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Pete Seeger: 20 Essential Tracks

Remember the folk icon with a playlist spanning his acclaimed career

Will Hermes Jan 29, 2014
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Pete Seeger at the Clearwater Festival in New York in 2011. Photo: Flickr user Jcapaldi/ Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Pete Seeger at the Clearwater Festival in New York in 2011. Photo: Flickr user Jcapaldi/ Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

An American Icon
The late Pete Seeger was such a broadband conduit of folk music, who recorded so prolifically, that compiling a brief survey of his catalog is a daunting task. (The excellent and fairly concise 2009 collection American Favorite Ballads, only covers six years of his solo recordings, and clocks in at nearly 150 songs.) Nevertheless, here are 20 of the most memorable songs from Seeger’s heroic career as singer, songwriter, activist, and national conscience. Feel free to sing along. By Will Hermes

1. “The Hammer Song (If I Had A Hammer)”

Although he had many, this is probably Seeger’s main signature song. A labor movement anthem-cum-all purpose activist hymn, he co-wrote it with Lee Hays, his partner in the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, in support of members of the United States Communist party who had recently been convicted under the 1940 Smith Act. The Weavers released it as a 78rpm single in 1950. Peter, Paul & Mary revived it and made it a top-10 hit in 1962, performing it at the 1963 March On Washington alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. (It was an even bigger hit for Trini Lopez that same year.) It would become a centerpiece of Seeger’s solo sets, and a staple of musical protests ”“ not to mention kindergarten sing-alongs ”“ around the world.

2. “Goodnight Irene”

This suicidal love song, a folk standard, was first recorded by Leadbelly, who made it his theme song. But Seeger and the Weavers turned it into a haunted populist lullaby, and a number one pop song, in 1950.

3. “We Shall Overcome”

In folk music tradition, Seeger revised this African-American traditional song, helping to repurpose and popularize it as maybe the key anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement. He performed it memorably at Carnegie Hall on June 8, 1963, at a concert recorded for the album We Shall Overcome. It was reprised at his 90th Birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009.

4. “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”

Based on a Ukranian folk song (“Koloda Duda”), Seeger wrote this anti-war-themed ballad with help from fellow folkie Joe Hickerson; it would be further popularized in versions by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. Another Seeger song that would become a popular children’s sing-along, although it is no less powerful for it.

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5. “Turn, Turn, Turn”

Seeger wrote this song, famously adapted by The Byrds, from a poem in the Book of Ecclesiastes that loved so much, he carried a copy around in his pocket for months before inspiration hit and he set it to music. “All I added was the refrain and the last couplet,” he points out in the liner notes to Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits. That was all it needed.

6. “Wimoweh (Mbube)”

Also known as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” Seeger adapted this from a song by South African Zulu singer/songwriter Solomon Linda, which he first heard on a record lent to him by Alan Lomax. (The song’s convoluted, controversial life was the subject of a Rolling Stone feature in 2000.) A seed of what would later become known as “world music,” he recorded it with the Weavers, a version followed by numerous covers, from Miriam Makeba and The Tokens to Brian Eno.

7. “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy”

Recorded in 1966, Seeger chose this anti-war song to sing on national television for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. Though it was taped, the network censored it, and it never aired. Bruce Springsteen adapted parts of the song in “Big Muddy” on his Seeger Sessions album.

8. “Little Boxes”

Revived as the theme song of Weeds, this song about the soul-crushing conformity of suburbia and mainstream culture in general was written and recorded by Malvina Reynolds, but popularized by Seeger, a man who was no one’s conformist.

9. “Which Side Are You On?”

Released by Seeger and the Almanac Singers on the 1941 album Talking Union, it was written in the 1930s by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer for coal workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. Seeger popularized it and broadened its meaning over the years, turning it into an anthem of progressive solidarity.

10. “Barbara Allen”

Seeger was a committed political singer, but he was also committed to beautiful music. His reading of the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen” ”“ one of the most popular English-language folk songs in history, covered by Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers and countless others ”“ is a fine example.

11. “Guantanamera”

Maybe the most famous Cuban song of all time, Seeger popularized this around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, recording it in 1963 at the Carnegie Hall concert that produced the LP We Shall Overcome. The song is in fact a love song about a girl from the town of Guantánamo ”“ which given recent history, only deepens its political resonance.

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12. “Dink’s Song”

A traditional song named for the prostitute who sang it to folklorist John Lomax, this is a wistful traditional song grown from both English and African-American root stock. A key song in Inside Llewyn Davis, it gets a handsome reading here by Seeger.

13. “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave”

Seeger is revered for being an anti-war singer. But during WWII, Americans were united against a common foe, and the Almanac Singers were on board. Co-written with colleague Woody Guthrie, it features Seeger and company as bloodthirsty avengers. Per one verse: “I’m-a going to Berlin/To Mister Hitler’s town/I’m gonna take my forty-four/And blow his playhouse down.”

 14. “Kumbaya”

This song would become a Boy Scout campfire anthem and a punchline to dis folkie impulses. But as Seeger’s version with the Weavers shows, it’s really quite lovely

15. “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”

Seeger and the Weavers had a hit with this love song, a rewrite of an Irish folk tune via Leadbelly. It would also be covered by many, from country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers to Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt.

16. “John Henry”

There are countless versions of this African/American work song about the legendary steel-driving man. This version by Seeger is one of the most rousing, and features some of his hottest banjo-picking.

17. “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan”

Recorded with the Almanac Singers, this country blues was included on the 1941 Union Songs album, and has Seeger & Co. painting a picture of the Devil as a money waving, wannabe union breaker.

18. “Old Dan Tucker”

Revived by Bruce Springsteen on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, this minstrel song dates back to 1831. Seeger’s 1957 version, just voice and banjo, is as potent a dance tune as any EDM banger.

19. “Shenendoah”

A beautiful sea chanty that dates back at least to the 1840s, it was recently covered by Tom Waits and Keith Richards. This version by Seeger shows his way with a beautiful ballad.

20. “This Land Is Your Land”

Seeger remained an active performer into his 90s. This song, written by Woody Guthrie, was also a Seeger signature. He re-consecrated it for the 21st century at Barack Obama’s 2009 Inauguration with some help from a friend, fan and musical heir, Bruce Springsteen.

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