In 1939 and 1940, folk icon Pete Seeger worked at the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song, now the American Folklife Center archive. They say there’s no record of him ever being paid so the folks at the archive joke that Seeger was its very first intern. We asked Steve Winick, a folklorist who works as a writer and editor at the AFC, to compile a list of his favorite folk songs once sung by Seeger and subsequently covered by other famous artists. This is American history in musical form.
1. Woody Guthrie “This Land is Your Land”
Written by Pete’s friend Woody Guthrie, this one’s both modern and classic. The rarely-recorded verses about trespassing on private property make it subversively idealistic—just like Woody and Pete.
2. Bruce Springsteen “John Henry”
A black man goes down fighting the good fight against impersonal industry and job loss. Of course it was one of Pete’s favorites.
3. Odetta “Kumbaya”
Pete called it “Kum Ba Yah,” which was just phonetic spelling for “Come by Here” spoken in the Gullah dialect. The song isn’t about holding hands and getting along, it simply asks God to come and help. Pete loved it both before and after America decided it was corny.
4. The Byrds “Pretty Polly”
Pete sang two different songs with this title, but the Byrds covered the classic murder ballad. In old English versions, Polly’s ghost comes back and rips Willie in three pieces. In American versions like Pete’s, Willie’s punishment waits for him in Hell. Either way, violence doesn’t pay.
5. Johnny Cash “Streets of Laredo”
Older versions of this song are about dying of syphilis, but Pete’s and Johnny’s were both about random gun violence. Who says old folk ballads can’t be topical?
6. Amy Winehouse “Stagger Lee”
There are lots of versions of this song; Pete’s and Mississippi John Hurt’s versions are pretty tame; Lloyd Price’s was a pop hit. Find your favorite.
7. Lead Belly (and Led Zeppelin) “Gallows Pole”
Pete’s friend Lead Belly’s version shows the genius of African-American songsters who reworked old English folk ballads. Led Zeppelin’s psychedelic romp shows the genius of English people who took them back again.
8. Sinead O’Connor “House of the Rising Sun”
This song’s about a women’s prison, a brothel, or neither? No one knows for sure!
9. Sweet Honey in the Rock “We Shall Overcome”
Pete reworked this spiritual and helped make it a classic of the civil rights movement.
10. Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
I wouldn’t argue it’s a folksong, but Pete loved it, especially after he changed the last words to “why can’t you and I?” Pete’s first instrument was the uke, and IZ does it proud. I like to think Pete’s flying up there now.