Legendary folk singer, banjo player, storyteller, and political and environmental activist Pete Seeger turned ninety on Sunday. More than 18,000 people packed New York’s Madison Square Garden Sunday celebrate the man, the music and the movement. The all-star lineup included Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Ani DiFranco, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Billy Bragg, Ruby Dee, Steve Earle, Arlo Guthrie, Guy Davis, Dar Williams, Michael Franti, Bela Fleck, Tim Robbins, Dave Matthews, Rufus Wainwright, John Mellencamp, Ben Harper, and Ritchie Havens. We speak with some of the musicians, play Seeger’s music and play excerpts from our hour-long interview with Seeger in 2004. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Legendary folk singer, banjo player, storyteller, and political and environmental activist Pete Seeger turned ninety on Sunday. More than 18,000 people packed New York’s Madison Square Garden for a night of music in his honor on Sunday night. The concert was also a benefit for an environmental group Seeger founded to preserve the Hudson River, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.
The all-star lineup included Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Ani DiFranco, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Billy Bragg, Ruby Dee, Steve Earle, Arlo Guthrie, Guy Davis, Dar Williams, Michael Franti, Bela Fleck, Tim Robbins, Dave Matthews, Rufus Wainwright, John Mellencamp, Ben Harper, and Ritchie Havens.
Pete Seeger has been an icon of American dissent and creative energy for almost seventy years. He performed with Woody Guthrie and the Weavers in the ’40s. In the ’50s, he opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He helped popularize the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He was also a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired a generation of protest singers. Later he became an important voice within the environmental and anti-nuclear movements.
Pete Seeger is now ninety years old and continues to perform and be politically active.
Bruce Springsteen, who sang Woody Guthrie’s original version of "This Land Is Your Land" with Pete Seeger at President Obama’s inauguration this year, headlined Sunday night’s concert and began with a moving tribute to Seeger.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: As Pete and I traveled to Washington for President Obama’s inaugural celebration, he told me the — he told me the entire story of "We Shall Overcome," how it moved from a labor movement song and, with Pete’s inspiration, had been adopted by the civil rights movement.
And that day, as we sang “This Land Is Your Land,” I looked at Pete. The first black president of the United States was seated to his right. And I thought of — I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. You know, my own growing up in the ’60s, a town scarred by race rioting, made that moment nearly unbelievable. And Pete had thirty extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day. It was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man. You just outlasted them. It was so nice. It was so nice.
At rehearsals the day before, it was freezing. It was like fifteen degrees. And Pete was there, he had his flannel shirt on. I said, “Man, you better wear something besides that flannel shirt!” He says, “Yeah, I’ve got my long johns on under this thing.” I said — and I asked him, I said, “How do you want to approach ‘This Land Is Your Land’?” as it’d be near the end of the show. And all he said was, “Well, I know I want to sing all the verses. You know, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, you know, about private property and the relief office.” And I thought, of course, you know, that’s what Pete’s done his whole life: he sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we’d like to leave out of our history as a people, you know?
At some point — at some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people.
Now, despite Pete’s somewhat benign grandfatherly appearance, you know, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. He carries — inside him, he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade, and it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in.
At ninety, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures, as well as shining a light towards our better angels in the horizon, where the country we’ve imagined and hold dear, we hope, awaits us. And on top of it, he never wears it on his sleeve. He’s become comfortable and casual in this immense role. He’s funny and very eccentric.
The song that — I’m going to bring Tommy out. And the song Tommy Morello and I are about to sing, I wrote it in the mid-’90s, and it started as a conversation I was having with myself. It was an attempt to regain my own moorings. And its last verse is the beautiful speech that Tom Joad whispers to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. It says, “Wherever there’s a cop beating a guy, wherever a hungry newborn baby cries, wherever there’s a fight against the blood and the hatred in the air, look for me, Mom. I’ll be there.” Well, Pete has always been there.
AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Springsteen honoring Pete Seeger on his ninetieth birthday Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. Back at the inauguration, Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Pete’s granson, sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial “This Land Is Your Land.”
PETE SEEGER: [singing with Bruce Springsteen and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger] I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, under shadow of the steeple
At the relief office, I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling
This land was made for you and me.
A great high wall there tried to stop me
A great big sign there said private property
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island...
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger at the inauguration, singing those often forgotten words of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. As we continue with the tribute to Pete Seeger on his ninetieth birthday and the celebration of his environmental group Clearwater. I’m Amy Goodman, very happy to be back in New York.
During the concert on Sunday night, Pete Seeger came backstage and took a few questions from us reporters.
REPORTER: When you were writing "My Dirty Stream," did you wonder, “Would it work?” Did you ever have doubts that things would get better on the river?
PETE SEEGER: No, I think I figured that sooner or later — I didn’t know it would happen so soon, frankly. But if the human race can keep the scientists from inventing two more foolish weapons, I think we’ve got time to solve our problems. The only question is science — scientists have a religion. They think that an infinite increase in empirical information is a good thing. Can they prove it? Of course not. It’s a religious belief. That’s science for you.
REPORTER: Hey, Pete. Down in the front here. Happy birthday, first off. What are your plans and goals for your hundredth birthday?
PETE SEEGER: I don’t expect to be around.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi, Pete. What are you proudest of accomplishing in these first ninety years? And can you start by saying your name?
PETE SEEGER: My name, I think, is Pete Seeger, but I’m losing my memory. I think the best thing I’ve ever done is stay married to an extraordinary person, who had three wonderful young people that we’ve raised and six wonderful grandchildren.
REPORTER: Hi, Pete. Back here.
PETE SEEGER: Who?
REPORTER: Hi, Pete. Back here. How are you doing? Happy birthday. Describe, if you will, what this night is like for you, to have all these great artists here honoring you.
PETE SEEGER: Well, normally I’m against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big. Look at the scalpers that got into the act with this particular evening, doubling the price of tickets. But it, needless to say, was a great honor, and these absolutely fantastic musicians.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pete Seeger behind the stage. Well, singer-songwriter Joan Baez was also there last night. I caught up with her just before she went on stage.
JOAN BAEZ: I am Joan Baez, and my first experience with Pete Seeger was weaning me from rhythm and blues, which — as my parents badly wanted to do. They were horrified. They thought all rhythm and blues singers were dope addicts, even though they didn’t know what dope addicts were. So my auntie — they spirited me away with my auntie to a Pete Seeger show. And it was like a vaccine. Either it was going to take or not. And it took.
And I loved the music, and I discovered that this man did what my family, in a sense, had done for many years, which was, having become Quakers when I was eight years old, fused everything with their politics. And this was music and politics in a way that I had never known. But it was so natural to me, his music and what he did with his life. And I understood that very quickly.
And when I found out at an early age — I don’t know if this is myth or not, but when the press went to his house for an interview at one point, that he was on the roof tacking a few of the last shingles on, and he wouldn’t come down, and he was ready. I knew this was a man I wanted to follow for his political and musical events that he did. And so, I did. There was Harry Belafonte, Odetta and Pete. And I listened to Pete’s music endlessly and heard the stories about him and learned his songs and followed him.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Joan Baez. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the all-female African American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock and one of the original members of the SNCC Freedom Singers, also talked to reporters behind stage.
DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I’m Bernice Johnson Reagon. I was born in Southwest Georgia in the country. And the first time I heard Pete Seeger was on TV with the Weavers doing the Hootenanny. But I didn’t know him as Pete Seeger.
I met him as a human being because of the Albany, Georgia civil rights movement in the 1960s. And he actually thought the singing in Southwest Georgia was so powerful that they should organize a singing group. And he talked about the Almanac Singers and the Weavers and said to Jim Forman of SNCC, “If you organized a group, you would have a group that could travel all over the country singing songs about the movement, and they might also bring financial support to the movement.” And so, Cordell Reagon, who was a SNCC field secretary, organized the first group of Freedom Singers. I was an alto, Rutha Harris was soprano, and Charles Neblett was bass. And Pete was really the person who actually identified that body of work. And in ’63, we traveled all over the country, and it — sometimes they called us the singing newspaper.
But he was really transformative in my life. And one of the important things about Pete is that he was married to a woman named Toshi. And the first time I did not go home for Christmas, I spent Christmas at the Seegers’. And Toshi booked the Freedom Singers, and I was the contact, so my foundation for the business part of music comes from Toshi Seeger. So, of course, when I had my first baby, and my baby was a girl, that girl’s name is Toshi Reagon. And so, the Seegers are powerful forces in my life and in my work.
The other thing that Seeger taught me was the idea of a working singer, that you did not have to be a star. You had to know you were a singer. You had to know what your music was. And you had to be willing to do it for the rest of your life, as long as you had voice. And people would keep up with you. They would catch up with you if you did not go away. And it was a very important model for a young singer. And as a Freedom Singer, we made $10 a week. It was the perfect way to start my career as a musician, but it was looking at Pete Seeger and his years and years of doing music as a part of struggle that really inspired me. He was a very important model.
And what’s incredible is that he has not — he has not broken stride in any way. So, now he is a ninety-year-old. If you live to be ninety, you could just take the whole thing to your grave, you know?
MIKE BURKE: Can you talk about Pete Seeger’s connection to the song "We Shall Overcome"?
DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie went to Highlander Folk School during the 1940s. Zilphia Horton, the wife of Myles Horton, who was one of the founders of Highlander, was the music director. She taught Pete a song that had come to Highlander from people who went on strike from Charleston to the American Tobacco Company. And so, Pete took this song, and he said that he took it back home, and he was doing a lot of concerts for union organizing. And he said the song really didn’t do much.
But he made some changes. He changed “I” to “we.” And instead of “I’ll” or “I will,” which is the way we sing it as a church song, he said he changed it to “I shall,” because it sounded better. And he also added the verse, “We’ll walk hand-in-hand.”
And this song was taught at Highlander to the students who came there on Easter weekend 1960 after their sit-in work in Nashville, Tennessee. They took the song back home. And at an organizing meeting, the students who were sit-in leaders actually started to sing the freedom songs they had been doing. And Guy Carawan led this particular song, and they stood, and they joined hands. And from that point, this became the theme song of a movement.
And it is Pete Seeger who is the link. If you start with black people striking in Charleston, go into the one place in the South during the ’30s and ’40s where black and white people could organize together, Pete learning the song there, taking it north, including teaching it to Guy, who ended up back at Highlander. Myles Horton said that Highlander sort of incubated the song until it could be returned to black people organizing against racism. So Pete is a crucial and very important link, having things pass through him no matter where he was.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the SNCC Singers and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
This is Democracy Now!, as we turn now to an excerpt of an interview I did with Pete Seeger five years ago, right here in the firehouse in New York. I asked him about "We Shall Overcome."
PETE SEEGER: In 1957, I went down to Highlander. Zilphia was dead, and Myles Horton, her husband, said, “We can’t have a celebration of twenty-five years with this school without music. Won’t you come down and help lead some songs?” So I went down, and Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy came up from Alabama to say a few words, and I sang a few songs, and that was one of them. Ann Braden drove King to a speaking engagement in Kentucky the next day, and she remembers him sitting in the back seat, saying, “‘We Shall Overcome.’ That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?” But he wasn’t the song leader. It wasn’t until another three years that Guy Carawan made it famous.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll go back to that interview. But first, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello took a few questions from reporters last night, as well.
TOM MORELLO: Pete Seeger is a tremendous inspiration, not just for activist musicians, but I believe for all Americans, and a shining example of someone who combines uncompromising activism with heart and soul and a generous spirit. And his enormous catalog of fantastic songs, mixed with his bravery throughout his ninety years of life in standing up for social justice, is unparalleled in American history. And it’s a real honor to be with him here today to celebrate his birthday.
I think that Pete is one of the first links in a chain of musicians — before him, maybe Joe Hill, and after him, not just folk musicians like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, you know, Bruce Springsteen and, you know, those of us who — many on the bill today, including my own Nightwatchman, who try to follow — put our small feet in his big footsteps, but I also think he’s a link in the chain of groups like Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down and the Clash and Public Enemy, music that serves the purpose of social justice, but also music the stands on its own.
My first memory is not actually hearing Pete Seeger. It’s seeing his banjo and seeing the words written on it, because I was a fan of Woody Guthrie and his “This machine kills fascists.” And Pete had, you know, sort of a subtle twist on it, with “This machine surrounds hatred and forces it to remember,” and then I — “surrender.” And then I knew that there was a thoughtful man behind that banjo.
His antiwar stance, I think — you know, if one four-minute performance of a song could be credited with ending the Vietnam War, it was Pete Seeger on The Smothers Brothers Show, when he sang "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" in defiance of the censors and in defiance of the blacklist. And I think that was a really heroic moment in the antiwar crusade.
AMY GOODMAN: Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, as we turn again back to my 2004 interview with Pete Seeger. I asked him about "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" and how he made his anti-Vietnam War stance clear back in ’67, when he was on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
PETE SEEGER: Well, the Smothers Brothers were a big, big success on the CBS television. And way back the year before, I think in the spring of ’67, they said — CBS says, "Anything we can do for you? You’re right at the top. What can we do to make you happier?" And they said, “Let us have Seeger on.” And CBS said, “Well, we’ll think about it.” Finally, in October they said, “OK, you can have him on.” And I sang this song “Waist deep in the big muddy, the big fool says to push on.”
The tape was made in California, flown to New York. And in New York they scissored the song out. And now, the Smothers Brothers took to the print media and said, “CBS is censoring our best jokes. They censored Seeger’s best song.” And they got some publicity. And during November, December and January, the arguments went on. Finally, in February — no, pardon me, late January, late January of ’68, CBS said, “OK, OK, he can sing the song.” Six hours’ notice, I flew out to California.
I remember singing a batch of songs from American history, songs from the Revolution, like “Come ye hither, redcoats, you mind what madness fills. In our forest there is danger, there’s danger in our hills. Fall the rifles, the rifles in our hands shall prove no trifle.” I think I mentioned the hit song of 1814. It was the hit song: “Oh, say can you see.” And the song of the Mexican War, “Green grow the lilacs all sparkling with dew.” A love song. That’s why Yankees are called “gringos” in Mexico, from that song. And, of course, the Civil War, several good songs, not just “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but a batch of them. The Spanish-American War, Oscar Brown taught me this song. American soldiers in the Philippines, they were singing, “Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos. Cross-eyed kakiack ladrones. And beneath the starry flag, civilize them with a crag, and go back to our own beloved home.” I didn’t sing that.
But along come modern times. I sang “Waste Deep in the Big Muddy,” and this time only a station in Detroit cut it out. But the rest of the country heard it, so seven million people heard it. Who knows? Later that month, in late February, Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election. The song would be probably just one more thing.
I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, “Ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.” But we’re saying, “We’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.” And we think, “One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction.” And people will say, “Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons. Now granted, we’ve got to keep putting it in, because if we don’t keep putting teaspoons in, it will leak out, and the rocks will go back again. Who knows?
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. But we’re continuing with this tribute to Pete Seeger, who turned ninety years old on May 3rd, on Sunday. This is Pete Seeger singing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968.
PETE SEEGER: [singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”] It was back in 1942,
I was a member of a good platoon.
We were on maneuvers in Louisiana,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That’s how it all begun.
We were knee deep in the Big Muddy,
The big fool said to push on.
Well, the Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure,
This is the best way back to the base?"
"Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
'Bout a mile above this place.
It'll be a little soggy, but just keep slogging.
We’ll soon be on dry ground."
We were waist deep in the Big Muddy,
The big fool said to push on.
The Sergeant said, "Sir, with all this equipment
No man will be able to swim."
"Sergeant, don’t be a Nervous Nellie,"
The Captain said to him.
"All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I’ll lead on."
We were neck deep in the Big Muddy
The big fool said to push on.
All at once, the moon clouded over,
We heard a gurgling cry.
A few seconds later, the captain’s helmet
Was all that floated by.
The Sergeant said, "Turn around men!
I’m in charge from now on."
And we just made it out of the Big Muddy
With the captain dead and gone.
We stripped and dived and found his body
Stuck in the old quicksand...
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger, singing the song he was forbidden to sing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Yes, that was him singing on The Smothers Brothers Show.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn back to the ninetieth birthday tribute of Pete Seeger — for Pete Seeger at Madison Square Garden. Among those who were there was singer-songwriter Steve Earle. He performed at the tribute. Before the concert, he spoke about the importance of Pete Seeger in his life.
STEVE EARLE: I don’t remember, you know, ever not being aware of Pete Seeger. It’s like, my age — the year I was born, 1955, is the year that Pete testified before HUAC, downtown New York City. And if you’ve ever seen those transcripts, he took the First Amendment like the Hollywood Ten did. He basically said that, you know, “You have no right to” — you know, basically, “You don’t have a right to ask me this. It’s the same thing as telling somebody who you voted for when you go into the booth, to tell somebody what political party that you belong to,” which is what the first question that everybody that went before HUAC was asked.
Nineteen sixty-six, when the blacklist effectively ended for Pete, you know, I saw Pete on the Smothers Brothers, and I became — you know, it’s like, by that time, I’m playing guitar, and the war is going on. And I was fourteen years old when I started really, you know, going out and playing, and I couldn’t get into places that served liquor, and that meant coffee houses. And I lived in a military town, and the Vietnam War was going on. So I heard about Pete Seeger almost immediately. And it’s kind of — it’s kind of huge.
I mean, I literally wrote a song about it, about the fact that, you know, people — we went through a period over the last few years when there was a lot of talk about what artists should be commenting on and what they shouldn’t be commenting on. And I was raised, partly because I knew who Pete Seeger was all my life, to believe that that was my job, that that’s what artists do, is you comment on the society that you live in. That’s my gig. That’s the way I was taught to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Steve Earle. Ani DiFranco was also one of the headliners. I caught up with her a few nights before in Madison, Wisconsin, when she was there for the hundredth anniversary of The Progressive magazine, before she flew to Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday in New York.
ANI DiFRANCO: My name is Ani DiFranco.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts about Pete on his ninetieth birthday?
ANI DiFRANCO: So glad I’m going to go to his ninetieth party, so happy that I was invited. It’s going to be an awesome group of people, fitting of an awesome fellow. I mean, I just — I feel grateful just to know the man, to have been in the room with him on more than one occasion and felt the power of his energy. You know, I’m so impressed by the fact that at his age he’s still engaged and informed and inspiring and inspired.
And, you know, I’ve been with him at, you know, big benefits and hootenannies, where it’s all disorganized and chaotic, and everybody starts griping at everybody else and forgets why we’re there. And then Pete walks in, and everybody remembers again, you know? So, you know, I just — I’m really glad that we get to gather together while he’s still with us and pour some of that love back into him that he’s been pouring into the world all this time.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember when you first heard Pete Seeger or a Pete Seeger song?
ANI DiFRANCO: Well, yeah. I’m not sure when I first heard a Pete Seeger song. I was probably really little, the folk canon was very much a part of my upbringing. So, almost before memory, I’m sure I heard his music. And then I met him at the Clearwater Festival that he and Toshi have been running for forever and contributing to the cleaning up of our Hudson River, and I shared the stage with him first there and on his home turf.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a favorite song of his?
ANI DiFRANCO: I don’t think so. You know, I think that, like any folksinger, it’s not about one song or one moment, you know, in a more of a pop model of music. It’s about a lifetime of — you know, it’s almost like every song that he’s offered is another verse, you know, in the great song of his life and of our society.
AMY GOODMAN: Both Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams performed at Sunday night’s tribute to Pete Seeger. But Dar Williams was also in Madison, Wisconsin, last week, where I spoke to her about Pete.
It’s Pete’s ninetieth birthday. What do you think? What are your thoughts about Pete?
Well, first of all, Pete has set the standard for all of us musicians, ‘cause every time I do something that’s like a little vain or a little selfish, a little, you know, highlights in the hair, I think, “Pete would not do this.” You know, he’s just been — he’s been a person-to-person musician. And he actually said to me, like he was talking about somebody writing an article where they said that he was concerned about his career, and he said, “I never gave a ‘s’ about my career.” And I thought, that is exactly true, and it’s a real model to the rest of us artists.
And then there’s the — all of this straight-ahead, “unspotlighty,” you know, movement-to-movement contributions he’s made about stuff that — you know, I live close to him, so he just shows up at places that need a little boost. And it’s not glittery, and it doesn’t bring attention to him, but it helps every cause that he, you now, joins.
When do you remember first hearing Pete?
Let’s see. Well, you know, as Peter said, you know, there are certain things that are just in your DNA. So, who knows when any of us first heard Pete? But I do remember a friend of mine working at a camp for disabled kids. And I was just out of college, and I was, you know, trying to figure out what my contribution to society would be. And he showed up and was — he sang "She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain."
And nobody really knew he was coming. It was a camp for disabled kids. You know, there was nothing — it was just he was there to sing music that would include people. And kids in wheelchairs were singing; kids were singing in sign language; kids with disabilities, with very limited abilities to, you know, participate, were participating.
All the counselors were in tears. I was in tears, because he was just—and I just thought, you know, that spirit of inclusiveness, that spirit of unity. Of all these different abilities, these kids who have this, you know, desire to express and be a part of it, he’s completely succeeded. You know? And everyone was going, “Whoo-hoo!”
That’s when I realized what his power was and that the power is — what Spalding Gray called like “horizontal.” You know, it wasn’t vertical, from on top of a mountain speaking down. It was radiating outwards. And that’s when I realized that that’s the kind of power, that if I ever had it, that’s the way I would do it. So, my cognizance of his power was around then.
Do you have any favorite songs that you think of when you think of Pete Seeger?
You know, I think that "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" is a really — you know, some of these songs like that and "Turn, Turn, Turn" that really just sit us down in the eternal reality of what we have to work on, you know, what we have to break it down to, its simple elements, is — those are still really — hit me really strongly.
The other thing is, my favorite band growing up were The Byrds. Like, they were just so sexy and so, like, groovy, and their harmonies were beautiful. And they would sing “The Bells of Rhymney.” And I kind of feel like there’s something very deep and existential about that song. And it just shows the poetry that he did, as well as, you know, the simplicity in the messages. There was also deep poetry in what he was doing. So, that’s actually one of my favorite songs, “The Bells of Rhymney.”
What does it mean to you to be at the celebration, to be singing in Madison Square Garden with Pete and all of the people who love him?
I think it’s a moment that many people are taking right now to acknowledge the people. And actually, after having seen the documentary about him, about how many years he spent going and singing to kids when he was blacklisted, you know, just finding a way to communicate. Aside from commerce, aside from his career, aside from what he knew what the future would bring, here he was just going from place to place. And I’ve met a lot of people who work that way, you know, go community to community, child to child, human to human. And here we are filling Madison Square Garden with a person who’s had that kind of — you know, who spoke in person to person. It’s not like he got a lot of advertising spots to advertise himself.
So, it’s a people’s victory that we all circle around a person and a person’s singing like that, you know. And the way that he actually — he’s probably mortified, because he’s probably like, “I was here to show you that you could sing, that you could participate. I’m not at the center. My job was to put you closer to the center of power and music and your voice.” Anyway, I think it’s — you know, not to lionize him, but I think that coming to Madison Square Garden is a part of us acknowledging that he had that power on us and that we feel completely united in what he, you know, sought out to achieve.
At Madison Square Garden, Dar Williams performed with the British folk musician Billy Bragg. He came to the back of the stage to speak with reporters last night about the influence of Pete Seeger’s music on his own politically conscious music.
Pete has been a constant since the days of Woody Guthrie, you know, and to meet with him and talk with him, with someone who, you know, rode the rails with Woody, who sang with Paul Robeson, who stood up against McCarthy, who marched with Dr. King — you know, I mean, he’s like a history of our tradition.
And, you know, I’m part of that sort of like political song tradition. And Pete is — he’s right through it. He runs through it like a — you know, like a constant stream. He reminds me of a redwood. He’s like a redwood, really. And we, you know, we see him standing tall in the forest.
And so, to be here today and be part of this — and particularly, as I was saying on stage, you know, he encouraged me to rewrite the words to "The Internationale," which is like, you know, the national anthem of the left. I would never have even tried such a thing, had Pete not, you know, encouraged me to do it. And his belief in me and my ability to do that, that’s the influence he’s had on me.
Billy Bragg, what about Pete’s antiwar stance and combining that with his art and his music? How has that influenced you?
Very crucial, really crucial, because obviously, you know, the imperial wars that my country has been involved in, first in Northern Ireland and then moving on through the ‘80s in the Falklands and elsewhere around the world, you know, the antiwar songs that Pete wrote have a strong connection.
And he’s kind of influenced also with the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement in America was very strong politicizer around the world. You know, the Northern Ireland troubles began with a Catholic civil rights movement. That was the start of it, and that was influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States of America. So the culture of that battle kind of transferred to our culture. We sing the songs that Pete wrote or took part in popularizing, and we sing those, as well.
And we’re still, today, at antiwar, anti-capitalist demos, I sang “The Internationale” — last time I sang “The Internationale” was on the steps of the Bank of England at the G20 demonstration on April the 1st. So, you know, that connection of people coming around again to that tradition, I think, tonight is very, very timely.
British folk musician Billy Bragg. Hip-hop artist Michael Franti also spoke to reporters about the importance of Pete Seeger in his life.
My name’s Michael Franti. I have a group called Spearhead. And Pete is somebody who made it possible for —- or made it OK, I should say, for artists to give a s-h-i—[deleted]. He made it possible for an artist to stand on the stage and speak from their heart about what they feel about going — that is going on in the world and not have any shame about it, you know.
And over the last eight or nine years, especially since the war started in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been a lot artists who have closed down and a lot of media sources who have refused to open their doors and ears to those artists. And Pete is somebody who gave me, personally, the strength to continue, because as I look back in history, he was always on the side of peace and justice. And if you’re on that side, then history is always going to show that you were on the right side of things.
And so, that’s why I’m here. I’m grateful for Pete for shining that light and also being such a brilliant inspiration to, you know, not only the folk music world, but also his rhyming. He was a predecessor to rap music in a lot of his songs, so I appreciate it.
Hip-hop artist Michael Franti. As you can see, it was an all-star cast. As the Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins stepped off the stage, I had a chance to ask him about Pete Seeger.
I’m Tim Robbins. Pete Seeger is someone that I’ve been aware of pretty much all of my life. My dad was a folksinger. We were — we listened to his albums when we were kids. My dad’s group sung a few of Pete’s songs that he either wrote or unearthed. As a folklorist, he’s invaluable to the country as someone that has extended the life of so many different songs, be they sea shanties or Negro spirituals or workers’ songs or civil rights songs. He’s in all of our blood. You know, he’s part of who we are.
What did his antiwar stance mean to you as a performer, an artist, a musician and a political activist?
Well, you know, he had courage, you know? He did things that, you know, after being blacklisted for how many years? Fifteen, twenty years? The first thing he does on television is "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on CBS. You know, this is a man with courage, you know. One would hope that, you know, one could achieve that kind of conviction and courage in their life.
You just celebrated your fiftieth birthday. What do you want to be doing when you’re ninety?
I think I’ll be folk singing.
Tim Robbins. Well, today we’ll end this tribute to Pete Seeger in his own words. Back in our interview in 2004, the last question I asked Pete.
And for someone who isn’t so hopeful, who is listening to this right now, trying to find their way, what would you say?
PETE SEEGER: Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what Seeds is all about. And this wonderful parable in the New Testament: the sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of?
Pete Seeger. Yes, he has turned ninety years old, May 3rd, 2009. Madison Square Garden was packed last night for the celebration of Pete Seeger and the Clearwater, the environmental group he founded, for which it was a fundraiser. You can check out their website at clearwater.org. If you want to check out our entire interview with Pete Seeger, more than an hour, you can go to our website at democracynow.org.