Pete Seeger was a good man. There aren't many musicians you can say that about without seeming simplistic. Music is often progressed by flawed, volatile, glamorous egotists, and thank God for them. But Seeger carved out his place in history with a quieter, rarer set of qualities: nobility, generosity, humility and, when things got rough, breathtaking courage. Perhaps uniquely, he became one of the most important singers in America without ever being a star, because he believed in the song rather than the singer.
Seeger was born into privilege but not convention. His father Charles, an Ivy League professor and composer, was a pacifist and founding member of the leftwing Composers' Collective, and he came to embrace the radical potential of folk music. Pete was an intense, idealistic Harvard dropout when, in 1940, the folklorist Alan Lomax introduced him to Woody Guthrie. Said Lomax: "You can date the renaissance of American folk song from that night."
This impassioned trio brought folk music to the cities and the airwaves. Lomax was the song collector and facilitator, Guthrie the charismatic Dust Bowl poet, and Seeger the man who got America singing. He didn't have a remarkable voice but it was clear and strong and it never got in the way of the material, which was the point. A great believer in the power of communal singing, he saw himself as just a catalyst: a means to an end. He crafted songs – both his own compositions (If I Had a Hammer, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?) and existing ones that he adapted – so that anyone could sing them. Describing We Shall Overcome, which he adapted and popularised, he said: "It's the genius of simplicity. Any damn fool can get complicated."
Even if he had wanted to be a star, America's politics were against him. His first group, the Almanac Singers, collapsed during the second world war when their previous role as entertainers at Communist meetings was exposed. Returning to America after serving in the Pacific, Seeger saw two cherished projects fail: his organisation People's Songs, an organisation to "get America singing", and the presidential campaign of the Progressive Party's Henry Wallace. He was hounded, sometimes violently, by the right. His new band, the Weavers, briefly became sensations, but the Red Scare ripped them apart in 1952. And there was worse to come.
Summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, Seeger refused to wriggle out of trouble by taking the Fifth and made himself an "unfriendly" witness. While awaiting trial for contempt of Congress, and likely imprisonment, he threw himself into the civil rights movement. It was Seeger who introduced Martin Luther King to We Shall Overcome and advised civil rights activist to form their own group, the Freedom Singers. "Songs have accompanied every liberation movement in history," he wrote. "These songs will reaffirm your faith in the future of mankind."
Seeger was also the forefather of the folk revival. In 1962, the same week his legal troubles were finally over, Peter, Paul and Mary took Where Have All the Flowers Gone? into the Top 40. But the revival ran away from him, thanks to Bob Dylan. The oft-told anecdote about him trying to take an axe to the power cables during Dylan's electric set at Newport in 1965 isn't true (it was a figure of speech) but he was certainly let down that Dylan would rather be a mercurial rock star than the darling of the folk-loving left. In that respect, he ended up on the wrong side of history but, having worked tirelessly and risked jail in the service of an ideal, he was justified in feeling disappointed. He soon got over it.
As a songwriter, Seeger was never mainstream again, not least because his protest songs were snubbed by broadcasters. With 60s anti-war songs such as Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Bring Them Home, he was largely preaching to the choir. But he retained his power to popularise other people's songs. At a New York hootenanny in 1946, he was the first to make Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land feel like a new American classic and 23 years later he led half a million anti-war protesters in a chorus of John Lennon's Give Peace a Chance, which, he said, "united the crowd as no speech or song had been able to all afternoon". In 1974, he was the first to record Estadio Chile, the last song Victor Jara wrote before his murder by General Pinochet's thugs.
Throughout his 94 years, Seeger's principles never wavered, his optimism never faltered. His biographers couldn't find anyone with a bad word to say about him. He lived with his wife Toshi for 70 years, until her death last summer. He apologised without reservation for his naivete about Stalin, although he still considered himself a communist. He remained a committed activist and supporter of numerous causes. He lent a hand to countless musicians in many countries. Even in old age, he kept singing, notably at President Obama's inauguration and Occupy Wall Street. His voice may have grown shaky but it carried with it the history of the American left since the New Deal. He would have considered it neglectfully selfish to retire.
First published by The Guardian/UK, © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited