Pete Seeger, who died last night at age 94, was the voice of America. His high, wailing tenor had a fragile, human quality that struck deep into your heart when you heard him sing. He didn't have the smooth voice of a pop singer. He had the rough, untrained voice of a working man, which is what he was for most of his life, despite being born to a relatively well-off family. Without him, the 1960s folk revival -- a movement that revitalized American popular music -- wouldn't have happened. He opened the door that Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, the Byrds, and every other folksinger and folk rocker walked through.
Pete Seeger in 1955
When he discovered an old spiritual called "We Will Overcome," he rewrote it into "We Shall Overcome." That song spread quickly throughout the ranks of demonstrators and activists to became the anthem of the civil rights movement. It helped transform America's racial politics and remains as moving and relevant today as it was when Seeger and his co-writers -- Guy Carawan, Lucille Simmons and Zilphia Horton -- wrote it in the late 50s. (The writers all agreed to donate the royalties the song made to civil rights organizations. The We Shall Overcome Fund is still generating enough money to fund African American groups fighting discrimination.)