Pete Seeger, the singer and songwriter who helped define folk music for a new generation, and for whom a call to political action informed his music, has died at 94. Seeger’s music championed causes spanning decades; according to his New York Times obituary, “He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond.” His political ties drew the attention of authorities during the McCarthy era—he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, and indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress in 1957.
In 1949 Seeger founded The Weavers with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, and the group’s recordings of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene,” as well as Woody Guthrie’s “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh),” quickly became folk standards. Ari Y. Kelman wrote in these pages in 2011 about The Weaver’s unlikely influence on Zionism and their role in introducing Israel to a generation of young Americans with their 1950 recording of the popular Israeli folk song, “Tzena Tzena.” The song made its way onto Tablet’s 2012 list of 100 Greatest Jewish Songs.
Whether through sheet-music reprints or its inclusion on the Haganah album, the original Hebrew version of “Tzena Tzena” then landed in the hands of Pete Seeger of the Weavers. Seeger, the son of Harvard musicologist Charles Seeger, already had a notable folk-singing career playing duets with blues legend Leadbelly and later teaming up with Woody Guthrie to form the politically progressive Almanac Singers. Unlike Guthrie and Leadbelly, Seeger was not much of a writer, but he committed himself to developing a vision and canon of American folk music, which he later expanded to include a world unified by folk music. He explained that he would craft performances so they included “a few songs from other countries, hinting at the different types of people in this big world.”
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Song of Songs
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.