5 Pete Seeger Songs To Sing Together

By Kim Ruehl  |  Folk Alley

Pete Seeger performs at a convention of The Public Citizen in Washington, DC in 1981.
Pete Seeger performs at a convention of The Public Citizen in Washington, DC in 1981. Mickey Adair, Getty Images

There have been few artists in the history of American folk music who impacted the world beyond folk music with as much power as Pete Seeger. From the Almanac Singers (dedicated to labor songs) to the Weavers (bringing folk into the mainstream) and through the decades of his solo career, Seeger wrote and performed countless songs with a single, pervasive goal: to get people to sing together. He was successful in more ways than are measurable, using music all the way to the end of his 94 years to unite people around the idea they might have something in common. These five songs only barely begin to scratch the surface of his influence, but they are among those which characterize his most lasting legacy.

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5 Pete Seeger Songs To Sing Together

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"We Shall Overcome"

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"We Shall Overcome"

Pete Seeger learned "We Shall Overcome" from Zilphia Horton in 1947. Horton was the Culture Director at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., and had learned the song herself from members of a tobacco workers union in Charleston, S.C., a year earlier. But Seeger shares the copyright for the song with Horton and others and was certainly instrumental in helping turn it into one of the most important songs of the American civil rights struggle. Seeger took the song around the world, and it at concerts and civil rights rallies in the U.S. for years. Never willing to sing it alone, he instilled in all those present the import of the song's message — that peace will be something we accomplish together.

"Turn Turn Turn"

After Seeger was blacklisted for being a "godless" communist, he responded by taking a verse straight out of Ecclisiastes and turning it into one of the most timeless songs for peace. Later, it was The Byrds who popularized the tune, scoring a No. 1 hit with it in 1965.

"If I Had a Hammer"

Pete Seeger believed in the power of simplicity, and this song is a living testament to that allegiance. He co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer" with Lee Hays, his fellow Weaver, in 1949, to some success. But it was Peter, Paul, and Mary who took "If I Had a Hammer" to the top of the charts more than a decade later. By the time they recorded it, the song had a deep resonance with the burgeoning civil rights movement, and phrases like "love between my brothers and my sisters" had hard-hitting, incredibly timely power.

"Waist Deep In The Big Muddy"

This 1967 tune was written by Seeger soon after the U.S. became involved in the war in Vietnam, and told the story of a soldier conscientiously following the orders of his commander. Quite possibly the most complex song Seeger ever wrote, the larger overarching metaphor of the song raises questions about blindly following orders, assuming others have the same end goal as you. It raises questions about violence and trudging through the thickness of ugly war, not knowing what we're trying to accomplish other than winning. There are other themes as well, all in the form of a rather catchy, if dark, melody.

"Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

Another beautiful example of Seeger's allegiance to simplicity came with this anti-war song written in the ballad tradition. It tells a very simple story about flowers being picked by young girls who grow up and marry boys who are taken off to war and killed, and who are returned home for their wives to plant flowers on their graves, only to be picked by another generation of young girls. And so on. It's an incredibly powerful image that internalizes the cycle of war that Seeger spent his life seeking to bring closer to an end.