When folk music burst upon the scene in the 1960s, it seemed a great novelty to young Americans, even though little of it was new.
From its earliest days, the United States has had a rich musical tradition, much of it developed in the context of daily working life in the settling of a huge continent, often the product of unknown composers.
Pete Seeger, who died Jan. 27 at 94, traveled the country in the 1950s (when his performing career was on hold because he was blacklisted for being a communist), collecting ballads, chanteys, spirituals and cowboy songs. He also met many of the people who kept regional musical traditions alive and he worked to popularize their music.
One of the foremost venues for this new/old music was the Newport Folk Festival, which Seeger helped organize in the redoubt of the super-rich and the socialites. From the hollows of Tennessee and from mining towns in the West came humble men and women with dulcimers and banjos to play for people who sat on the grass. They would often begin their sets with harrowing tales of their long drives to Rhode Island.
Among them were young singers who would become hugely popular figures, such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. In 1965, Dylan was booed for abandoning his acoustic guitar in favor of an electrified version, a profound break with country and folk music tradition.
Seeger was also a prominent activist for civil rights and was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He was absurdly charged with contempt of Congress for his answers. His conviction was later overturned on appeal. Seeger later renounced his admiration for Josef Stalin, recognizing his evil.
A resident of the riverside town of Beacon, N.Y., he was a tireless campaigner for the cleanup of the Hudson River, which was heavily polluted in the 1960s. He built a replica of a 19th-century Hudson River sloop, the Clearwater, from which he advocated the river's restoration.
The huge stream is now habitat for many species of fish and animals that had abandoned it, including humans who can fish and swim in it again.
The country's musical traditions were also clarified by this remarkable man.
Copyright Providence (R.I.) Journal. Distributed by the Associated Press.