Iconic folk singer Pete Seeger died at the age of 94 Monday, his grandson confirmed to the New York Times. Those who do not know his name are almost certainly familiar with the musicians he inspired, which include Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Bruce Springsteen. He helped bring about the folk revival in popular music in the 1950s and 1960s.
But, perhaps more importantly, a strain political activism ran through his music that elevated his songs – be it those he wrote himself or the traditional ballads he co-opted and introduced to new audiences – to be the touchstones of American social movements throughout the 20th century.
His causes bent progressive – he was associated with the Communist Party at the beginning of his career – and he championed unions, pacifism, the civil rights movement and environmentalism. In 1955, his music landed him in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but by 2009 he was singing at President Barack Obama's inauguration. Here is a look at his politics through his music:
"Song for John Doe"
He recorded the album "Songs for John Doe" in 1941 with Woody Guthrie and their band The Almanacs. The title track, which he wrote, was a searing critique of the movement towards the U.S. entering World War II that called President Franklin D. Roosevelt out by name. "He said, 'I hate war and so does Eleanor but we want to be safe until everyone is dead,'" the lyrics go, and the song suggests that J.P. Morgan is behind the war effort. While the album didn't make much of a commercial splash, it was noticed by The Atlantic and other publications, and his music was accused of being "subversive and illegal."
On the 1941 Almanacs album "Talking Union and Other Songs," the song "Talking Union" is both entertaining and instructional. Seeger and co-writers Lee Hars and Millard Lampbell argue why workers should organize and the how to get around the common road blocks to unionizing. "It ain't quite this simple, so I better explain/ Just why you got to ride on the union train./ 'Cause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay, We'll all be a-waitin' 'til Judgment Day."
"Dear Mr. President"
"Dear Mr. President" was released in 1942 on an album of the same name, with Seeger having changed his views about the U.S. entering the war (in part because the communist-influenced American labor movement had adopted a no-strike pledge after the attack of Pearl Harbor and Russia's involvement in the war). The song urges Roosevelt that "we got to lick Mr. Hitler," yet expressed other progressive themes that Seeger would continue to hold dear, including human rights for both the Jews facing Hitler's persecutions and African-Americans suffering under Jim Crow laws. Despite Seeger's newfound support of the war, the government continued to monitor his activities and views, which would later lead to him being subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
"If I Had a Hammer"
Seeger and Hays wrote the song "If I Had A Hammer" in 1949, reportedly to entertain themselves at a board meeting for the company they had co-founded that published music in support of progressive causes. They went on to perform it at shows sponsored by the U.S. Communist Party – the title's "hammer" being a reference to the hammer and sickle of communism. Seeger eventually distanced himself from the communist movement, yet continued performing the song, as it became an anthem for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Its lyrics were tweaked and rewritten overtime, and it was recorded by The Weaver and Peter, Paul & Mary, among other artists.
Civil Rights Movement
"We Shall Overcome"
The authorship of "We Shall Overcome" continues to be disputed, but it is thought to have been inspired to by a gospel spiritual and published by Seeger's music publishing company People's Songs in 1948. Seeger performed it often and inspired other folk musicians to adopt it, leading to its adoption by the 1960s civil rights movement. He is also credited to bringing it to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who heard Seeger's performance of it in 1957, and folk singer Joan Baez led a rendition of it during the 1963 March on Washington.