Pete Seeger: death of Dylan's mentor and America's 'conscience'

Jan 28, 2014

Much loved folk music icon and activist who wrote If I had a Hammer and Turn! Turn! Turn! dies aged 94

PETE SEEGER, the US folk icon whose songs included Turn! Turn! Turn! and If I had a Hammer, has died at the age of 94 after a short illness. Here are five things you might not know about the man often described as "America's conscience". 

He was a communist and was blacklisted during the McCarthy era

Seeger was 17 when he joined the Young Communist League and he became a member of the Communist Party of America six years later. In the 1940s, his political affiliations saw him blacklisted and later indicted for contempt of Congress. While he "backed away" from organised politics in the 50s and 60s and eventually denounced Stalin, his world view remained essentially unchanged. In a 1995 interview he said: "I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it."

He helped kickstart Bob Dylan's career

Seeger was a "mentor to younger folk and topical singers in the 50s and 60s", among them Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock, says the New York Times. Seeger was one of Dylan's earliest backers. He got him onto the bill at the influential Newport Folk Festival and encouraged [record producer] John Hammond to produce Dylan's first LP.

He didn't really try to cut the power at Dylan's first electric concert

One of the most enduring myths about Seeger is that he threatened to take an axe to a power cable when Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The much-repeated story suggests Seeger was appalled at his protégé's betrayal of acoustic folk. Seeger denied the account in his 1993 memoir, writing that he was "furious at the sound system" not Dylan. "Bob was singing Maggie's Farm, one of his best songs, but you couldn't understand a word, because of the distortion," wrote Seeger.

The message on his banjo summed up his philosophy

Seeger, who was lanky and often sported a full white beard, cut a distinctive figure. His trademark instrument – a well-worn banjo – was also unique. Inspired by the message Woody Guthrie scrawled on his guitar – "this machine kills fascists" - Seeger wrote "this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" on his banjo.

He remained a beloved figure his whole life

The "broad public affection" for Seeger was on full display in 2009 when, at 89, he joined Bruce Springsteen in a rendition of This Land is Your Land at a concert celebrating President Obama's inauguration, the NYT writes. Asked to describe his music, he once said: "I call them all love songs. They tell of love of man and woman, and parents and children, love of country, freedom, beauty, mankind, the world, love of searching for truth and other unknowns. But, of course, love alone is not enough."

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RIP mate!