Pete Seeger 2009 Recipient

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In 2009, Pete Seeger led a chorus of half a million people in a sing-a-long of “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The performance was a testament to the continued power of Pete’s music and to his ability to reach beyond the stage. This community approach to performance was a Seeger trademark. “Singing together you suddenly find out there’s things you can learn from each other that you wouldn’t learn from arguments, that you might not learn any other way,” said Seeger in a 2005 interview on National Public Radio.

Born in 1919 into a family of musicians, Pete dropped out of Harvard at 19 to bicycle across New England and hop freight trains across the country with Woody Guthrie. Through his father, ethnomusicologist, Dr. Charles Seeger, he landed a life-changing job following noted folk archivist Alan Lomax on trips through the South collecting and transcribing songs for the Library of Congress. The experience opened his eyes to the lost gems of American traditional music, which formed the basis of his work throughout his six-decade career. Pete not only preserved folk songs and stories through his numerous recordings, he also invigorated the genre with hundreds of original compositions, including “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and the folk standard “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” As a leading voice of folk music, Pete was an inspiration to countless artists who followed.

For Pete, music has always been a grassroots effort, a way to unite and inspire people for a common cause. He brought protest songs with pro-labor and antiwar themes to the people at picket lines, schools, colleges, union halls, clubs, concert halls and festivals. He played first with The Almanac Singers, which included Woody Guthrie, Sis Cunningham and Lee Hays, and then with the legendary folk band The Weavers, which Pete formed after World War II when he got out of the army.

During the McCarthy-era communist witch-hunts, The Weavers were blacklisted and barred from major recording contracts, concerts and television. Pete went underground releasing numerous albums on independent labels. In the 1960s, Pete and his wife, Toshi, marched in Selma, AL and participated in Civil Rights workshops at the Highlander Institute. It was there that Dr. Martin Luther King first heard “We Shall Overcome.” Barred from performing on television and radio, Pete sang at summer camps and private colleges across the USA and Canada. Pete became a vocal opponent to the Vietnam War, and his protest songs found a new, younger audience.

Around this time, Pete began turning his attention to the environment, long before it became fashionable. In 1969, he co-founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an environmental organization that champions the restoration and preservation of the Hudson River and its estuaries through grassroots activism, music and education. Clearwater also refers to the 106-foot-long sloop Pete helped build. Today, the sloop still plies the Hudson and the Classroom of the Waves program continues to advocate for the environment and the community of the Hudson Valley by taking over 20,000 school children a year out on the river.

On stage or off, Pete continued to be heard. In 2009 Pete became one of the only folk artists to be featured at the Monterey Jazz Festival and in 2011 he sang along side other musicians at an Occupy Wall Street march. He continued using the powered of collective song to advocate for change until his death in 2014. Perhaps poet Carl Sandburg described it best when he called Seeger “America’s tuning fork.” Pete resonated with the best part of America, our soul.

Selection Committee

Michael Kaiser – Michael M. Kaiser is the chairman of the DeVos Institute, overseeing its training and consulting programs. He served as the President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from 2001 to 2014, where he expanded the educational and artistic programming for the nation’s center for the performing arts and oversaw a major renovation effort of most of the Center’s public spaces. Previously he served as Executive Director of the United Kingdom’s Royal Opera House, the American Ballet Theatre, and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation. Michael has created significant programs to help individuals and organizations in the arts, including the Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute, and He has received numerous awards including Washingtonian of the Year (2004), US Department of State Citation 2005, and the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America (2009).

Terrence McNally – Playwright Terrence McNally has been the recipient of four Tony Awards for the plays Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994) and Master Class (1995), and the musicals (books) Ragtime (1996) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992). Other plays include Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The Lisbon Traviata, and Unusual Acts of Devotion, which debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse and Philadelphia Theatre Company. He has written the books for the musicals The Full Monty (Tony nomination), A Man of No Importance and The Visit, and the libretto for the opera Dead Man Walking. Terrence has been the recipient of the Drama Desk Award (4), an Emmy Award, the Lucille Lortel Award (2), and the Obie Award (2), and has received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Lowery Sims – Curator Emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design, Lowery Stokes Sims co-curated the inaugural exhibition, Second Lives, for 2008 re-opening of the museum in its new space on New York’s Columbus Circle. From 2000-2007 she served as executive director, president and adjunct curator for the permanent collection at The Studio Museum in Harlem, and previously, she was on the education and curatorial staff of The Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1972-1999. Lowery has lectured nationally and internationally and guest curated numerous exhibitions most recently at the New York Historical Society. She serves on the board of ArtTable, Inc., the Tiffany Foundation, Art Matters, Inc. and The Alliance of Artists Communities.