Iconic folk singer Pete Seeger, pro-worker troubadour, dies at 94

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Media Guild's Shannon Duffy met him last year

PETE SEEGER
PETE SEEGER

By PAI and the Labor Tribune

New York – Iconic folk singer Pete Seeger, who initially rose to fame as an outspoken pro-worker troubadour – “We Shall Overcome” was originally a union song – died Jan. 28 after a brief illness.  He was 94.

Seeger’s involvement with unions extended almost until the day he died.

St. Louis’s Shannon Duffy, business manager for the United Media Guild, was in Buffalo, N.Y., last fall for the Newspaper Guild’s joint district council meeting when Seeger popped in, unannounced, to greet the union members and sing them a song.

“This guy is 94 years old, and the first thing he does is he pulls a chair back from the conference table that we were all sitting at and he starts climbing up on it,” Duffy said.

DUFFY
DUFFY

“He was appearing somewhere nearby in Buffalo that night and he was down the street being interviewed and these two reporters told him we were meeting down the street and he said ‘Let’s go down and see them!’

“He sang a song about being a newspaper man.
He was such a nice guy. He was so approachable.”

PRO WORKER

Seeger never made a secret of his pro-worker stands, even when they got him into political trouble in the McCarthy Era of the 1950s.  He was blacklisted by mainstream media, and even kept out of some union halls, after refusing to name names before the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee.

But he never lost his love for social justice, with workers and labor the first and prime among his causes, said Joe Uehlein, a folksinger/activist, a former top worker at the AFL-CIO Industrial Unions Department, and a friend of Seeger’s.

With Woody Guthrie, Seeger was crusading for workers and inspiring them with his songs long before World War II.  After that, he extended his zeal to the civil rights movement, adapting “We Shall Overcome” for that.  Afterwards came the peace movement, the environmental movement and women’s rights, among other causes.

United Media Guild UNITED MEDIA GUILD Business Manager Shannon Duffy (left) with pro-worker folk icon Pete Seeger in Buffalo, N.Y., late last year.
UNITED MEDIA GUILD Business Manager Shannon Duffy (left) with pro-worker folk icon Pete Seeger in Buffalo, N.Y., late last year.

Seeger introduced “We Shall Overcome” to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 at an observance in Tennessee.  “That song sticks in your head, doesn’t it?” the civil rights leader told aides afterwards.

“Which Side Are You On,” “Talking Union,” “There Once Was A Union Maid,”  “We’ve Got To Go Down And Join The Union,” “If I Had A Hammer” are just a few of the many pro-worker pro-union songs that Seeger either authored or popularized during his 70-plus year career.

SINGING TRUTH TO POWER

Even when he became an American icon, Seeger remained outspokenly pro-worker.  Invited to sing at Democratic President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Seeger sang all of “This Land Is Your Land” – including the anti-capitalist anti-property last two verses that others never utter.

“Pete Seeger sang truth to power,” said Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi President of New York Musicians Local 802, of which Seeger was a member for decades. “As a champion of civil rights and the dignity of working people, and of course as a musician, he was an inspiration to anyone who believes that justice is possible.”

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