By Sean Smith
On Tuesday night, President Obama traveled to the Capitol and delivered the annual State of the Union Address. For those who may not be familiar, the State of the Union Address is where the sitting President appears before a joint session of the United States Congress and delivers a report on how the nation is doing and to lay out his or her plans for the coming year. More or less, it’s a chance for the President to use their bully pulpit to make a case for their legislative priorities in front of a national prime time audience.
On Monday night we learned that folk legend Pete Seeger passed away in his sleep at the age of 94 from natural causes. And while he never took to the podium in front of a joint session of congress like President Obama did Tuesday, Pete Seeger made his case for what he believed in over the years not by addressing the nation through some long-winded speech, but rather through short and catchy songs. He may not have had the President’s bully pulpit, but nonetheless he reached several generations of Americans with his messages of peace and love through his many records and performances over the years.
Seeger was born with music running through his veins. His father, Charles Seeger, established the music department at the University of California in 1913 and his mother, Constance de Clyver was a concert violinist. But Seeger also picked up an activism from his father for which he will be remembered for just as much as he will be remembered for his music. His father was forced out at the University of California in 1918 because of his outspoken pacifism during World War I. It was the same anti-war stance that Pete Seeger would later display decades later during America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
He attended college at Harvard but dropped out in 1938. In the 1940’s and early 1950’s he was a founding member of two folk groups, the Almanac Singers and the Weavers. His hits with the Weavers included “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Goodnight, Irene,” to name a few. The latter of which topped the Billboard charts for 13 weeks. But in the 1950’s, during the heart of McCarthyism, Seeger and his group the Weavers were blacklisted from the music industry after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about their supposed ties to communism. Seeger was convicted in 1961 on a felony charge of contempt of Congress and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but this conviction was overturned on appeal in 1962.
Pete Seeger’s political beliefs and his music go hand in hand. One of the most popular songs that he wrote was “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” which was made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary. The song was written in support of progressivism and called for power to be used to fight injustice and support love. Another of his more notable songs “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ was written as a song of peace and anti-war in 1955. In 1967 Seeger released “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” which was another anti-war song questioning America’s combat role in Vietnam. However not all of Seeger’s more notable songs were anti-war, he penned The Byrds 1965 hit “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which is based on a chapter out of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The song is all about how there is a season for everything, including “a time to kill and a time to heal.” He also helped to popularize the iconic folk song “This Land is Your Land” written by Woody Guthrie in 1943. A song that he performed in 2009 alongside Bruce Springsteen for President Obama’s Inauguration Concert in Washington D.C..
Pete Seeger will forever be remembered as a pioneering folk legend that used his musical prowess and celebrity to give light to his political views and beliefs. While he may never have had the prime-time national audience that President Obama had on Tuesday night to argue for his positions, his influence on America’s social conscious cannot be ignored. Usually we try to highlight a song or two in an artist’s catalogue each week here on #ThrowbackThursday, but with a legend like Seeger, whose career spanned seven decades, it would be unjust to do so. So in remembrance of the life and career of folk icon Pete Seeger, below you will find a number of songs associated with his long and storied career. Enjoy!
Peter, Paul & Mary
“If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song)”
Warner Bros Records