8 Essential Pete Seeger Songs

Pete Seeger was one of the most beloved, well-respected artists in the history of American folk music. From his interpretations of old traditional folk songs to his original sing-along-friendly songs about peace and perseverance, Seeger was one of the best artists to meet the craft. Right up until the end of his life, Pete could be found wherever there was a song to sing, teaching children old folk songs and learning the songs they had to teach him. So, it makes sense that the best way to learn more about one of American folk music's greatest treasures is to learn a few of Pete Seeger's best songs. 

Pete Seeger's timeless classic "If I Had a Hammer," which he co-wrote with fellow Weaver Lee Hays, has become so enmeshed in our culture that children grow up learning it. Along with the fun imagery of hammers and bells, the song is really about unity, justice and peace.

If I had a bell, I'd ring it in the morning / I'd ring it in the evening all over this land / I'd ring out danger! / I'd ring out warning! / I'd ring out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land

Pete Seeger has penned a number of anthems through the years for the peace movement but, "Bring 'Em Home" is arguably one of the best. Squashing the assertion that anti-war activists don't support the troops, Seeger sings:

If you love your Uncle Sam, bring 'em home, bring 'em home.

"Oh Had I a Golden Thread" is a song about idealism and a deep longing for peace in the world. The lyrics talk about feeling dedicated to making the world a better place for our children and their children to inherit.

In it I'd weave the bravery / Of women giving birth / In it I would weave the innocence / Of children over all the earth

Pete Seeger wrote "Take It From Dr. King" in 2002 as a challenge to people to choose peace over violence. The song preceded the Iraq War but became an anti-Iraq War anthem in the years that followed and was a song Seeger performed leading up to the 2008 presidential election.

Don’t say it can’t be done / The battle’s just begun / Take it from Dr. King / You too can learn to sing so drop the gun

So many of Pete Seeger's songs are easily memorable tunes that lend themselves to community singing and empowerment through song. "My Name is Lisa Kalvelage," however, is more of a story-song about a woman immigrant who refused to stay silent in the face of tyranny. She was one of four activists in 1966 whose demonstration prevented a rash of bombs from being delivered on time.

I also know what it is to be charged with mass guilt / Once in a lifetime is enough for me / No, I could not take it for a second time / And that is why I am here today.

This song was made most famous by the Byrds in 1965, even though Seeger had already recorded it in 1962. Seeger took the line from Ecclesiastes in the Bible to talk about the quest for peace, equality and civil rights, encouraging patience in the face of adversity.

A time to be born, a time to die / A time to plant, a time to reap / A time to kill, a time to heal / A time to laugh, a time to weep

"Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" tells the story of soldiers going off to war and being killed in battle. In addition to Seeger's touching version, the song has also famously been recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and Joan Baez.

Where have all the soldiers gone? / Gone to graveyards, every one. / Oh, when will they ever learn?

"Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" is one of the many songs Seeger wrote about the conflict in Vietnam, although the lyrics could be applied to any situation where the distribution of power seems to be out of wack. When Ani DiFranco recorded the song in 2007 for the Sowing the Seeds 10th Anniversary collection, the tune sounded a little more pointed at the misguided leadership of the Bush Administration.

"It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging / We'll soon be on dry ground." / We were waist deep in the Big Muddy / And the big fool said to push on.

Playing on the old story of the Emporer's New Clothes, Pete Seeger wrote this song in 1970 as the Vietnam War's unpopularity was nearing its breaking point. It's a call for unity and a call for people to stand up against the unbalanced power that would keep them in place.

We say stand and sing out for a great hooray-o! / We yet may find the way to exclaim / The emperor is naked today-o!

This somewhat more obscure song by Pete Seeger addresses what it means to be an American and inherit a legacy of misdeeds and misdirections. It deals with racism and an institutionalized disregard for nature and is a beautiful thought-provoking poem-song.

My blue is good, the color of the sky. / The stars are good for ideals, oh, so high. / Seven stripes of red are strong to meet all danger / But those white stripes, they need some changing.