Pete Seeger - Singer, Activist and Defender of the Folk Tradition

GENEVA -- When venerable American folk artist Pete Seeger died recently, our world lost a musical virtuoso famed for original compositions like “If I Had a Hammer,” as well as renditions of classics like “Home on the Range” that connected newer generations with their cultural heritage.

Grammy winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, civil-rights activist and folklorist par excellence: Mr. Seeger was renowned in many spheres. Less well known, however, was his advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples and local communities around the world who seek better control over their traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions and genetic resources.

Pete Seeger at book launching-signing event in Manhattan, 2012 (Photo: Asterio Tesco)

Seeger's words to WIPO

Even our work here at WIPO caught Mr. Seeger’s attention.

In April 2006, a statement PDF, Pete Seeger’s intervention to the IGC Mr. Seeger had prepared was presented to the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC), 9th session, by Mat Callahan. Mr. Callahan, a musician speaking as a representative of Music in Common, an accredited observer to the IGC, built upon Seeger’s then-novel ideas for a United Nations Public Domain Commission to share royalties of copyrighted folk songs with the “place and people where the song originated.”1

Mr. Wend Wendland, Director of WIPO’s Traditional Knowledge Division, recalls: “Mr. Seeger and I then had a number of conversations, and I was struck by his commitment to musicians from disadvantaged backgrounds and communities and his determination that royalties should flow back to the original composers.”

In fact, many of Mr. Seeger’s copyrighted compositions drew from traditional songs. He saw the need to revive folk traditions, balanced with respect for those who had maintained them. He stated in the IGC: “To ensure traditions [are] kept vital and alive new generations [have] to be introduced to them in a way that honor[s] the music itself as well as those who maintained its highest forms of expression.”

Giving back to the communities

Mr. Seeger believed in giving back to communities where his work had its roots. In the 1950s, his group the Weavers recorded a South African song, “Wimoweh” (the title was Mr. Seeger’s mishearing of “Mbube,” composed by South African Solomon Linda). Mr. Seeger told the IGC “When I learned the story of how little royalties for the song ‘Mbube’ (‘Wimoweh’ in the USA) had gone to the African author, Solomon Linda, I realized that this was a worldwide problem. Why not try to start solving it? I had been collecting book and record royalties for ‘Abiyoyo’, a children's story I made up in 1952. It uses an ancient Xhosa lullaby. The royalties are now split 50-50, with half the royalties going to the Ubuntu Fund for libraries and scholarships for Xhosa children near Port Elizabeth, in southeast South Africa.”

For Mr. Seeger, folk music was a vibrant heritage and the festivals, record labels, and publications he founded were a testament to this living body of traditional cultural expressions. These cultural expressions, together with traditional knowledge and genetic resources, make up the themes currently addressed in the IGC. The IGC will hold its 26th session from February 3 to 7, 2014.

Mr. Seeger died on January 27, 2014 of natural causes. He was 94.

  1. All quotes attributed to Mr. Seeger are taken from the Report of the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore’s Ninth Session, held in Geneva, from April 24 to 28, 2006, par. 120 (document WIPO/GRTKF/IC/9/14 PROV 2).