folk legend Pete Seeger influenced Woody Guthrie as much as Guthrie did
him, and he will receive a posthumous award acknowledging just that.
“It’s because of Pete Seeger that I know the chorus of every folk song,” said Nora Guthrie, daughter of the late Woody Guthrie.
Millions more exposed to his music can say the same.
Seeger passed away at the age of 94 on January 27 of this year, just a month before he was to accept the inaugural Woody Guthrie Prize in New York City on February 22. The prize, awarded annually by the Tulsa-based Woody Guthrie Center and Los Angeles-based Grammy Museum, is given to the artist who best exemplifies the spirit and life’s work of Woody Guthrie.
When Seeger and Guthrie met in 1940, they quickly formed a tight bond over their shared love of music and desire for social change. Guthrie taught Seeger how to hop a freight train and how to make a living on the road.
“They were two sides of the same coin,” Nora Guthrie said, noting that while her father was a fighter, Seeger was a lover.
Seeger never liked war, not because of the politics but because he wanted everyone to get along. Guthrie’s lessons of the road and simple lifestyle influenced Seeger throughout his entire life.
“He was able to stay free by living very humbly,” Nora Guthrie said.
Woody Guthrie Center Executive Director Deana McCloud said that one of her favorite quotes from Seeger was from the last time he attended the Woody Guthrie Festival in 2003: “What musicians can teach politicians is that not everyone has to sing the melody.” Seeger played his role as folk leader and voice to the disenfranchised from the Dust Bowl era through McCarthyism and even led an Occupy Wall Street march in 2008.
Nora Guthrie believes that without Seeger, there might not have been much talk of her father today.
“We are completely indebted to Pete for singing ‘This Land,’” she said. “It was a dud for my dad, but [Seeger] believed in singing it, believed in its message. He kept the songs alive.”
Seeger traveled the world, singing and sharing songs and, in turn, per petuated his friend’s message for generations to come.
When he died, the event honoring him with the Woody Guthrie Prize took on a whole new meaning.
“It didn’t matter if you had a beautiful voice or could barely hold a tune,” McCloud said. “He would not want a moment of silence.”
The event has now taken up the theme “How Can I Keep From Singing!” with musical guests and a sing-along to celebrate the award and Seeger’s life. There are plans to live stream the event back to Tulsa and later release a DVD of the event.
The Woody Guthrie Center is not just a place to visit and learn about the life of its namesake; it empowers young people to use their talents for positive change — much in the way Seeger lived his life standing up for his beliefs through song and changed the world for the better.