Seeger’s death ends a long and colorful career advocating social causes in protests from the 1940s up through the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement.
He was an unmistakable figure. Tall and lanky, he was rarely seen without his five-string banjo and backpack. He could often be spotted walking the streets of Manhattan.
Although Seeger’s health was declining–he had to walk with the aid of two canes–his grandson, Katama Cahill-Jackson said he was “chopping wood” 10 days ago. He fell ill and spent his last six days in New York Presbyterian Hospital, he told the AP. The illness was unspecified.
His death marked the end of a remarkable life that put him at the center of many of the great social movements of his time. His music always had a message that spoke out for peace, harmony and an end to war and injustice.
The songs he wrote defined more than one generation. They include classic folk tunes like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”
They were sung by artists as varied as Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds and Bob Dylan.
Seeger rose to early fame in the 1940s as a member of The Weavers, with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. The group’s signature song was Goodnight Irene.”
He was repelled by Hitler in the 1940s and became a member of the Communist Party. The association led to a confrontation with Congress during the notorious Red Scare during the 1950s.
He was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He’d left the Communist Party five years earlier, but was defiant and unrepentant when he was called to testify. He was held in contempt, but the charge was later overturned.
Even so, he was banned from televisions and most radio stations refused to play his music for the rest of the decade. So Seeger went on the road, touring college campuses and other venues and set the pattern for his career that would last for the rest of his life.
Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919 and grew up in a family of musicians that traced their roots back to Colonial America. He dropped out of Harvard in 1938 and hit the road to pursue folk music full time, hitch-hiking or riding freight trains around the country.
Seeger had three children with his wife Toshi, whom he married in 1943. They lived on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River for 70 years. Toshi Seeger died in July at age 91.