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Pete Seeger dead, folk singer, activist was 94

Pete Seeger is seen on Sept. 21, 2013.

Pete Seeger is seen on Sept. 21, 2013. The banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage died on Jan. 27, 2014. He was 94. Newsday's obituary for Pete Seeger
Credit: AP

Pete Seeger, the singer-songwriter, archivist and activist who spent his career trying to show that music should be much more than simple entertainment, died Monday night in a Manhattan hospital. He was 94.

Seeger died in his sleep around 9:30 p.m. at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, while family members were with him, his grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson told The Associated Press, adding that, "He was chopping wood 10 days ago."

It seems only fitting that a man who spent so much time trying to live peacefully was also able to die peacefully. Seeger, after all, was always intent on bringing the ideals he wrote about in his music into action.

The songs he wrote or co-wrote -- including "If I Had a Hammer," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" -- have stood the test of time, inspiring successive generations with the power of folk music, gently leading one revival of interest in the genre after another. The No. 1 hit "Goodnight, Irene," which he sang with his group The Weavers, showed his skill at adapting other artists' music -- in this case, Lead Belly's acoustic blues -- into his own. He adapted his song "Turn! Turn! Turn!," which became a No. 1 hit for the Byrds in 1965, from the Book of Ecclesiastes. He brought the Cuban song "Guantanamera" and the South African song "Wimoweh" into the American consciousness.

Perhaps his never-ending devotion to music -- he released two albums in 2012 and was a Grammy nominee on Sunday for best spoken word album for "The Storm King" -- was in his blood. Seeger's father, Charles, was a musicologist and his mother, Constance, a violinist; he was born in New York City on May 3, 1919.

Seeger said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16, after attending a mountain dance festival in North Carolina with his father.

Despite his peaceful inspirations, however, Seeger often found himself in the midst of controversy. Joining the Young Communist League while attending Harvard University was enough to get him and his group The Weavers blacklisted during the McCarthy era. When Seeger refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, he was charged with 10 counts of contempt of Congress, which were eventually dismissed.

In 1966, a Seeger appearance scheduled for W. Tresper Clarke High School in East Meadow touched off a massive lawsuit when the school district tried to cancel his concert following some community complaints. The lawsuit went all the way to the state Court of Appeals, which sided with show organizers. In 1967, Seeger performed, while hundreds protested his appearance outside.

Decades later, though, Seeger's work began to be honored. He received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1994 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence in 1996. In 2006, Bruce Springsteen celebrated Seeger by recording "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," an album of his songs, and invited him to perform "This Land Is Your Land" at an inaugural concert for President Barack Obama in 2009.

Jim Faith, vice chairman of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, recalls going to Seeger's home in upstate Beacon, in 2008 so that Seeger could offer a videotaped induction of Arlo Guthrie into the hall. "It was a great moment," Faith said. "He knew about us. He thought the work we were doing was good and he genuinely cared about Arlo."

It was yet another way Seeger was able to show support for the music that he loved.

"All I know is I've done a lot of different things in my life," Seeger told Newsday in 1979. "And I like it best when people participate."

His wife, Toshi, whom he married in 1943, died last year. His survivors include son Danny and daughters Mika and Tinya Seeger-Jackson; eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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