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Editorial: Pete Seeger and the power of song

Pete Seeger, who died at the age of 94, ostensibly made his living as a banjo-strumming American folk singer.

That, however, is too simple a description for the man who used the power of song to make a difference in the world.

Seeger is credited with having helped bring about the modern folk music movement, writing such classics anthems of the protest movement as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and co-writing “If I Had a Hammer.” From justice and freedom to the environment and peace, Seeger blended music and activism to create a message that reached listeners of different ages and backgrounds, spanning more than seven decades.

But no one should think that it was all sunshine and smooth sailing. His career was knocked off course in the 1950s. Seeger had joined the Communist Party as a Harvard student in the late 1930s and had rejected it by the late ’40s. But that didn’t prevent him from getting caught up in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. That led to an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee and being ordered to answer questions, something Seeger refused to do. He was held in contempt of Congress, which included a jail sentence. This controversy resulted in his being barred from network TV for 17 years (Years later, the case was dismissed).

But Seeger persevered, continuing to record and perform in concert. And if there was anyone who thought that Seeger would somehow tone down his convictions when he returned to television, they soon found out otherwise. At one point, CBS pulled his performance of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” — an anti-war song during the Vietnam era — after he performed it on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1967.

As President Bill Clinton put it in 1994 at a Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, Seeger was “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.”

But he did so with joy, humor and a desire “to put a song on people’s lips, instead of just in their ears.”

A cohort of Woody Guthrie’s and a mentor to countless musicians, in folk or other disciplines, Seeger made his mark on music and America and will be missed.

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