More Optimistic Today Than Ever: A Talk with Pete Seeger
"There is hardly anything bad in the world that doesn't have something good connected to it."
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, Jr., Bruce Springsteen, Dave Mathews, and Ani DiFranco.
Seeger has had an epic life, full of amazing contributions to our culture and politics. In person, he conveys a comfortable, homespun way about himself that puts you at ease. He is a modest soul, and in conversation is slow to credit himself on his lifework's impact, but it can be safely said that in the 20th century there is no other individual who has so successfully combined folk music and progressive politics.
In the late 1960s, Seeger shifted away from typical American folk music, embracing African music, Latin-American folk songs and other forms of world music. At this time Pete became active in the nascent environmental movement, drawing attention to pollution of the Hudson River with the activist group Clearwater, which teaches schoolchildren about water pollution. He and friends built the Clearwater Sloop, a reproduction of a 19th Century cargo sloop, and sailed it up and down the river, spreading the word about pollution and raising public support to clean up the river. Because of these and other's efforts, the Hudson is now open for swimming in many places.
One thing that's endeared him to audiences all over the world is that he always gets people to join in. It's almost a religion with him. "The world will be saved when people realize we all have to pitch in. You can't just pay your money and hope that someone else will do the job right." He continued performing into the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, most often at charity shows and benefits.
Seeger embodies the spirit of this nation more than anyone I have met. At 90, he is humble, straight-backed, clear-eyed, and as straightforward, sincere, and real as any living folk music icon could be. He remains opinionated, articulate, and keenly aware of his place in history and, thankfully, has maintained his inimitable sense of hope and optimism. Pete once confided to me that he "can go on and on (talking), and frequently I do." I have found my favorite talkaholic can always be counted on for bold, provocative, and poignant observations.
I visited him just before his 90th birthday in the spring of 2009 on a warm afternoon. The home he shares with his wife, Toshi, overlooks the Hudson River and Denny's Point near Beacon. I helped him bring out an umbrella from the barn that we set up in the picnic table on the porch next to the log cabin he hand built some 50 years ago. He began discussing the local history of the region. Pete is an excellent historian and a wonderful storyteller. During the course of our interview, Toshi brought us out a pitcher of water and contributed to the conversation.
What is it about the power of a sing along song?
There is something about participating. It is almost my religion. If the world is still here in 100 years, people will know the importance of participating, not just being spectators. That's what this book, Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken is about. Millions of small groups around the world, that don't necessarily all agree with one another, but they are made up of people who are not just sitting back waiting for someone to do things for them. No one can prove anything, but of course if I didn't believe it had some kind of power, I wouldn't be trying to do it.
Curiously enough, the people who are suspicious of songs have put their words down, so they also think there is something to the power of song. Plato is supposed to have said it is very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music in the Republic.
There is an old Arab story, when the king put the poet on his payroll; he cuts off the tongue of the poet. I know very well that the powers that be would like to control the music that the people listen to.
Herbert Hoover said to Rudy Vallee, who was a top singer in 1929: "Mr. Vallee, if you can sing a song that will make the American people forget the depression, I will give you a medal." A lot of musicians would like to get that kind of medal. Bing Crosby had a hit record, "Wrap your troubles in dreams, and dream your troubles away." That was how we were going to solve the depression in 1932.
I never thought of those singers as propagandists.
The exception proves the rule. A lefty named Yip Harburg got a musician named Jay Gorny to write a tune for him and wrote, "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" Yip got together in 1938 with Harold Arlen to make songs for the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. He said "Harold, get me a melody for the phrase `over the rainbow'." Arlen said, "there's no rainbow in the Wizard of Oz. I have read the script."
"I'm putting it in," said Yip. When they got this great melody, the producer tried to cut it from the movie. It slows up the opening, he said. The two songwriters said, "This movie will not be made unless this song is in it." They went on a two-man strike. They had hundreds of thousands of dollars going out every day, extras, scenery, cameraman. Finally Louis B. Mayer said, "Oh let the boys have their way, let's get rolling." So they won the strike.
There is something magical about people singing together collectively, isn't there?
I quote John Phillip Sousa frequently. He asked, "what will happen to the American Voice now that the phonographic recording has been invented?" Something is irretrievably lost when we are no longer in the presence of bodies making music. The nightingale's song is delightful because the nightingale gives it forth.
What do you think has been lost with the advent of all this commercially recorded music that has altered the folk culture?
We have a nation of overweight people because our main exercise is to move from one seat to the other. From a chair to a car to a desk to a subway seat to a couch in front of the television, to a chair to eat. The danger with the Internet is that you don't need to think about it, you just search for it and you find the answer. Singing used to be part of everyday life. Women sang while pounding corn. Men sang while they were paddling canoes.
When I was in Taipan during World War II, there were some local islanders who had a stick dance - big sticks, almost a yard long that would go wack wack as they whirled around. I asked one of the men, "When do you do the stick dance? At celebrations or birthday parties?"
"Oh no," he said, "before we go into battle!" So singing was part of fighting!
I am told that it was two or three million years ago that our ancestors started walking on two feet, and that is when they started swinging clubs and throwing stones to catch an animal, to hit an enemy. It is no accident that games like golf and baseball are popular around the world. It is in our DNA to like to go whack. I like to split wood, it is fun.
What is the most pronounced thing that you have seen that a song has been able to accomplish?
The civil rights movement. Songs did a lot for unions, but the civil rights movement would not have succeeded if it hadn't been for all those songs. They were sung in jails and in picket lines and parades. People hummed them when they were most beaten.
You have been working in local schools here in your hometown for quite awhile. When did you discover you had a talent for this?
I was looking for a job as a newspaper man when I was 20, because I had run a school newspaper for six years, at age 12 in one school, and age 14 to 17 at another school, and 18 to 19 in college. I could have led a very happy life running a small town newspaper, but I didn't even get a hint of a job. One editor said to me, "young fellow, you have no experience, I had to fire somebody last week who had thirty years of experience! Why should I hire you?"
I had an aunt who taught school - my family is full of schoolteachers - my two brothers, my aunt - who told me she'd give me five dollars if I'd come sing songs for some of her classes. It seemed like stealing. This was back in 1939 when most people had to work a full day or two days to earn that much.
Pretty soon I was singing in another school and then another. Summertime came and I started singing in summer camps. I never did go back to look for a job working at a newspaper. You can never tell what effect you have until later on.
I am pleasantly surprised when I meet white haired people and they tell me they got into my songs when they were in school. Some people come up to me and say, "my grandma said that you came to sing for her in nursery school." I've actually been singing in schools for 70 years.
Was there some `aha' moment when you realized that singing folk songs for kids and other audiences was to be your life's work, feeding the flame of the folk music spirit?
Originally I didn't realize what was going to happen. Most people would ask me, don't you want to make a hit record? But I really didn't like the hypocrisy of the music business. It was almost an accident when a song I wrote became a hit. I did happen to meet in New York Bob Miller who'd come up from Memphis, Tennessee and had written a song, which was widely popular in the South around 1922.
Seven cent cotton and forty cent meat
How in the world can a poor man eat?
Flour up high and cotton down low,
How in the world can we raise the dough?
Clothes worn out, shoes run down,
Old slouch hat with a hole in the crown,
Back nearly broken and fingers all sore,
Cotton gone down to rise no more.
He had a hit song in World War II. (sings)
There's a Star-Spangled Banner waving somewhere
In a distant land so many miles away.
Only Uncle Sam's great heroes get to go there
Where I wish that I could also live some day.
I'd see Lincoln, Custer, Washington and Perry,
And Nathan Hale and Colin Kelly, too.
There's a Star-Spangled Banner waving somewhere,
Waving o'er the land of heroes brave and true.
In this war with its mad schemes of destruction
Of our country fair and our sweet liberty,
By the mad dictators, leaders of corruption,
Can't the U. S. use a mountain boy like me?
God gave me the right to be a free American,
And for that precious right I'd gladly die.
There's a Star-Spangled Banner waving somewhere,
That is where I want to live when I die.
These were the exceptions that proved the rule.
I have to say what a genius Irving Berlin was. I sing his Blue Skies quite often, get audiences singing it with me. He could only play the piano in the key of G flat. In 1919 he happened to meet Mr. Victor Herbert , the composer of operettas. He said, "Mr. Herbert, you know I don't know a thing about music. I just play the piano by ear and somebody else writes down my songs. Do you think I ought to go to music school?" Mr. Herbert said, "You've got a good ear for tunes and words. I think it would cramp your style." So he never did. Berlin did have a special piano built. He turned a crank and the whole keyboard would move up and down, so it was a piano capo. He would play G flat but it would come out C.
How do you think folk music serves to influence and mold a culture?
I think it helps reinforce your sense of history. An old song makes you think of times gone by. Then the idea that you can make up songs has taken over and I look upon us all as Woody's children. There's a man in the Bronx - Robert Sherman - at radio station WFUD. He's got a weekly program called Woody's Children -- I gave him the phrase! -- and he plays new songs written by famous and unknown people. That show has been running out for 30 years.
Folk music has proven to be a useful tool in many social change movements that have succeeded in the past 60 years. Does it make you optimistic about the potential of social change?
I am more optimistic today than I've ever been in my entire long life. I was so distrustful of the establishment when I was 16. I argued with some other teenagers from a Jewish family - the teenagers were studying violin - and my mother took me along with her when she was visiting them for a weekend. They asked, "What are you going to do with your life?" I said, "I'm going to be a hermit. This world is so full of hypocrisy the only way you can be honest is to be a hermit. I don't know how I'm going to meet a living but I'm going to try." I thought I might be a forest ranger or something like that. Being out in the woods was my church. I had read every book by Ernest Thompson Seton.
Didn't he have a big influence on you as a young man?
He boosted the idea of learning about the North American Indians. I learned that they shared everything that they had. If somebody shot the deer, there were no ice boxes, so the hunter may have gotten the best cut but everything else was shared with the rest of the tribe. There was no such thing as one person in the tribe going hungry and others having full bellies. If there was hunger, everybody was hungry. The chief was hungry, and his wife and children were hungry. That seemed to me to be a sensible way to live.
Now today I know that anthropologists call that tribal communism. So I say that I was a Communist ever since I was age seven, when I first started reading about Seton. So these teenagers, they argued with me and said, "You're going to be nice and let the rest of the world go to hell? That's your idea of morality?"
When you were a teenager?
I was about 13. I was going to prep school at the time. I decided they were right. They posed their Jewish traditional sense of social consciousness against my more New England, Thoreau, way of thinking. I decided they were right, so I got more involved. The following year I joined the Harvard student union, and I have been more involved in one way or another ever since.
Was joining the Harvard student union pivotal for you?
I was a sophomore in the second year there. My first year there I tried to keep my independence, but some friends criticized me saying, `you mean you're at Harvard and you're not a member of the Harvard student union?' So I went back and joined and pretty soon I was the secretary of the club. Then we decided to run a monthly magazine - all of four pages. The Harvard Progressive. I got so interested in putting it out, I allowed my grades to slip and then I lost my scholarship.
I had a part-time scholarship when it cost all of $1,200 to go to Harvard in those days for one year. My brothers paid some money and I worked and raised about $300, and I had a scholarship for $300. When I lost my scholarship and my brothers could not give me anymore.... I wasn't sorry to leave, as I'd found that professors could be as selfish as anybody else.
What do you recall?
I remember our sociology Professor Pitirim A. Sorokin. He was a friend of the guy who used to run the Soviet government just before the revolution, Alexander Kerensky. Mr. Sorokin said don't think you can change the world. The world is going to change as it wants to, no matter what your little individual efforts do what you can do is study the world. I thought that was very foolish. He was trying to persuade people not to be activists just to be scholars and study the world.
(Toshi came outside with a pitcher of water for us)
To what extent has your been a collaborative effort?
Toshi Seeger: He is very determined and he takes his own time and does what he wants to do.
Pete Seeger: A whole batch of things wouldn't have happened were it not for Toshi. We have never found another person to run the Clearwater Revival like she ran it.
Toshi Seeger: You do what you want to do
Pete Seeger: More or less
Toshi Seeger: He would just like to do more things
Is it seemed like a lot of folk songs have really simple chord structures. Why is it some of the simplest songs are the most moving and evocative?
Some very simple melodies have never been forgotten through history. The tune used for "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is known in every country in Europe in many different forms (sings five verses in five languages). Those are just a few examples from five places... Norway, the national anthem of Israel in Hebrew... `Come by Here' is a Gospel song. Who knows? It could have been somebody in a cave dancing around bud dom bud dom bud dom bud dom bud dom bud dom bud dom bud dom. Maybe they are just easy to remember, so simple yet so memorable.
How do you balance your inspiration to write new songs with your quest to sing and nurture old traditional folk songs?
Sometimes you find an old tune so good you can use it several times for different purposes. Richard Farina used an old English melody that I used for a song against the Vietnam War. (hums a melody)
What role did your musicologist dad play in your career choice?
A very big influence. At ages eight, nine and ten, we'd go off on long hikes together and talk as we were walking along. When I was younger I loved his nutty stories that he made up off the top of his head. He'd say, "What if that tree over there had ears, and said `I heard that man say he would like to chop me down. Why couldn't I grow smaller?' And the tree prays to the lord and says, `please let me grow smaller.' For some reason that tree doesn't seem to be as tall as it used to be."
He was a brilliant scholar and writer, though he only put out one book, a collection of papers that he produced for the Society of Musicologists. The last chapter in the book was on the non-folkness of the folk and the folkness of the folk. The last paragraph: Thus we may see that musically speaking, the population of the United States may be divided up into two classes. This was a joke about Marxists. One that does know it is a folk and the other does not think that it is a folk. But they are both folk of one sort of another.
I remember at age nine he told me that a rich person could live cheaper then a poor person. "What do you mean?" I asked him. "Well, take rent for example. The average person pays rent all of his life, but if you can get far enough ahead of the game and can buy a place, taxes will never be as much as rent is." Which is one of the reasons I found this 17 1/2 acres for $1,750. It was so steep that people would look at it from below and say it was too steep to build on. But I climbed up the little cliff and saw it leveled off for a half an acre and went back and told Toshi I found a place that we could afford.
My father was the one who started me thinking about radicals. In 1929, like a lot of people, he thought the crash was the end of the free enterprise system. He started a group called the Composers Collective. Aaron Copeland was a member and Marc Blitzstein and half a dozen others. They were trying to think of what kind of music this new social situation demanded. However, their efforts were almost laughably failures. They went in for dissident, counterpoint Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and so on. The working people were quite uninterested in learning their songs.
My father brought Aunt Molly around to the Composers Collective, and they listened to her and said, "but Charlie, this is all music from the past, we are supposed to be composing music for the future." He took Molly back to her apartment on the Lower East Side and he said, "Molly I am sorry they did not understand you but I know some young people who are going to want to learn your songs." And I was one of them!
(sings) I am a union woman, as brave as I can be,
I do not like the bosses and the bosses don't like me.
How have you seen the community of Beacon change over the years having lived here for 60 years?
It was a very conservative little factory town. Then about 28 years ago, there was a race riot in the high school and a man came up from New York City to help advise the city on how to cool it, and he said "you have a nice main street, have you ever thought of having some kind of a block party here?" Some women decided to do the job, calling it `The Spirit of Beacon Day,' and it is the last Sunday of September every year. It starts with a parade that at first lasted just a few minutes. Last year the parade went on for an hour! Everybody wants to be in the parade. Last year there were 10,000 people in the parade, and there are only 14,000 people in the town!
If we turned back time, what would your older self advise your younger self?
Don't join the Communist Party. Be friendly, but advise them that they are going to be in trouble if they don't talk about and make decisions as a group. Don't just take the orders from above. I think it was Lenin's basic mistake.
Lenin said we lost the revolution of 1905 because we are not disciplined and that if we are disciplined like an army, we will win the next revolution. It's true, they took power, but if it hadn't been Stalin, somebody else would have done it. If you don't have freedom of the press, freedom to meet and talk and argue, sooner or later you will be in big trouble.
They wouldn't have agreed with me. They'd have said, "You are either with us or against us. Does that man Woody Guthrie agree with you?" I would say, "No, he is in the hospital..." They would have argued with Woody too if they'd had the chance. I would have argued with them, but then they did some wonderful things. After all, they saved the lives of the Scottsboro Boys. They helped Paul Robeson.
If I'd known then what I know now, I would have worked to see that someone like Dr. King came along. He really turned my thinking around.
How did Dr. King turn your thinking around?
When you face an opponent over a broad front, you don't aim at your opponent's strong points. People say, why did he waste time trying to get a seat on the bus, why didn't he spend time working for jobs or education or housing or voting. Those are things worth fighting for.
He took on the view that you don't aim for your opponent's strong points, you take on something to the side. You win it, you capture it, and then you go on to something else. They made some mistakes in Albany, Georgia, and when they went to Birmingham, they did not repeat them.
He'd get one group to talk and the other to ask questions and then the others would talk and the first ones would ask questions, and after two or three days they would finally reach an agreement on what they were going to do. Because he said "if we don't work together we are not going to succeed-but if we do work together, we can win this."
In Albany, they tried to fight the business men as well as the police. But in Birmingham, they split the police from the businessmen. A lot of businessmen said, "Hey we are losing a lot of money here..." Bull Connor ran the city, and he was so stupid as to sick the dogs on the black kids. When that was on television news, people said, "We didn't know things like this would happen in America." They hadn't realized how brutal Jim Crow could be. When you saw a lynching, you probably realized how brutal Jim Crow could be.
Did you know there were 6,000 lynchings between 1890 and 1920? Interesting that 1,000 were white people, like the Jew who was head of a small company in Atlanta. A girl had been raped and folks said, "oh it was the boss who raped her," and he was lynched. That was a famous case around WWI.
You once said you were a Communist like the average Indian would be and your view on Communism involved nothing that wouldn't fit in the constitution. In today's North America, what does being a Communist mean to you?
After I dropped out of college in 1938, I joined an artist group, part of the Youth Communist League making posters. I drifted out of the Communist Party in the early 1950s. When I was handing out flowers at this past Memorial Day someone asked me "Seeger are you a Communist?" and I said "it depends of the description." I became one at age seven and in a sense I still am one. I would like to see a world with no millionaires.
Communism means different things to different people. Some communists hate our government and want our government to be like what it was under Stalin. On the other hand, an anthropologist will refer to tribal communism. An ex-Trotskyist will say Trotsky would have done it right whereas Stalin did it wrong. I am not sure that he would have been able to because he was still relying on guns.
He wasn't into non-violence.
Did I ever recite you the poem written by Lee Hayes, called, "To Know Good Will?" He only had a few months to live. He had diabetes and died in his 60's. I visited him and this poem was on his piano. Maybe he was trying to think of a tune for it. I tried to think of a tune but couldn't. But I said, "Lee, could I have a copy of this poem?" and he said, "Oh, take it." Lee had a large sense of self-criticism. He tore up all books that he had written. He felt they were no good. Here is his poem:
If I should one day die by violence, please take this as my written will. And in the name of simple, common sense, treat my destroyer only as one ill, as one who needed more than I could give, as one who never really learned to live in peace and joy and love of life, but was diseased and plagued by hate and strife. My vanished life might have some meaning still when my destroyer learns to know good will.
He wrote plays, wrote short stories, novels and even humorous detective stories for the Ellery Queen magazine.
Do you think protest music has changed since the 60's?
I don't know enough because I don't listen to records, but my guess is that there are many, many different kinds now, some slow and serious. Some are loud and shouting, or satirical.
It seems key to successful folk songs, it helps when they bounce in your mind repeatedly.
On the other hand, one of the most famous songs in the world - written 400 years ago - you don't call it a folk song, but it is. It was written by a man in Ireland. He was a blind harper named Rory Dall O'Cahan. In the 17th century, 400 years ago, up in North Ireland a whole batch of his cousins were slaughtered when Castlecary fell to the English and he wrote a tune in memory of them. For 300 years it was known as O'Cahan's Lament - a famous tune that people will occasionally try to put words to it but it was discouraged. It has all the meaning you want: Don't forget, don't forget, don't forget. An English composer in our country, O'Cahan's Lament... And then in the 1890's, a woman in London put out a book, Irish Traditional Airs. And now she gave it a name, The Londonderry Air. And an English lawyer put the words of Oh Danny Boy to it, which is now known around the world, not just in Ireland. A very long melody. No repetition in it except a kind of an echo. The musical phrases relate to each other. It is called an inner design. (Sings) Oh Danny boy ... and rhythmic. Sing it quite slowly. It is a minute and 15 seconds long and not many tunes are that long. Most are 15-20 seconds long. Skip to Ma Loo is only 20 seconds.
What was it like playing up on the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall for the Obama inauguration?
These big things, I tend to be against them, but Bruce Springsteen is such a very nice guy. He is very honest and he says we have arranged everything and you don't need to think about anything except singing one song and they let me sing the verses which had been cut out of the school song books.
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple,
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wishing,
Is this land made for you and me.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, it said private property.
But on the back side it didn't say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway.
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
Why was singing these verses so important to you?
These were the original verses which Woody had written. He sang them several different ways. He sang them sometimes, no trespassing is the sign. That is the way his son Arlo does it. The way I learned it is how he wrote it, mentioning private property. He rhymed `stop me' with `private property.' Then the last verse I sang he wrote afterwards, but he taught this to Arlo.
Arlo was about seven, and Woody had gotten out of the hospital on the weekend to visit his family. He said, "Arlo, they are singing my song, but they left out three of the best verses.'" Woody sang those and taught Arlo, "Nobody living can ever stop me." Down there in Washington I did not have to think about food or transportation or anything else, I just had to memorize those six verses.
What impressed you about that event?
What I recall is the freezing dress rehearsal the day before. It was January 17th at 7:30 pm at night. My hands were frozen and we sang that song three times through for every cameraman to know exactly where and when they were to aim the cameras and every microphone person to know where to take the microphone when and where. I was amazed at how well it was organized.
You mentioned you have reassessed Abraham Lincoln's administration, why?
I did not realize what a job he had to do. I read this book about Lincoln and the team of rivals he put together. The men of his cabinet really disapproved of each other. One was more against slavery and the other would be quite willing to go along with slavery. Lincoln tried to keep the whole coalition together. The Republican party was a coalition of dissatisfied Democrats and some abolitionists, some people who were not involved in slavery at all.
Lincoln pulled together this coalition and then three years into the war they started bringing in the black troops. I didn't know how horrible the draft riots were, the Irish didn't want to be drafted. If when you came over here, you had $300, you pay that and you didn't have to be drafted. In other words rich people didn't get drafted. The Irish blame that on the Africans and have a whole batch lynched in New York City. This went on for several weeks and then finally Lincoln found a way to cool them down, to end the draft riots, which was to bring the Republican coalition together.
They were all ambitious people. At least three of them thought they should be president and if they did not win the nomination on the first ballot, they would win it on the second and Lincoln purposely kept himself in the background. He did not run against it on the first and he did not run against it on the second ballot. But on the 3rd ballot, he all of a sudden came forward and all sorts of people said, "Well this is a good compromise." Chase makes enemies and Seward made some enemies and Bates had made some enemies but Lincoln would say a word here and a word there and he was able to pull together that coalition that would win an election. Some of them were dissatisfied Democrats and some of them were former WICs, who became Republicans who were not really against slavery, but some up in New England, all against slavery and Chase, out in Ohio, was very much against segregation. He made some enemies, even in Ohio.
The Emancipation Proclamation had been on his desk for months and people were wondering, "Is he ever going to sign it?" He finally figured out the exact wording and the exact right time, but even he was surprised with the enthusiasm when he finally signed it. He got much stronger support than anybody had believed. Even he was surprised how enthusiastic people were once he had signed it. That is of course when black troops sang "When John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave." And Harriet Beecher Stowe was leaning out the window listening to this great melody. Curiously, the melody was written by a preacher in Georgia. (sings) But John Brown's Body and Beecher Stowe's got the enthusiasm and it is still sung.
(sings slowly) The beauty of the lily's crushed across the sea...
Do you have any method for plugging into your muse for the songwriting?
No. Sometimes when you most want to write a song, you can't think of a thing. On the other hand, I wrote that song, that funny little song about if you can't be reduced, because I had a cold for four days and I could not speak to anybody. I had a bad sore throat and my feet were up in the air for four days and I put the words on the wall. I stuck them with a thumbtack to the wall - three feet from the right of my head - and by gosh, at the end of four days, I had a song and have sung it for a wide variety of audiences now.
(sings) Can't be reduced, reused, repaired...refurbish, refinish, resold, recycled or composted...
Same chords over and over. From a D chord to a D chord to a D chord. Then G chord to a C chord to a D chord. Repeated.
You have had a long time love affair and relationship with this Hudson River. Can you tell me about your first encounter and what inspired your long time commitment?
I was learning how to sail. A teenager taught me how to sail when I had a job on Cape Cod at midnight. He took me out in a little ten foot boat and showed me the aim is not how fast you go but that you sail at all. It is a game with the wind and the waves. And the wind can be coming. Well in this case, it is coming, more or less North now - trying to blow me south, but if I use the sails right, I can go northwest. I can go northeast, northwest and the very power of the wind - I can sail right into it. And that is life too. Dr. King would zig and zag and land in jail but more contributions would come in.
You use this as a metaphor for social movements, but what of your boat ride?
I was trying to learn to sail. We got a little plastic boat went out and bought myself one and Toshi says, "You sure you are safe all by yourself?" I said I would stay out of the main current so I wouldn't get hit. I will stay near the shore but I forgot to pull up the centerboard when I anchored to go to sleep for a while and I woke up because the centerboard had hit the bottom and it was just hooked on. I had to swim under the boat and lift the centerboard up and stick it in the slot again and hook it up.
But when I went to sleep, the sun turned slowly from yellow to orange to red to purple to midnight black and I wrote a song:
(sings) Sailing down this golden river...sun and water all my own."
But then I saw lumps of this and that and toilet paper floating by and thought of James Gailbraith's great phrase, "private affluence, public squalor." I had enough money to buy this boat but I was sailing through shit. That is when a friend of mine said, "Pete, they used to have sailboat sloops on the Hudson River 70 feet long." I said, oh don't give me that. He loaned me a the book written by a man named Beacon a little more than 100 years ago. I think it was 1907 and in it were the most beautiful boats we've had and they will never be seen again. Steam had taken over the river business and railroads had taken the passengers. That is when I stayed up until 2 o'clock in the morning writing a seven-page, single paged letter, saying if we can find those that have that kind of money and get the government and people together, we can build a replica of one of these boats. Not a half size replica, a full size replica. That was the most important decision, that it be a full size and just the mere size of it holds 50 kids on board!
You once told me that it is your proudest accomplishment.
Well it is just one. It is the exception. My head, my life is full of grand ideas which never have worked out.
Rather than dwell on that, let's look at the ones that did work out for you.
Clearwater worked out.
I liked your idea to construct a swimming structure in the Hudson River.
I met a woman in New York who had the same idea. She came up here and designed one and now we have one, what we call a river pool.
You helped to catalyze that? And the river pool has been around for several years now?
No, only actually one year. Last year it was in the river for two months, and worked out. About 1000 kids swam in it. It has netting underneath it and on the sides, keeping anyone from escaping and getting drowned, and it goes up and down with the tide. Our hope now is to build a big river pool so someone can swim 75 foot laps. It celebrates the fact that the river is now swimable. It was not very swimable 40 years ago.
Now the Clearwater campaign is 40 years old and the river is much cleaner.
But the problem is, us land lovers made some mistakes. Forty years ago, the board of directors told the captain, "those people are calling us dirty hippies. Wash that deck ten times a day if necessary. Keep it clean, clean, clean." And down in New York City, they swabbed it with salt water. Up north they swabbed it with fresh water. Salt water pickles wood and fresh water rots it. Some leaked through the deck and caused rot below.
Five years after the boat was built, we had to spend $80,000 to tear the bow out. We tore the stern out too. Replaced some beams under the deck. Some rot was started way, way down near the keel, but it wasn't bad enough 35 years to go to our tearing the boat apart but now, 35 years later, the boat has to be torn apart all the way down to the keel and repaired or the boat will rot away; won't be able to sail anymore. Now have to raise millions. Everything is going up - how much has inflation gone up in 40 years?
The thought then was $100,000. It might be a million dollars now.
It seems like the past 40 years have sort of been, as my friend John Perry Barlow has said, a war between the 1950's and the 1960's. Do you think there is some truth there?
I call them the frightened 50's and the scintillating 60's. After the 60's were over, I think one of the mistakes of the 60's, and I told the young people this, was you think you can have a revolution with just young people? You need to have all ages. I failed to get either Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman to agree with me. They wanted me to come out to Chicago in 1968. They said "You're the only older person we want to have out there." I asked, "Why don't you want to have older people out there?" And they said, "Well we are going to carry this through ourselves." I think they were wrong.
I think that is one of the lessons. We now use all ages. Teenagers working with grandparents working with kids ten years old. There wasn't a lot of publicity, people thought, "Oh there is nothing happening in the 70's," but the women's movement took over and this may be, in the long run, the most important one. I think worldwide, the woman's movement is the one we should expect saves the world.
Why do they hate those people so. They are our distant cousins. They love their babies just like we love our babies. It is true; they got killers among them, just like we have killers amongst us. They got drunkards among them just like we got drunkards amongst us. We got insane people as well as they do. My older brother says at 11 years old, he can cure a bully. I have to get together with him and find out how you cure a bully. I think it is by giving them experiences and he sees how people really like him when he does something nice and does something generous; they may be scared of him but he does something powerful. They help me, they make me feel good. They admire me and I do something generous. Now, could scientists find out how to identify a bully? And cure them when they are only 3-4 years old? I think probably, he will be much more particular about beating kids. If you treat your kid so that force is the only thing..."you don't listen to me, so I'll show you! Whack!"
I once lied to my father when I was five years old and he got down on his knees and said, "Remember Peter, we love you. It is perfectly okay if you spent that money on candy. We love you. You don't ever have to lie to us."
Speaking of your father, when he was 90, he said to you something that really stuck out in your mind about scientists and their view that....
Scientists think that an infinite increase in empirical information is a good thing. Can they prove it? Of course they cannot. It is a religious belief. Something they feel must be true. They can't prove that it is true.
How do you assess his statement now 50 years later?
Right after that he turned to me with his wry smile and said, "Of course, if I'm right Pete, perhaps the committee that told Galileo to shut up is correct." All you can do is laugh. Hegel says there was always thesis. There was always anti-thesis and there is always synthesis, and the synthesis is in the song, "Turn, Turn, Turn."
Now I talk with deeply religious people whenever I have a chance and say to them, "When you come to a curve, do you look up into the sky and say, `God, it is dangerous crossing the streets, will you please see to it that I don't get hit?'" No! You look to the left; you look to the right and if there is no car coming, you cross. Use the brains God gave you. If we use the brains God gave us, there will still be a human race here after years, but if all we do is say, God will you please save the human race? Won't you please send me to heaven? And this world comes to hell.
Prayers alone are not going to do it.
That is why I quote Alfred North Whitehead, whose famous essay, "Aims of Education," says all education should be religious. My father thought he was talking about science. Religious education in both cases, duty and reverence. That is a good definition. All religion has duty and reference. Here is his definition: duty arises because of a potential control over the course of events and the source of reverence lies in this perception that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, forwards and backwards and great amplitude of time, which is eternity. When I clap my hands that is because of cause and effect for all eternity and it disturbs molecules which disturbs other molecules and which disturbs other molecules for all eternity. Human self is the complete sum of existence.
That is profound Pete.
You can help determine this by a sense of duty. I try to sing the songs that people will take to heart, maybe want to sing later on themselves. I am absolutely delighted. You know the songs by the kids in school. They like this song, which I felt was just kind of a private personal song: the Darkness before the Dawn. You know the song? You know it is darkest before the dawn. (sings) Trying to cheer myself up.
Have you been heartened by this new wave of environmentalism?
Yes! And I heard just today that that Obama has appointed Van Jones to some job in Washington.
Yes. As of last month. He is now working for the Obama's Council of Environmental Quality as an advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. You have become a big fan of Van Jones and his Green Job's campaign. Do you think his notions are the best vehicle to get us towards a peace-time economy beyond war?
Wonderful things. I mistrust the word THE. The answer. The solution. The Savior. The End. The beginning.
Do you find him pretty inspiring?
I recommend his book to everybody. Especially young people. I am hoping to get the chance to speak to the high school kids here and tell them, "You are always being asked questions by grownups. Why don't you act better? Why don't you do this and that?" I think that teenagers should think about questions to ask grownups. Why is it that you do certain things? Why do grownups think they know all the answers? And I think they would find out they don't all think they know that. Many of them are deeply insecure and probably taking it out on you because you are helpless.
You have really invested a lot of time with young people. You must get a lot back from seeing all of their positive reactions. Many of the themes in your songs talk about civic involvement and activism and because you yourself have been out being an activist, it comes easy for you to convey that to others.
This is a poem the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney of Ireland wrote:
When I landed in the republic of conscience.
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared
Fog is a dreaded omen there, but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunder storms
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
The hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved
It is a great poem, a truly great poem.
How have you seen the content of popular commercial songs change?
During the 1930's, the Establishment had music quite under its control. Hit songs came out of Broadway or Hollywood. A few people down South listened to what they called the Hillbilly and the Race catalogues of the record companies. And the Race catalogues were either gospel or the blues. Jimmy Rogers and the Singing Brakemen, who yodeled, that was the Hillbilly catalogue. Bluegrass didn't come in until the 1950's. Bluegrass and rock and roll and Motown all came in, and the songs that everybody listens to have really been out of control since then. Up until then they were pretty much under control by the Establishment, including the songs that the kids learned in school.
"This Land is Your Land" became popular after Woody recorded it for a tiny label called Folkways, maybe 1,000 copies sold, but music teachers in New York liked it so much they got the kids in New York singing it, and then a textbook publisher who was putting out a new book of songs thought, well, kids like this song, we'll put it in. The song was never sold in any music store, it was never played on the radio, it was never played on TV. But 15 or 20 years later, everybody in America knew it because the kids brought the song home with them.
I am sure since then the Establishment has been much more careful about what songs are put in school songbooks. Now I hear they are trying to get rid of music in schools. But there are now not dozens but hundreds of people going into schools with guitars, musicians who just like to sing for kids. Even though there is no money in it. There is even an organization called Guitar Pickers in the Schoolroom.
What is your sense of the evolution of Hillbilly music into Country music?
Country music was called hillbilly music back 80 years ago. They had what was the Hillbilly catalogue for Victor and other companies. The race catalogue was for blues and gospel music. But they found that down South, they weren't buying the music made in New York, so they put a machine and set it up in a hotel room and he would advertise, "pay $25 for anything I accept" and next morning there would be a line of people in the hotel hallway and maybe nine out of ten - "sorry, can't use your song" - or one would be good, and they'd take it and that is how Mississippi John Hurt was recorded and Doc Bogs and a whole batch of people.
Back in the `20s, Ralph Peters was one of the people. Not everybody in America likes to buy records of New York music, but they had gotten music down there that they liked and that they will buy. Then the people in Nashville decided they could record it too and Nashville declared its independence and then Motown declared its independence. Now of course, there are independent people everywhere. Such that music stores are closing down and record stores are closing down all over the country just like bookstores are closing down all around the country.
What is your take about the future of the music industry?
Nobody knows. I hope that it doesn't become completely chaotic.
What is the Campaign for Public Domain Reform?
When somebody puts new words to an old tune, it might be a 1000-year old tune from some little country somewhere in the world like I did with Abiyoyo. I think some of the copyrighted money should go to the place and the people where the original tune came from. In order to see that it works, I have proposed that every country in the world, all the United Nations and the other countries have what we call a public domain committee of people who know music and you wouldn't bother them with any song that gets written with 10,000 songs that are written every week, but if a song starts earning some money, it comes to their attention and they should distribute some of the money. Might be one percent, might be 50 percent, might be more. That money could go to that country and people. Even the USA could have a public domain committee.
In the case of Abiyoyo, I rewrote the contract with the publisher to send 50 percent of the royalties to the part of South Africa where that melody came from. It is from the Xhosa people of Port Elizabeth. Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa. They have several dozen kinds of clicks in their language. Miriam Makeba just sang one click song, Uqongqothwane. It means beetle, a dung beetle. Some dung in the road. She could click so loud you could hear it 100 yards away. Abiyoyo is a Xhosa lullaby. In New York, a nice little organization called WooBooToo started. WooBooToo means shares in the Xhosa language and they raise money for scholarships and libraries in Port Elizabeth or in the region where Xhosa live all around there.
The Xhosa claim that they originated way in northeast Africa, but at the same time, people started going around and getting crowded up there. They went down the eastern coast of Africa to the very southern corner, oh 1,000 years ago or so. I had one meeting and we had 70 people discussing the idea for campaign for public domain reform and some were managers of performers, some were songwriters, some were publishers and all they were all interested, but could not find any agreement on what to do.
I sent a description of the idea to the Whitehall office, the Geneva Switzerland office for the World Committee for Intellectual Property and they keep up with the different copyright rules in different nations. They think copyright should go on down through the family forever, so this family is still trying to collect on some Italian composer of 400 years ago.
In the beginning, when the copyright laws first passed, I think things passed into public domain in about ten years and Thomas Jefferson said that is long enough to profit from it, from writing a book or something and then it should be public domain. Later, in the 19th century they gradually lengthened it and when I was young, it used to be 25 years, I think. Recently, the Disney company got it increased because Mickey Mouse was going to be public domain and so it is now at 75 years.
To what do your credit your long and successful union with Toshi?
Her patience with me. She is really the secret of the family. I have had this lifelong problem of starting projects which I don't find time to finish. Sometimes projects work out so well that other people carry them on. That's what happened with Clearwater.
Toshi describes you as stubborn. But of course, she has her own biased perspective, having lived with you for 64 years. How would you describe Pete Seeger in brief?
A compromiser. I compromised all my life in one way or another.
In your creative life, how have you compromised?
I borrow here and borrow there, sometimes giving credit and sometimes forgetting to give it. Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays were the two geniuses I knew. And Toshi the third.
Are they really golden years?
Right now no, this is the most difficult time either of us, Toshi or I have ever had. The phone ringing every few minutes, "Won't you come down and sing to us? Won't you come and accept an award? Won't you say a few words about my book? Won't you say a few words about my CD?"
I was protected from this for most of my life by my "left" reputation, but now I have blown my cover.
You are at a certain crest in your life.
I am worth money.
I think it is the spirit that you've embraced that people value more than the money. So many of the causes and issues you have helped champion celebrate their successes in part because of the efforts of you and your folk singing colleagues.
I look upon myself as a link in the chain. I learned from Woody Guthrie just like he learned from others. I have been a sower of seeds. I have written a lot of songs about that. I am sure a lot of teachers have seen themselves as sowers of seeds.
Jesus says in all the gospels besides John, the story of the parable of the sower, slightly different words, but it is basically the same. Some seeds fall on stones, don't even sprout, but some seeds fall on fallow ground and multiply one hundred fold.
Images by Jim Capaldi, from the Hudson River Clearwater Festival in 2008. Used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.