Sociology Index

Pete Seeger

Singing Together for Social Change. Protest music has often played a significant role in social change movements. The labor and civil rights movements were great singing movements. Protest music has served to draw in new participants into movements and strengthen the commitment of existing members. Pete Seeger, the consummate protest singer, has combined folk music and progressive politics since he began singing professionally in 1939 at the age of 20. He encouraged the whole audience to join in on variations of "Oh Freedom." Pete Seeger has helped popularize folk music in his travels across America with Woodie Guthrie in 1940, and with the Almanacs and then the Weavers in the '40s and '50s.

Pete Seeger was one of the folk singers responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" that became the acknowledged anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960.

With postwar prosperity and the chill of McCarthyism and the Cold War, labor turned inward, away from radicalism and the picket lines. He helped adapt and popularize "We Shall Overcome." The song became the anthem of the civil rights movement.

Pete Seeger helped invent the "campus circuit" and through his travels across America, Seeger "taught most of America's younger folk performers. - From an interview with Pete Seeger - by Anita Krajnc and Michael Greenspoon -

In the PBS American Masters episode "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song", Seeger said it was he who changed the lyric from the traditional "We will overcome" to the more singable "We shall overcome". 

A prolific songwriter, his best-known songs include "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)," and "Turn! Turn! Turn!." "Flowers" was a hit recording for the Kingston Trio (1962); Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962); and Johnny Rivers (1965).

"If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963) while the Byrds had a number one hit with "Turn! Turn! Turn!" in 1965.