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Pete Seeger, Legendary Folk Singer, Dies at 94

His 70-year music career dates back to his days as a student at Avon Old Farms in Connecticut.

Pete Seeger, a legendary folk singer, passed away at age 94 on Jan. 27, 2014. Credit: Avon Old Farms School
Pete Seeger, a legendary folk singer, passed away at age 94 on Jan. 27, 2014. Credit: Avon Old Farms School
By Jessie SawyerLanning Taliaferro and Krista Madsen

A legendary folk singer and political activist who graduated from a Connecticut school in 1936 passed away Monday at the age of 94. 

Pete Seeger died the day after he was up for a GRAMMY for Best Spoken Word Album for "The Storm King," an audio book of stories, narratives and poems put to music.

His 70-year music career dates back to his days as a student at Avon Old Farms, a private all-boys boarding school in Avon, where he first played the ukelele, according to the New York Times.

Seeger was active and at home in Beacon until his final illness, going into New York Presbyterian Hospital six days ago, according to the Huffington Post.  He passed away of  natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Ossining-Croton-on-Hudson Patch reported.

Prayers from Arlo Guthrie

Avon Old Farms School also announced on Jan. 17 that Seeger was to be the first recipient of the Woody Guthrie Prize in honor of his friend and that he was also slated to perform at the ceremony with Woody's son, Arlo Guthrie.

Arlo Guthrie posted a message on his Facebook page about prayers he said to his friend on Monday night before going to sleep.

"I let him know I was having trouble writing his obituary (as I'd been asked) but it seemed just so silly and I couldn't think of anything that didn't sound trite or plain stupid," Guthrie said in his Facebook post. " 'They'll say something appropriate in the news,' we agreed. We laughed, we talked, and I took my leave about 9:30 last night."

Seeger and Arlo have long carried on the legacy of performing Woody Guthrie's song, "This Land Is Your Land," according to PBS

We Shall Overcome

"We Shall Overcome," a song that Seeger adapted and popularized, became the anthem of the nation's civil rights movement in 1960. He told Tim Robbins of Pacifica Radio in 2006that the song came from "We Will Overcome," a slower version that Lucille Simmons spread to her fellow tobacco workers in 1946. Zilphia Horton, a "white union organizer" who learned the song from the tobacco workers, taught it to Seeger, he said in the interview featured on YouTube. 

In 1947, Seeger printed the song in the New York-based magazine for his organization, "People's Songs," which highlights music of the American laborers. He eventually performed it in Carnegie Hall.

The song may have roots further back to a gospel song with a verse including the lyrics, "I'll overcome," Seeger told the radio station. A 1909 letter Seeger read stated that the African American chairman of a union during would start strike meetings by singing "We Will Overcome." 

Seeger's Political Activism 

Seeger's folk music was fused with messages of his political activism. 

According to the New York Times, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s. He was indicted for contempt of Congress after refusing to answer questions in 1955 about his past political affiliation, but that was overturned in 1961 through the appeals process, USA Today reported. He addresses being acquitted of the charges in his GRAMMY-nominated album, The Storm King

His band, The Weavers broke up during the controversy and a People’s Songs member swore to the House Un-American Activities Committee that at least three of the folk quartet members were communists, the New York Times reported. 

Seeger didn't appear on television for years as a result, USA Today reported. 

A Folk Legend

He had received innumerable honors in his lifetime from his 1996 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to multiple Grammies and a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.

His banjo was a potent weapon in the 1960s and 1970s in the civil rights and anti-war movements, something PBS acknowledged in its American Masters episode "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song."

In recent years, Croton Point Park became a buzzing folk music destination with the amazing Clearwater Festival, where Seeger's own Clearwater sloop, built by musicians in the late 1960s, would dock up as “a symbol and a rallying point for antipollution efforts and education,” writes the NYTimes. Seeger was also one of the founders of the Newport Folk Festival where he sang in August at their 50th anniversary.

He sang in great and small venues, from the halls of Congress to the annual Pumpkin Festival in Beacon, where he had lived since 1943 with his wife Toshi Alina Ota, who died in July, 2013.

Related Stories:

The Sun Sets on Pete Seeger; Hudson Valley Mourns Legend

Pete Seeger Dies at 94

Are you a Pete Seeger fan? What do you remember most about him and his music?
Nancy Sasso Janis January 28, 2014 at 10:00 PM
Our State Troubadour shares her thoughts: http://naugatuck.patch.com/groups/nancy-sasso-janiss-blog/p/the-thoughts-of-state-troubadour-kristen-graves-on-the-death-of-pete-seeger

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