Lyrics and chords, if we have them, in
downloadable charts, for the most loved songs of Pete Seeger and his
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He's been called "the conscience of America" and "the father of American folk music," but these days, at age 83, Pete Seeger just likes to think of himself as a song leader.
"I mainly get enjoyment in hearing young people sing," he said from his home on the Hudson River in New York state.
"I go to schools and tell the kids, 'You know this song,'" and Seeger starts humming a familiar melody. "I tell them I'll help with some words," and he starts singing, "As I was walking a ribbon of highway, I saw above me an endless skyway. ..."
"Then they all join in and sing, 'This land is your land, this land is my land,'" Seeger said. "It gives me hope for the world, to see those young, beaming faces and hear them singing those songs."
"This Land Is Your Land" was written by Seeger's old friend Woody Guthrie, but Seeger has some credits in the American songbook as well, tunes such as "Turn, Turn, Turn," "If I Had A Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone."
During his decades as one of the country's best songwriters, he's also been a folklorist, labor activist, environmentalist and one of the most controversial figures in recent American history.
Seeger's voice might not be as strong as it once was, and his fingers not as nimble on the banjo, but his zest for life and curiosity about the world around him is as powerful as ever. His speaking voice is rich and warm with worldly wisdom. He's still outspoken, witty and a sharp observer of the human condition, and he can still turn his observations into meaningful songs.
"I had a jazzy, little syncopated tune that I wasn't sure what to do with, then after Sept. 11, I began writing some verses," Seeger said. "The song's called 'Take It from Dr. King,' and although I wrote it for children, it urges everyone to learn from the lessons of the civil rights movement."
Seeger sings a few lines, "'Don't say it can't be done, the battle's just begun,' and then the chorus goes, 'We can survive, we can survive. We will!' When the children sing it, they shout and throw their hands up."
Seeger's been shouting in the face of authority almost all his life. At age 13, he subscribed to a magazine called New Masses and aspired to a career in journalism. But when he heard the five-string banjo for the first time in 1936 at a folk festival, his life was changed forever.
He spent two years at Harvard, but didn't like it, leaving in spring 1938. After making his way to New York, he landed a job at the Archives of American Folk Music, which inspired him to make music of his own.
He sang with groups such as The Almanac Singers and The Weavers and recorded songs such as "On Top of Old Smoky," "Goodnight Irene" and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You."
But it was Seeger's role in the civil rights movement, his protests against the Vietnam War and his advocacy of labor unions that earned him the most headlines.
He was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 and was one of the few witnesses who didn't invoke the Fifth Amendment. He was found guilty of contempt of Congress in 1961 and sentenced to 10 years in prison before his case was dismissed on a technicality.
In recent years, Seeger has come to be seen as an American treasure. He's been honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington and received the National Medal of Art, and he's been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But it's all just bends in the highway of life for Seeger, who is as happy these days about the new, unpolluted condition of the Hudson River as anything.
"I believe miracles can happen," he said. "Who would have thought just a few years ago that we would be swimming in the Hudson. It's clean from Yonkers to about 10 miles south of Albany. Someday, you'll be able to swim right up to Manhattan."
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