Pete Seeger, who helped create the modern American folk music movement, co-wrote enduring songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and in turn became a leading voice for social justice, died on Monday at the age of 94.
He was variously hailed in social and traditional media as a “hero”, “America’s conscience” and “A man of the people”.
Seeger died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, his record company, Appleseed Recordings, said.
Seeger was well known for his liberal politics, working as an environmentalist, protesting against wars from Vietnam to Iraq. He was sentenced to prison for refusing to testify to Congress about his time in the Communist Party.
In January 2009, Seeger performed at a concert marking Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.
He then celebrated his 90th birthday in May of that year with a concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden that drew 15,000 spectators and performers, including Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson. Proceeds went an environmental group Seeger founded.
“Like a ripple that keeps going out from a pond, Mr. Seeger’s music will keep going out all over the world spreading the message of non-violence and peace and justice and equality for all,” Jim Musselman of Appleseed Recordings said in a statement.
Seeger and Woody Guthrie started the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s and in 1949 Seeger was a founding member of another key folk group, the Weavers. Those groups opened the way for Bob Dylan and another generation of folk music singer/songwriters in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Weavers had a No. 1 hit with a version of Leadbelly’s “Good Night, Irene” and by 1952 the group had sold more than 4 million records. The members soon drifted apart, however, after being blacklisted for links to the Communist Party.
Seeger and Lee Hays wrote “If I Had a Hammer” for the Weavers, along with the hit “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”.
Seeger also wrote the modern classic “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with lyrics from the Bible’s Ecclesiastes and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with Joe Hickerson. But he was modest about his songwriting.