Iconic Folk Singer Pete Seeger, Pro-worker Troubadour, Dies at 94

Iconic folk singer Pete Seeger, who initially rose to fame as an outspoken pro-worker troubadour – “We Shall Overcome” was originally a union song – died late at night on Jan. 27 after a brief illness.  He was 94.

Seeger never made a secret of his pro-worker stands, even when they got him into political trouble in the McCarthy Era of the 1950s.  He was blacklisted by mainstream media, and even kept out of some union halls, after refusing to name names before the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee.

But he never lost his love for social justice, with workers and labor the first and prime among his causes, said Joe Uehlein, a folksinger/activist, a former top worker at the AFL-CIO Industrial Unions Department, and a friend of Seeger’s.

With Woody Guthrie, Seeger was crusading for workers and inspiring them with his songs before World War II.  After that, he extended his zeal to the civil rights movement, adapting “We Shall Overcome” for that.  Afterwards came the peace movement, the environmental movement and women’s rights, among other causes.

Seeger introduced “We Shall Overcome” to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 at an observance in Tennessee.  “That song sticks in your head, doesn’t it?” the civil rights leader told aides afterwards.

And “Pete was full of ideas how to bridge the labor-environmental gap,” Uehlein says, recounting a recent meeting with Seeger at the folksinger’s home in Beacon, N.Y.

“And he spoke about labor, the CIO and the AFL-CIO in glowing terms.”

“Which Side Are You On?” “Talking Union” “There Once Was A Union Maid”  “We’ve Got To Go Down And Join The Union” “If I Had A Hammer” are just a few of the many pro-worker pro-union songs that Seeger either authored or popularized during his 70-plus year career, featuring his unique 5-string banjo and ability to get crowds to sing.

Seeger’s involvement with unions extended almost until the day he died.  In Buffalo for an anti-war activists’ conference late last year, he dropped in at The Newspaper Guild’s joint district council meeting there, too, and sang.  That’s typical, said two union leaders/folk singers who were also close friends, Uehlien and Baldemar Velasquez, President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

“We were doing the Campbell Soup boycott in the 80s, and we had a big meeting at an AFSCME local hall in New York City – and about half an hour in, Pete shows up with a banjo on his back, walks right in like the rest of us.  Just in time for a music break.  He got us all revved up,” says Velasquez.

Even when he became an American icon, Seeger remained outspokenly pro-worker.  Invited to sing at Democratic President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Seeger sang all of “This Land Is Your Land” – including the anti-capitalist anti-property last two verses that others never utter.

“Over the years, Pete used his voice – and his hammer – to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights, world peace and environmental conservation.   And he always invited us to sing along,” Obama said.  “For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.”

“Pete Seeger sang truth to power,” said New York Musicians Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi.  Seeger was a member of the local for decades.  “As a champion of civil rights and the dignity of working people, and of course as a musician, he was an inspiration to anyone who believes that justice is possible.”

Yet another memorable moment came, after the blacklist finally faded, when the Smothers Brothers had Seeger on their hit variety show in the late 1960s and, after an initial ban, CBS let him sing “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy,” his noted and controversial anti-Vietnam War song, which came from the soldiers’ point of view.   Decades later, others applied “Waist Deep” to the Iraq War, too.

“Here’s a guy who stood up to the McCarthy Era with just a banjo in his hand,” Uehlein says.  “We’ll carry on his legacy to our children through song and activism,” adds Velasquez, who spent five hours last year – with his grandson – at a session with Seeger in Beacon.  “That’s the way to honor him.”

-Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer