News obit: Pete Seeger, folk music champion who found his banjo in Asheville

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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Pete Seeger, a folk music champion who, early on, found his banjo and inspiration in Asheville, died Monday. He was 94. From the New York TimesScreen shot 2014-01-28 at 8.48.59 AM:

For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.

Pete Seeger, Steve Stanne and Andrew Revkin perform at the Beacon Sloop Club Strawberry Festival in Beacon, N.Y., in June, 2010.
In his hearty tenor, Mr. Seeger, a beanpole of a man who most often played 12-string guitar or five-string banjo, sang topical songs and children’s songs, humorous tunes and earnest anthems, always encouraging listeners to join in. His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: 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. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.

A few years ago, Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday with a big concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden. reported the concert, and noted the presence of at least one Asheville musician — Warren Haynes.

As an archivist of the American folk songbook, Seeger wrote or popularized most of the songs on the set list, which included many fresh arrangements of traditional blues ballads and spirituals. Roger McGuinn sang “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (a Seeger-penned No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965, as performed by McGuinn’s band The Byrds) with his signature Rickenbacker 12-string and a voice that sounds as clear as it did 45 years ago. Richie Havens performed “Freedom/Motherless Child,” the slave spiritual many would remember as the tune used to open Woodstock. Warren Haynes led an electric cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” a nod to one of the most infamous myths of the folk music movement when Seeger tried to cut Dylan’s power when he “went electric” with that song at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

But back to Seeger’s Asheville connection. It was here that he discovered the banjo. I noted the reference in this blog post.

His family was not just musical, but musicological; a teenage Seeger was converted to the five-string banjo at a folk festival in Asheville, N.C., he’d attended with his father, composer and ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. He would become a kind of Johnny Appleseed of the instrument.

Asheville would do well to remember Pete’s song, his message, his purpose.  Peace.

Image link for Pete Seeger.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

  • 1

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  1. smiley January 28, 2014

    Connect the dots. Woody to Pete to Bob unplugged>plugged and the fracture from there. RS has the obit to read.

    “So long, it’s been good to know yah.” Woody

    “It’s the hammer of Justice,
    It’s the bell of Freedom,
    It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters,
    All over this land.” Seeger, Hays

    “May your heart always be joyful
    And may your song always be sung
    May you stay forever young.” Dylan

  2. Musicology Buff January 28, 2014

    Seeger is quoted as saying, “In 1935 I was sixteen years old, playing tenor banjo in the school jazz band. I was uninterested in the classical music which my parents taught at Juilliard. That summer I visited a square dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo, rippling out a rhythm to one fascinating song after another.”
    The event he attended in 1935 was Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, founded in 1928, often claimed as the first event to be described as a “Folk Festival.” (Info from Wikipedia)
    Could Asheville do more to promote itself as the Birthplace of the Folk Festival? Could Steep Canyon Rangers and Steve Martin be enlisted to take the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival to the next level, beyond the confines of the Diana Wortham Theatre, to a city-wide event. Ashley Capps, are you listening?

    And thanks to Ashvegas for connecting Seeger to Asheville.

  3. Brian January 28, 2014

    Don’t forget that his half-sister, Peggy Seeger was a longtime resident of Asheville throughout the 90s and early 2000s

    1. Jason Sandford January 28, 2014

      Thank you for that reminder, Brian.


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