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Pete Seeger: In Memoriam, Gibson?s Classic Interview with the Folk Legend

Pete Seeger
“He's had one of the most perfect lives of anybody I know.” That's how filmmaker Jim Brown once described Pete Seeger, when asked why he decided to profile Seeger for a PBS “American Masters” documentary. Seeger, who passed away yesterday (Jan. 27) at age 94, certainly experienced one of the great artistic journeys in American culture. In a career that spanned three quarters of a century, he also embodied the idealism that once defined the American spirit.

The trajectory of Seeger's life is dazzling. Born May 3, 1919, he first wanted to become a journalist. Music beckoned, however, and following a period during which he assisted folk-song archivist Alan Lomax, he teamed with legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie to form the politically oriented Almanac Singers. Drafted into the Army in 1942, Seeger served out his duty and then co-founded the folk group, The Weavers. In addition to popularizing the Guthrie classic, “This Land is Your Land,” The Weavers topped the charts in 1950 with their version of Leadbelly's “Goodnight, Irene.”

Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, The Weavers disbanded in 1953. Informally banned from TV programs and radio shows--as well as from many concert stages--Seeger began performing at high schools and on college campuses. During the folk boom of the early ‘60s, his songs became better known to the public at large. Thanks to hit versions by The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary and The Byrds, the Seeger-written songs “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” became part of the American lexicon.

Even into his ‘90s, Seeger remained vibrant, creative and deeply attuned to social and environmental issues. He and his wife, Toshi—who passed away last July, at 91--lived on a wooded hillside overlooking the Hudson River, in a cabin they built with their own hands decades ago. From 1969 onwards, Seeger worked closely with the Clearwater organization, an environmental group that sought to protect the Hudson River, its tributaries and related waters.

Seeger was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction came in 1996, the same year he earned a Grammy Award for best traditional folk album. His 2008 album, Pete Seeger at 89, also won a Grammy. Indeed, throughout his life Seeger recorded dozens of albums and records, and compiled a series of instructional songbooks. In memoriam, we’re pleased present this in-depth interview, conducted in 2009 with the man once called “America’s tuning fork.”

“Turn! Turn! Turn!” is one of your best-known songs. Do you remember writing it?

Well, I got a letter in 1959 from one of my publishers, saying, “Pete, can't you write another song like ‘Goodnight, Irene’? I can't market these protests songs that you keep writing.” (laughs) I was a little angry. My first thought was that I needed to get a different publisher, since that was the only type of song I knew how to write. But then I pulled these words out of my pocket, where I had copied them onto a piece of paper, and improvised a tune off the top of my head. I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I recorded it and sent it to him. A week later I got a lovely letter saying, “This is just what I was looking for. Thanks.” It was that same publisher who got the song into the hands of The Byrds. They made a few slight changes, and came out with that terrific record.

Do you remember your impressions the first time you heard The Byrds' version?

Well, they changed one or two notes. Originally I thought, “Did they have to do that?” Later, though, I felt they were right to have done it.

You and Lee Hays also wrote “If I Had a Hammer.” Did you sense at the time that that song would become a classic?

No. We knew it was a good song, and a good idea. Lee wrote the four verses, and mailed them to me in the last days of December 1948, I believe. I sat down at the piano and worked out the tune. The Weavers had just gotten together. We sang it at various places, but we were just a bunch of lefties back then. We recorded it for a tiny little company, and I think it sold about 500 copies. Our tune never caught on as widely as it did when Peter, Paul, and Mary re-wrote the melody. My melody was slower and lower-pitched. Actually my favorite version is the one done by Sam Cooke.

You once said that being blacklisted was a blessing in disguise, in that it steered you away from the commercial world. Can you elaborate?

I never liked the commercial world. I felt it was a bunch of hypocrisy. I don't drink, and I don't smoke. I don't like nightclubs and I never went to them. Around 1953, I got a letter from some students at Oberlin College, asking if I could come there and sing. They said they couldn’t pay much, but they had a basement in the art department that held about 200 people, and they said they were sure if they passed the hat, they could cover my bus fare. So I took a bus out to Ohio, and sure enough they passed the hat, and I made about $200. The following year I came back and sang in the chapel, for 500 people. And then the next year I sang in the school auditorium, which held about 1000, and we filled it. By the '60s, I was singing in big state colleges. That, probably, is the most important work I ever did. It showed that in order to make a living, as a musician, you didn't have to go to nightclubs or hotels or radio stations. You could go to schools and colleges instead.

This took place long after you had formed The Almanac Singers, with Woody Guthrie. Had you written any songs before you met Guthrie?

I had written a few poems when I was in school. My father had tried writing songs, and I had an uncle who was a poet during World War I. One of his poems--"I Have A Rendezvous With Death"--was reprinted widely. It's often cited as one of President Kennedy's favorite poems. But it was Woody, as much as anything, who inspired me to write songs. Also, Alan Lomax was four years older than I was, and vastly more experienced, in many areas. Lomax was really my mentor until I met Woody. After that, Woody became my mentor, as a songwriter and as a performer.

What was the most important lesson you learned from Guthrie?

He was a genius at simplicity, and a great lyricist. He rarely made up melodies, although occasionally he did. There's a story involving the song “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” When the American destroyer ship, the Reuben James, was sunk off Greenland in October 1941, Woody wrote about 20 verses. He wanted the names of every person who drowned to be in that song. We said, “Woody, no one except you is going to sing a song that's this long. Can't you at least give us a chorus, that we can join in on?” He grumbled, but within a week he had pared the song down to five verses, and written a very strong refrain. That song is still being sung today. It attests to his ability to write something simple and powerful.

How did you come to write “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”?

I had been reading a long novel--And Quiet Flows the Don--about the Don River in Russia and about the Cossacks who lived along the river back in the 19th century. It describes the Cossack soldiers galloping off to join the Czar's army, singing as they go. Three lines from a song are quoted in the book: “Where are the flowers? The girls plucked them / Where are the girls? They're all married / Where are the men? They're all in the army.” I never got around to looking up the song, but I wrote down those three lines.

Later, in an airplane, it occurred to me that the line “long time passing”--which I had also written in a notebook--would sing well. Then I thought of, “When will we ever learn.” Suddenly, within 20 minutes, I had a song. There were just three verses. I scotch-taped the song to a microphone and sang it at Oberlin College. This was in 1955. One of the students there had a summer job as a camp counselor. He took the song to the camp and sang it to the kids. It was very short. He gave it rhythm, which I previously hadn't done. The kids played around with it, singing “Where have all the counselors gone? / Open curfew, everyone.”

The counselor added two actual verses: “Where have all the soldiers gone / Gone to graveyards everyone / Where have all the graveyards gone / Covered with flowers every one.” Joe Hickerson is his name, and I give him 20 percent of the royalties. That song still brings in thousands of dollars in royalties, from all around the world.

People still talk about the controversy occurred in 1965, when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. You allegedly threatened to pull the plug on his performance. What really happened?

Dylan was singing a wonderful song—“Maggie's Farm”--but you couldn’t understand a thing he was singing, because they had the sound system so distorted. I ran over to the guy managing the controls, and said, “Fix the sound, so we can understand the words." And he shouted back, “No! This is the way they want it!” They wanted it loud enough that all these folkies would “boo,” because this was Bob's chance to show them he's bidding “Bye Bye Baby Blue” to them. I was so mad, I said, “Damn it, if I had an ax, I would cut the cable.” I wanted the lyrics to be understood. That's my main complaint about a lot of singers. I hear so much of the accompaniment, I can hardly understand the words.

What are your feelings in general about electric guitars?

I don't know how to play the electric guitar, although I'm fascinated by it. I'm fascinated listening to people like B.B. King, how he can make a note sing out. It's a relatively new instrument, and quite different from an acoustic guitar. If there's a human race 200 years from now, the electric guitar might well be remembered as the most popular instrument of the folk music of the late 20th century.

All your life you've been an advocate for social causes and the environment. Do you feel songs have a special power to bring attention to these issues?

If there's a human race here a hundred years from now, music will have been one of the many things that saved us. Other arts will help, whether it be dancing, or cooking, or painting, or sculpting. Sports may help as well. I'm reading a book right now that discusses how Nelson Mandela used the love of rugby in his effort to pull South Africa together. All South Africans came together to cheer on their team. Communication is good, and we need to encourage our tradition of talking. That's why the human race has survived as long as it has.

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Topics : classic rockclassic rock music newsEntertainment_CulturePete SeegerPete Seeger interview
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Locations : Ohio
People : Alan LomaxB.B. KingBob DylanJim BrownJoe HickersonKennedyLee HaysNelson MandelaPete SeegerPeter PaulSam CookeToshiWoody Guthrie

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01/29/2014 2:26PM
Pete Seeger: In Memoriam, Gibson’s Classic Interview with the Folk Legend
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