Pete Seeger is probably one of the most appreciated folksingers of all time. For me he’s always been like a wise, old friend — the archetypal folksinger, with his greying beard, his raspy, sincere voice, and his old banjo with the words “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” emblazoned on it. Listening to Pete Seeger showed me that there was much more to music than the rock and roll I was brought up on.
He sings an amazing variety of songs, borrowing from other writers, cultures, and a whole spectrum of musical styles. There are hopeful songs (but never naive), wise songs (but never preachy), and songs that are just plain fun. They all get thrown together in the great mixing bowl of his concerts and end up flowing into each other beautifully. It’s easy to believe Pete when he sings, “Split wood, not atoms,” and to be swept up in his great affirmation, “We Shall Overcome.” These aren’t idle opinions, but sincere convictions firmly rooted in his experience.
There is never any of the usual celebrity distance between Pete Seeger and his audience. His concerts become sing-a-longs, a found harmony between the singer, the songs, and the audience. Says Seeger, “I figure my main function in life is that of a catalyst, bringing some good people together with some good songs.”
Since the days of traveling with Woody Guthrie as singers and union organizers, Seeger has consistently worked and sung for what he believes in. Although he denies it whenever possible, Seeger has made immeasurable contributions both to the world of music and to the world music lives in. It’s been a sharing process — he learns songs from the people he meets in his travels, and passes them on. “America,” he once wrote, “has as many different kinds of music as there are folks.”
In the early Fifties, he teamed up with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman to form The Weavers. Their enormous popularity and hit songs like Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” helped to bring folk music back into the popular spotlight and to set the stage for the coming folk revival in the Sixties.
His outspoken defense of humanitarian and social causes earned him the label of communist during the McCarthy witch-hunts, and he was blacklisted from much of the commercial media. His reply to the charges: “I guess I’m about as communist as the average American Indian.”
In the Sixties, Seeger was a familiar figure in the civil rights and peace movements. More recently, he has devoted himself to environmental work. He helped to found the Clamshell Alliance in Seabrook, New Hampshire, one of the first anti-nuclear groups in the country. He is well known in the New York area as an inspiring force behind the Clearwater, a careful reproduction of an 1850 cargo sloop on which musicians and environmentalists have sailed the Hudson river for twelve years, educating people about the great river and the hard task of making it swimmable again. Seeger makes his home on the river, in a log cabin he built with his wife Toshi in Beacon, New York.
When I think of Pete Seeger, I’m always drawn back to his songs, for they embody all that he has worked for.
“Whatever I believe can be easily deduced from my songs . . . [They] can’t help but reflect my feelings about people, the world, peace, freedom . . . I’m about as right as my songs are, and as wrong.”
He’s recorded more than 80 albums, alone and with friends, and has written such memorable songs as “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “If I Had A Hammer.”
This interview was conducted after a concert he gave last April 5 for the benefit of the Flat Rock Brook Nature Center in Englewood, New Jersey.
— Howard Rubin
On stage I’m relatively well prepared, because I’ve been doing this for forty-five years. . . . In average life I’m stumbling half the time.
SUN: Every time I see you I’m amazed by how much energy you put out and it’s contagious. Pretty soon everybody’s singing along.
SEEGER: The concerts give me energy. It’s a physical fact: the way to get energy is to get your blood circulating. If I’m sitting in the house, on the telephone, trying to write letters, and I start feeling no energy, I go out and chop wood or do something to get my blood running. The modern age may be easy on the muscles but it’s hard on the nervous system. The happiest people are usually those who use their muscles in some way.
SUN: Is the Peter Seeger we see on stage different from your private self?
SEEGER: On stage I’m relatively well prepared, because I’ve been doing this for forty-five years, so I know more or less what I’m doing. In average life I’m stumbling half the time.
SUN: You never sing gushing love songs, but I feel love coming through your songs. Could you talk about love?
SEEGER: I use the word as little as possible because it’s so much disagreed upon. This is the problem with a lot of words, and I think anybody who uses words better heed the advice of Alfred North Whitehead, the old English philosopher, who said, “Strive for simplicity but learn to mistrust it.” He also said, “No one should speak more clearly than he thinks.” What he is getting at is that a word is an ingenious symbol to stand for all classes of phenomena and people who use words think that other people understand them. But you remember the famous statement, I think Nixon once used it, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I say, but I’m not sure you realize that what you hear is not what I meant.”
SUN: Do you think the anti-nuclear movement has been effective?
SEEGER: It certainly is effective. The establishment doesn’ t want to admit it, but the rallies and marches and songs have had an effect. The country is realizing that nuclear power is not what it was cracked up to be. It’s going to take a while before we really put it out of the way, because nuclear power is closely tied into nuclear weapons and there’s a large sector of the establishment that doesn’t want to put nuclear weapons away. Curiously enough, it’s an albatross around their neck. People are so scared and rightly scared of nuclear weapons, they don’t want to see any kind of war get started which could escalate and wipe us all out. So although we live in very dangerous times I find them fascinating and even hilarious.
It’s hard to say exactly what a song does, or what a word does, until long after. For example, a woman named Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring in 1961, I think. And it sold 100,000 copies at most, and two years later you might have said, well, it really didn’t make much difference, they’re still using DDT, but today DDT is being phased out, and looking back, you could say it was largely her book that started the worldwide realization that we had to stop using it.
The world is going to be saved by people who fight for their homes, whether they’re fighting for the block where they live in the city, or a stretch of mountain or river.
SUN: You think we’re really making progress in this fight against pollution?
SEEGER: To a certain extent, we kid ourselves by thinking we are having successes. Perhaps we are only slowing down inevitable disaster. It’s perfectly possible. T.S. Eliot says, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” Maybe we’ll just poison ourselves to death. On the other hand, who knows? We have made progress. The middle Hudson is swimmable now, where it was not swimmable ten years ago. And now the Clearwater is trying to organize a petition campaign, in New Jersey and New York State, to demand that the cleanup be continued, not slowed down simply because Reagan wants to balance the budget a little better. There are lots of ways he can balance the budget. It’s going to take about one billion dollars more to complete the sewage plants along the Hudson and that’s a lot of money. It’s five dollars for every man, woman, and child in the USA. But we spend a couple of billion dollars on skiing, we spend a couple of billion dollars on T-bone steaks and fancy foods, we spend more than a couple of billion dollars on vacation homes for our well-to-do people, several billion dollars on pleasure boating, and trips. Don’t let anybody tell you that America cannot afford one billion dollars to make the water that flows past the Statue of Liberty swimmable again.
SUN: Speaking of Reagan, many people are wondering about the next few years. I heard one congressman suggest we may need media-censorship if we get more involved in El Salvador. Having gone through such difficult times in the McCarthy era, do you think we might be coming upon a similar period?
SEEGER: I’m glad to say that he’s not going to get away with it. They’re going to try their best to censor and, to a certain extent, the media is always under pressure to censor, but one of the greatest battles that the American people have fought in the last thirty years has been against censorship.
SUN: Hopefully the days of any kind of blacklist have ended, but has it really gotten easier for a so-called controversial singer?
SEEGER: Easier, but there’s in a sense a blacklist all the time as long as you have well-to-do people owning the radio stations and the printing presses. Don’t think that the blacklist only existed in the 1950s. It existed long before then and long after it.
SUN: At a civil rights rally once at Duke University somebody gave you a rock that you put in your case to use if someone ever said they wouldn’t cover a story just because it had no violence. Have you ever had cause to take that rock out?
SEEGER: I’ve never thrown it yet. I still carry it in the case.
SUN: How far do you think we’ve come since those first civil rights marches?
SEEGER: We’ve come a long way. One reason racism seems to be more of a problem is at last it’s out in the open. Racism has been there all along. It’s an old, old human problem, that’s been with us for thousands of years, and it’s in every country of the world in one form or another. Some have solved it in one way and not solved it in other ways. The French used to insult the Spaniards by saying Africa begins at the Pyrenees. And the English would insult the French by saying Africa begins at the English Channel. As though there’s something bad about being African. Language is full of words that are racist in origin. Black is bad. Black-hearted. Blacklist. And these are in all European languages, and you don’t get rid of these words quickly.
SUN: Working with words is hard. I write songs, but they often seem naive or coy when I’m just trying to be positive.
SEEGER: Remember that it’s better to show than tell. And tell a story. The best songs I know tell a story. Start a dialogue. But learn from the old songs. The best old songs are not just editorials in rhyme, they paint a picture, they tell a story, make a scene, a dialogue, and I am glad to see a lot of people trying to write songs, but they have to realize writing a good song is extremely difficult. Even well-known songwriters end up having written only two or three songs which outlast them.
SUN: What would you say is the most important work we have to do right now?
SEEGER: It’s working within one’s home community. We know that the big job is to save the world, but where do you start? I’m convinced that if we are unable to work in our home communities, the job is not going to be done. The world is going to be saved by people who fight for their homes, whether they’re fighting for the block where they live in the city, or a stretch of mountain or river. But unless they can fight within their own communities I think they’re kidding themselves. Jesus asked how can you love God whom you have not seen if you don’t love your neighbor whom you have seen? Similarly I would ask how can you save the world you have not seen if you can’t save the community which you have seen?
SUN: Are you as hopeful about saving the world as you once were?
SEEGER: I’m hopeful in that I think there’s a chance for the human race, but I’m not as hopeful as I used to be. Every year the scientists and technicians invent easier and easier ways by which we can kill ourselves off.
SUN: You’ve sung about the hard task of separating the false from the true. Do you find yourself needing to revise many of your old beliefs in light of new experience?
SEEGER: Always. I’m an old revisionist. I think anybody who doesn’t revise his beliefs is kidding himself. We’re always learning new things. Once upon a time they said that whatever goes up comes down. And then they figured out a way to send rockets past the sun into space.
SUN: Are there as many people interested in folk, or home-made music, today compared with its commercial heyday in the Sixties?
SEEGER: More than ever. There’s millions of Americans making music. Technology has made a few people very well known, much better known than they should be, and there’s a whole lot of other people who once would have been able to make a living making music for their community. Now they’re lucky if they can find an audience. But there are people making music everywhere, even if it’s just three friends that get together with some beer and spend an evening making music.
The commercial music business is a horror; it’s about as bad as the drug scene. People are told they must make it big when they’re young or they’ll never make it. Terrible.
The commercial music business is a horror; it’s about as bad as the drug scene.
SUN: Do you see the drug scene as a problem?
SEEGER: My guess is it’s a pretty damn big problem. Especially in many cities. Frankly, I look on the so-called drug scene as part of a much bigger drug scene. Technology has made it possible for people to take pills, or get some quick fix. People think of drugs as heroin or marijuana. To a certain extent, drugs are also the rich food, the comforts, the petroleum. The USA is hooked on petroleum. The Bible says, “Lead me not into temptation,” but every year scientists invent new temptations and they are advertised, advertised, advertised. People go to school to learn how to be good advertisers.
SUN: How many years have you been playing for people?
SEEGER: I’m an incorrigible showoff. I must have been singing ever since I was three years old. And when I was eight years old my friend and I gave a concert of sea-shanties. I was in the school jazz band. I never intended to make a living as a musician. I wanted to be a journalist. I’ve been singing for a living since 1938.
SUN: What did you do in the years when you were not making enough money to eat?
SEEGER: I was making enough money to eat. I ate very simply. I spent a couple of years hitchhiking around the country. I didn’t have enough money to pay rent, I’ve slept outdoors and slept on other people’s floors, but you can make a dollar go a long way if you’re not trying to eat in restaurants. Over at the shed where we’re building this boat, I usually try to bring some food to feed everybody, and one time I’ll bring a sack of potatoes, and two dollars worth of potatoes can feed a dozen people. We put them in the fire, and all we need to add to them is a little salt. And we’ve got great baked potatoes flavored by the ashes. My wife can take fifty-nine cents worth of beans and feed ten people with bean soup. She knows how to flavor it with onions and garlic and a few other things. Even today my wife feeds our whole family on a fantastically low amount because we hardly ever eat meat. Probably in any one month, we don’t get more than a quarter pound of meat. And that’s usually when I stop somewhere for a hamburger.
SUN: I understand that 95 out of 100 shows you did last year were benefits, is that right?
SEEGER: Arlo Guthrie and I can go out and sing for twenty thousand people and income from that will keep me going for a couple of months, so the rest of the time I can sing for free. Technology has made it possible for me to make more money than I need. And a lot of other good musicians who once would have been playing for their neighbors and fellow citizens are out of work. It’s not a good situation, it’s one of the bad side effects of technology. Every little town had its orchestra. Every community had its square dance band. Every village had its drummers. And now there’s no way they can make a living at it. They’ve got to do it for the love of it. On the other hand you have to look at the bright side. When you’re doing it for the love of it, you tend to play what you really like, not what they’re paying you to do.
You’ve got to start with where you are. To try and form your ideal community is a cop-out.
SUN: At concerts, you’re good at getting people to join in. Do you have any techniques?
SEEGER: Learn from the black preachers. The ancient African technique of oratory, or rhetoric, is full of call and response. They say something and the audience is supposed to come back. In church they say “amen.” In a political meeting they say “right on.” In an academic discussion it’s “hear hear.” But you don’t just make a series of flat statements. You say something which demands a reaction of some sort. You listen to black preachers, they have the technique down cold. They grew up with it. But you don’t learn it overnight. To get the response takes a good deal of ingenuity. You have to have a rhythm, a ring, a cadence. I bet there are magicians in Africa that do the same thing. You ask a question, maybe a rhetorical question, but you get people to make a response and their muscles move, their voice moves, or their body moves or their hands move. They take a breath in, or let it out, and so what’s going on is not just something going on in their minds, but with their bodies.
I’m flattered that you think I can say anything that hasn’t been said a million times before by other people. I would urge that the readers of THE SUN, many of whom live in North Carolina, get a little better acquainted with a man named Jesse Helms, who is giving North Carolina a bad name. Now one thing you might do is ask Jesse Helms to write something for THE SUN. Give him a chance to be heard, then when they see how ignorant and foolish a man he is, perhaps they’ll do something about it. It’s really a disgrace to North Carolina, which has a lot of wonderful people in it, that Jesse Helms is up there in Washington claiming to represent them. It hurts all America. Undoubtedly there are people like Jesse in every county of the world, who are outraged by what they see somebody else do, and they figure the way to control it is to start clamping down on freedom of speech. But America has a wonderful tradition of freedom of speech, and one reason that the United States of America is still here is that we have the First Amendment. If we didn’t, we might have gone ahead and used the atom bomb in Vietnam. And wiped out the Vietnamese. And by jingo the rest of the world would have been so horrified they would have united to put the U.S. as we know it out of business, the way the world put Hitler out of business. Unfortunately, the German people didn’t have any First Amendment.
We have many victories to come. I can’t guarantee them. As I told you I’m not as optimistic as I used to be. I saw what I thought were very shrewd people do terribly foolish things. Look at Lyndon Johnson. He won the election against Goldwater. He could have stood up on television and said, “Fellow Americans, the election is over, the electorate has spoken, let’s let the Vietnamese settle their goddamn quarrels by themselves and put American money where it’s needed, giving education and health to every American.” Instead, poor Lyndon dug his own grave. And a lot of other people’s graves too. Someone as shrewd as Lyndon could be as stupid as that; it makes you pessimistic. Because he’s supposed to know politics. And he knew America and he just went ahead. The big fools had to push on — I once wrote a song about it. But I’m optimistic on the other hand because the American people are full of energy, full of ideas, and although we’re worried, we’ve not given up. Some may be giving up, it’s true. Some are pushing needles in their arms and popping pills and some give up by saying, “Well, I’m going to get rich myself. I can’t do anything for the world, I’ll look out for number one.” But in every corner of America I see people who are concerned about the world and about their country and my only advice is work from your home the rest of your life where you were born. Wherever you decide to settle down, stick it out. Don’t let anybody say, if you don’t like it here, move somewhere else. Say, “I’ve got a right to live here, I’m going to stay here, this is my home.” I was born in New York City but my parents lived upstate, that’s where I spent all my vacations, and after World War II my wife and I moved up there and lived there 32 years and it’s source of deep pride to me. Because I’m accepted now as a member of the community, even though I’m a radical banjo-picker.
SUN: I remember reading that there was a movement against you at one point by some locals.
SEEGER: Back in 1967 my wife and I were almost run out of town. Not now. Last year I was handed a beautiful brass plaque. On Main Street of Beacon, New York. They had a municipal day celebration called The Spirit of Beacon Day. I was honored. It was the biggest honor I’ve ever gotten in my life, with my friends and neighbors. And I see it happening all over America. People are getting interested in their own communities, and realizing that they’re part of a long chain, and you can’t go ahead, go out to some idyllic place and form the kind of community you think is ideal. You’ve got to start with where you are. To try and form your ideal community is a cop-out. Somebody’s got to save every little city and big city and small hamlet in the world. And if you’re not going to save them, who is? You’re not going to save them by running away. The most foolish people in the world I think are some scientists now who say we’re going off into space to form our ideal communities. The world is lost, so we’re going to build spaceships that will orbit around the sun independently of life on earth. That’s laughable.
SUN: I get the sense that you don’t expect any kind of sudden change. That it’s a slow process.
SEEGER: Sometimes you do make a sudden change. Lloyd George once said, “Don’t be afraid of taking big steps. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.” And all of us at various times in our lives take big steps. You leave home, you get married, you have children, you get a job, you quit a job, but nations too take big steps. Sever our connection with the king of England, outlaw chattel slavery. But on the other hand, a lot of things can be done in small steps. People say if you’re going to have a decent house to live in you’re going to have to start with a new foundation. But I know very well, because I’ve done it, that you can slip a new foundation under a house. I built my own house out of logs, I’ve added to it and subtracted from it, there’s hardly a house I know that couldn’t be jacked up and improved from the bottom or from the side or from the top, and I rather suspect it’s that way with a nation. You can do a little here, a little there. During the next few years many a house is going to get solar heat. They may open up the south side of the house to more windows, they may put collectors on the roof or a windmill or a wood stove, but after five or ten years that house is going to be very different. And they didn’t do it all in one fell swoop. So it’s very possible that a hundred years from now they’ll look back and say, “Gee, things were sure different way back there in 1981.” But we couldn’t say it all changed in any one year. Some of it changed in 1984 or 1990 or whenever it was.
I’d really like to stick around to see the revolution in energy because it has tremendous implications for the world. We’re learning that not everything has to be big. Small enterprises can be very, very important. The biggest news story in America in the 1970s were the tens of thousands of local organizations that were started. Tens of thousands of local newsletters, local committees.
SUN: We have the First Amendment, yet we have to shout so loud to be heard above the mass media.
SEEGER: Actions speak louder than words. If you’re interested in eating sensible food, rather than putting out a newsletter, I think you better go right down to Main Street and sell some good food. Right out on the sidewalk. If they arrest you, fight it in court. Say, “I’m selling better food than they are in the restaurant here. I’m giving it away at half the price. How is it you put me in jail? Isn’t that ridiculous?” My wife has done more to persuade people toward healthy food not by talking about it but by cooking. She serves a thousand people what we call stone soup out of a big cauldron every year at the local food festival. People bring vegetables from their gardens, leftovers from the icebox. At the end of the day we’ve got a wonderful soup.
The printed page can help, and the electronic screen can help, and the still camera can help. But again, actions speak louder than words and to a certain extent that’s why the Clearwater is effective. It’s a nonverbal message. People look at that boat, literally millions now have seen it. They may never set foot on there but they see it from the distance and they say, “Oh yeah, those are the people who want to clean up the river. I wonder what luck they’re having?” Little by little the word gets around.