and migrant workers in the 1930s and 1940s, the banning of nuclear weapons and opposition to the Cold War in the 1950s, civil rights and the anti–Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, environmental responsibility and opposition to South African apartheid in the 1970s, and, always, human rights throughout the world.
For the past decade, Pete has kept coming out of semi-retirement to do one more concert, give one more interview, write one more book, record one more album. His remarkable spirit, energy and optimism kept him going through triumphs and tragedies, but he outlived all his enemies and remained one of the greatest American heroes of this or any other era.
Several biographies of Seeger have been published in the past decade, including David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, Alec Wilkinson’s The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, and Alan Winkler’s To Everything There Is a Season: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song. Six years ago Jim Brown produced a wonderful documentary film, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.
Pete, who was modest and self-effacing despite his remarkable accomplishments, never wrote an autobiography. But two years ago he published a collection of his writings, Pete Seeger: In His Own Words. The book presents Pete in his own voice. With Pete’s cooperation, Rob Rosenthal, sociology professor at Wesleyan University, and Sam Rosenthal, a musician and writer, dug through Pete’s extensive writings—letters stored for decades in his family barn, notes to himself, published articles, rough drafts, stories, books, poems and songs—to chronicle and illuminate Pete’s incredible life as America’s troubadour for social justice.