Pete Seeger was a teenager in the 1930s when he heard an Appalachian balladeer perform on an old-fashioned, five-string banjo and fell in love with the instrument, the timeless melodies and, most of all, the words.
"Compared to the trivialities of most popular songs," he said later, "the words of these songs had all the meat of human life in them.... They seemed frank, straightforward, honest."
In time, Seeger would arm himself with a banjo, a guitar and the transformative power of music to battle injustice in America and become the folk legend behind numbers such as "We Shall Overcome," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!"
The iconoclastic singer, songwriter and social activist who influenced generations of performers, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, died of natural causes Monday at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was 94.
Seeger had been in "excellent shape" until he entered the hospital last week, said his grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson, noting that his grandfather was still chopping wood 10 days ago at his home near Beacon, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson River.
A veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, Seeger remained relevant as an activist into his 90s. He was equally musician and revolutionary, playing a major role in the folk music revival that began in the late 1950s while helping to craft the soundtrack of 1960s protests.
"At some point, Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history," Springsteen said at the all-star Madison Square Garden concert marking Seeger's 90th birthday in 2009.
"He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament to the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards a more humane and justified end," said Springsteen, who performed Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" with Seeger at the Lincoln Memorial concert marking President Obama's 2008 inauguration.
Gifted at connecting with audiences, Seeger called his ability to inspire regular folks to sing along his "cultural guerrilla tactic." "There's no such thing as a wrong note as long as you're singing it," he told the 15,000-strong crowd at his birthday celebration.
Seeger's life of music and political activism could be summed up in "The Hammer Song," the enduring anthem he wrote more than 60 years ago with his good friend Lee Hays to support the progressive political movement in the U.S.:
If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening
All over this land
I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.
Popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s, the song embodied the heart of Seeger: his musicality, his activism, his optimism and his lifelong belief that songs could and should be used to build a sense of community to make the world a better place.