Pete Seeger is one of the world's quintessential activists, having played such an important role in singing the songs and engaging in the struggles of the civil rights, free speech, human rights, anti-Vietnam War, environmental, peace, anti-nuclear, and social justice movements. He spans musical eras, from those who inspired him, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, to those he inspired, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Bruce Springsteen, and Ani DiFranco. When we sat down next to Mohonk Lake near the Hudson River last September for this interview, he was, at eighty-one, quite humble, straight-backed and clear-blue-eyed, as straightforward, sincere, and real as any living folk music icon might be. He remains opinionated, articulate, keenly aware of his place in history and, thankfully, has maintained his inimitable sense of hope and optimism.
David Kupfer: How would you describe yourself?
Pete Seeger: As a lucky person able to make a living doing what I love to do and especially lucky in having a lifetime partner who put up with my craziness.My outlook? "There's no hope but maybe I am wrong." People think that I made it up, but it's from Robert Fulghum, author of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. He got it from some guy in Seattle about twenty years ago.
DK: What was your first recollection of music?
PS: My mother playing the violin and my father and grandfather playing the piano, classical stuff.
DK: How do you see your role in the origin and evolution of the folk music movement?
PS: I look upon myself as a link in a long chain, and let's hope there are many more links to come. My father took me to a square dance festival in North Carolina when I was sixteen. I heard a five-string banjo played the old-style way and fell in love with it. A few years later I was working for Alan Lomax in the Library of Congress folk song archive, and starting to realize what a wealth of different kinds of music there was in this country that you never heard on the radio. But I think I placed too much faith in the phrase "folk music."
150 years ago the phrase was invented in Germany. "Folk music" was the music of the peasant class, ancient and anonymous. A hundred years ago John Lomax of Texas collected cowboy songs, and called them folk songs, even though he knew who wrote them, and the words were not ancient. Thirty years later his son Alan, who was helping his father lug the 200 pounds of batteries and disc recorders in and out of the car in the early 1930s, said "Father, I want to carry on your work." So at the age of twenty-two, Alan was installed by his father as Acting Curator of Folk Songs for the Library of Congress. Alan Lomax is the person who I think should be given major credit for what has been called the "Folk Song Revival." My father participated with him because my father was a musicologist and urged trained musicians to learn about "the vernacular." If you lived in the city, the vernacular was jazz. If you lived in the country, it was country music. If you were an ethnic group, be it Spanish or Jewish, it was the music of your personal background, the musical equivalent of the language you spoke. My father urged Alan not to repeat the mistakes of the European folklorists who, a century ago, had collected these peasant songs and then arranged them for part choir and accompanied them on piano, and then told the young people of their country, "Don't change a note, this is our sacred heritage." Father said, whether it's a fiddle tune or a gospel song, learn it right off the record from the people who grew up with it. Don't just learn it from a piece of paper.
My mother wanted me to learn how to read music. She'd given fiddles to my two older brothers, but they'd rebelled. I came along and my father said, "Oh, let Peter enjoy himself." What she did was leave musical instruments all around the house. Whistles, marimbas, squeeze boxes, a piano and organ. By age six or seven, I could bang out a simple tune on almost anything. I developed a good ear, so I didn't learn to read music until I taught myself at age eighteen, 'cause I was hearing so many good songs I couldn't possibly remember them all.
I learned by transcribing songs out of the Library of Congress collection in Washington where I was working. I got a job when I just turned twenty in 1939 and Alan needed some help. He had a cubbyhole of a room in the very top of the Library of Congress, and stacks and stacks of records all around. He didn't have time to listen to them all. So he hired me for $15 a week. I was overpaid at that. I got a little furnished room for $3 a week. I had a bicycle, so I could pedal out to my father's house and get a good meal every few days. I listened to hundreds of records every week.
DK: What were your early enthusiasms?
PS: Banjos, fiddles. I liked the records of Uncle Dave Macon, Leadbelly, many others.
DK: You knew Huddie Ledbetter?
PS: Yeah, Alan introduced me to him in 1938. He was polite, not obsequious. Very proud, dignified. In his fifties at the time, graying hair, very muscular. He moved light on his feet like a prizefighter. When he took off his jacket, his muscles were enormous. If he hadn't been a musician, I think he would've been a champion athlete. He wanted to be the best.
But back to Alan Lomax. He started right off trying to find people who could introduce folk songs to city people. He found a young actor named Burl Ives and said, "Burl, you know a lot of great country songs learned from your grandmother, don't you know people would love to hear them?" He put on radio programs. He persuaded CBS to dedicate "The School of the Air" for one year to American folk music. He'd get some old sailor to sing an old sea shanty with a cracked voice. Then he'd get me to sing it with my banjo. I still sing this one: (sings) "'Tis advertised in Boston, New York and Buffalo, 500 brave Americans a whaling for to go, singing 'blow winds in the morning' and so on...".
Alan found a talented young blues singer named Josh White and said, Josh, there's people up in New York who would love to hear you sing. Alan got him jobs at Cafe Society and the Village Vanguard.
In February, 1940 when Woody (Guthrie) hitchhiked east, Alan latched right onto him. In Washington he recorded Woody's entire life history on big acetate discs at 33?rpm, and very intently, he said, "Woody, do you realize you are a great ballad maker? You are in the tradition of the people who wrote the ballads of Robin Hood and the ballad of Jesse James. Don't let anything distract you in your life from writing ballads." Woody took it to heart.
DK: You latched right onto Woody?
PS: Well, I had a good ear and could accompany him in anything. My tinkling banjo went along with his guitar. I didn't play too fancy. Just gave him the right note at the right time with the right rhythm. He invited me to come out with him to visit his family
in Texas. What I started to tell you is that Alan and his father started off changing the definition of folk music from something ancient and anonymous to something very contemporary. Along came me and a whole train of people who learned from Woody and we are called folk singers. Now any person who plays an acoustic guitar standing up on stage with a microphone is a folk singer. Some grandmother with a baby in her arms singing a 500-year-old song, well, she's not a folk singer, she's not on stage with a guitar and a microphone. No, she's just an old grandmother singing an old song. The term "folk singer" has gotten warped.
We tried to call it "people's songs" back in '46. That didn't catch on. Our little organization went bankrupt in '49. Then came the Weavers. Then we were blacklisted. Then I said to heck with the commercial world. I was glad to leave it. Then I just went back to singing for kids in schools where I'd started at. In retrospect, the blacklist was a blessing in disguise.
Oh, sure, work in nightclubs was interesting. There were interesting people and places, but by and large, the commercial music experience...well, it's hard to find the words. In the 1950s, I went back to teaching briefly 'cause I wasn't quite sure how to make a living. In 1953, the Weavers, as Lee Hays said, took a sabbatical and it turned into a Mondical and a Tuesdical. But some of the kids I'd sung to in summer camps a few years before were now in college. I went to Oberlin first and had a good time singing with them and the next year went back and sang for twice as many. I then went to Antioch and then Reed College in Oregon. Then I was able to go to more conservative colleges, and by the end of the fifties, I was finally able to go to the big state colleges like Ohio State and Michigan State and others. These colleges and universities were much more sensitive to pressure. By the early sixties, I was making a living. I actually took my family on a short vacation (laughs). But I was working and what I did was show a whole generation of young people you didn't need to depend on the commercial world to make a living. Make the kind of music you love even if you never hear it on the air. This was the basic lesson I'd gotten from Alan. Alan said, Pete, look at all this great music around. You never hear it on the radio, but it's right there, great music.
I urged young folk to learn some of it. You can't learn all of it. In fact, anybody who wants to learn everything is pretty stupid. You learn what you can. Looking back, I think I tried to be too eclectic. Sometimes I'd sing thirty songs, and fifteen of them were not in English. My grandson Tao Rodriguez and I often sing together now. He's good at the Spanish songs. Nowadays I don't sing much at all. I've got about 10 percent of my voice left. I shout the words for the crowd to join in on the chorus.
DK: Did you deliberately set out to revive folk music in the 1950s?
PS: I didn't call it folk music, I called it people's music, but it was a conscious effort. Many others picked up on Alan Lomax's urging, wanting this music to live again. Some folklorists just collected dead bones from one graveyard, only to bury them in another?their library. But we wanted people to sing 'em, make 'em part of their life.
DK: How do you recall your objections to Dylan going electric?
PS: It was at Newport, 1965. I couldn't understand the words. I wanted to hear the words. It was a great song, "Maggie's Farm," and the sound was distorted. I ran over to the guy at the controls and shouted, "Fix the sound so you can hear the words." He hollered back, "This is the way they want it." I said "Damn it, if I had an axe, I'd cut the cable right now." But I was at fault. I was the MC, and I could have said to the part of the crowd that booed Bob, "you didn't boo Howlin' Wolf yesterday. He was electric!" Though I still prefer to hear Dylan acoustic, some of his electric songs are absolutely great. Electric music is the vernacular of the second half of the twentieth century, to use my father's old term.
DK: What was the role of Moses Asch in popularizing folk music?
PS: A very big role. In 1939, Moses was installing PA systems in hotels. His father, who was the novelist Sholem Asch, said Moses, you have a recording machine. Put it in the trunk of our car. We are going down to Princeton to visit Dr. Einstein to record (Einstein's) statement for radio broadcast, urging American Jews to do more to help families get out of Germany. Over dinner, Dr. Einstein asked, "well, young Mr. Asch, what do you do for a living?" Moses responded, "I make a living putting public address systems into hotels, but I'm fascinated with this recording machine and what it can do. I found a Negro in New York named Leadbelly who nobody will record because they say he is not commercial. But I think this is American culture and he should be recorded. The Library of Congress, they just put this stuff in vaults, they don't make it available to the public." Dr. Einstein said, "You are right, Americans do not appreciate their own culture. It will be a Polish Jew like you who will do the job." So Moses recorded Leadbelly in 1939. Three 78?rpms in a cardboard folder called an album that he sold for $3 or $4. He sold 100 copies in a year. But the next year, in 1940, he learned a little more about sales. Woody Guthrie came to New York and Moses recorded him as well. Soon Moses Asch was selling 1,000 here and 1,000 there. When he died forty years later, he had more than 2,000 titles in his Folkways catalogue. LPs made Folkways possible, and Moses Asch made it possible for people to hear this music. I recorded mostly Folkways LPs for forty years. It was all given to the Smithsonian after Moe died. Smithsonian Folkways in Washington, D.C. releases all 2,000 titles now.
DK: This phrase, "long time passing?"
PS: I thought up those three words, and then a year later, I'm sitting on a plane and managed to connect them with three lines I'd read in a Soviet novel: "Where have the flowers gone? Girls have plucked them. Where have the girls gone? They've all married. Where have the young men gone? They are all in the army." Twenty minutes later I had a song. Joe Hickerson, then a college student, added the rhythm and the two last verses. I borrowed part of an Irish melody.
DK: You had an anthem.
PS: I am a lucky songwriter.
DK: You've said that your proudest accomplishment is the Clearwater Sloop, the sailboat dedicated to cleaning up the Hudson River which you helped create.
PS: I guess I've learned more from the Clearwater than anything else. All I did was help to plant a seed, and I didn't know what the hell I was doing.
DK: What sort of advice do you have for young people?
PS: Keep your sense of humor. There is a 50?50 chance that the world can be saved. You?yes you?might be the grain of sand that tips the scales the right way. It's a joyful, very exciting time. Live long!
I tell kids, don't trust the media. The media with their emphasis on fame is helping to destroy this country, helping destroy the human race. It's the plug-in drug. They say, "Well, if we didn't do it, somebody else would." Do you say, "if I didn't rape this woman somebody else would?" It is stupid and it is destructive. Our country is misgoverned largely because of the media. You can't blame it all on the politicians.
There are many people writing songs now. That is absolutely wonderful. Who knows, there may be some kid in diapers and he or she might succeed in capturing in a few dozen words what great writers have spent years trying to say. Just the right word in the right place with the right melody behind it and the right rhythm. It might get around the world inch by inch, and people realize that this world is in danger, that we're in danger. That's the way "This Land Is Your Land" got to be so well known.