Singer Pete Seeger performs during the 'This Land Is Your Land' Woody Guthrie At 100 Concert at The Whitman Theater in September 2012.Getty Images
Pete Seeger, a composer, singer and banjo player who performed and popularized folk music over several decades, has died at age 94.
Mr. Seeger was a political leftist, an environmental activist and the composer of such hits as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn Turn Turn.”
With The Weavers, his group in the early 1950s, Mr. Seeger enjoyed spectacular popular success, selling four million records in a single year, including the Top-40 hits “On Top of Old Smokey” and “”Goodnight, Irene.”
But accusations of Communist sympathies hamstrung the group, and Mr. Seeger was later prosecuted. In 1961, he was convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. The sentence was reversed on appeal, and in 1963 Mr. Seeger headlined Carnegie Hall.
He primarily played 12-string guitar and the five-string banjo, an instrument that he did so much to popularize that it is often referred to as a Pete Seeger Long Neck. His was inscribed with the slogan “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
Raised in New York City, Mr. Seeger was the son of Juilliard School professors. His mother was a violinist; his father a composer and musicologist. His father was also an outspoken pacifist who lost his university job over his politics during World War I.
As a child, Mr. Seeger toured around the South playing music with his parents, on a trailer that folded out to be a stage outfitted with an organ. He taught himself banjo and guitar, and learned to sing harmony with his brother.
He attended Harvard on scholarship, but dropped out to join an itinerate puppet troupe with leftist leanings. He later worked helping to catalog the folk-song archive at the Library of Congress. In his early 20s, Mr. Seeger teamed with fellow musician Woody Guthrie and rode the rails around the West, playing songs in bars for coins.
A revival in folk music in the 1960s brought him renewed national prominence. He marched and sang against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights, writing the classic protest song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” The hard-touring musician became one of the most visible folk singers in the world, lending his voice to any number of causes.
Recognizing Mr. Seeger’s role as an apostle of folk, fanzine the Little Sandy Review wrote in 1964: “All of us who participate in the folk music revival are, in varying degrees of kinship, Pete’s children.”
He lived for most of his life in a log cabin he built on land bought during the first flush of the Weavers’ success, overlooking the Hudson River. In the 1960s, inspired by Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” Mr. Seeger led the Clearwater campaign, an effort to clean up the river that became a model for grass-roots activism.
Mr. Seeger released more than 100 records. He wrote books for children and instructional music books. The man who popularized “If I Had a Hammer” was known to chop wood every day that he could.
He won the Kennedy Center honors, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received any number of other accolades while influencing generations of protest singers. Yet he was skeptical of such adulation.
“I’m too respectable now,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2001.