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2013-08-09

Pete Seeger Remembers His Late Wife Toshi, Sings Civil Rights Anthem "We Shall Overcome"

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We continue our conversation with the legendary Pete Seeger here in our New York studio. Born in 1919, the 94-year-old Seeger is an American icon. In the 1940s, he performed in The Weavers, along with Woody Guthrie. In the 1950s, he opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger helped popularize the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome." In the 1960s, he was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired a generation of protest singers. He was later at the center of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. A month ago today, on July 9, his wife, the artist and filmmaker Toshi Seeger, died at the age of 91. She was a key leader and artistic programmer for the Great Hudson River Revival, the annual fundraiser for the Clearwater organization that helped to clean up the Hudson River in New York. She died less than two weeks short of what would have been the Seegers’ 70th wedding anniversary.

Watch parts 1 and 3 of this interview:
Onondaga Leader Oren Lyons, Pete Seeger on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Pete Seeger & Onondaga Leader Oren Lyons on Fracking, Indigenous Struggles and Hiroshima Bombing

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: "My Rainbow Race," Pete Seeger, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue the conversation with the legendary Pete Seeger here in New York. Born in 1990—1919, Pete Seeger is now 94 years old, an American icon. In the '40s, he performed with The Weavers along with Woody Guthrie. 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. Pete Seeger helped popularize the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome." In the ’60s, a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired a generation of protest singers. He was later at the center of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements.

A month ago today, on July 9th, Pete’s wife, the artist and filmmaker Toshi Seeger, died at the age of 91. She was a key leader and artistic programmer for the Great Hudson River Revival, the annual fundraiser for the Clearwater organization, that helped to clean up the Hudson River in New York. She died July 9th, less than two weeks short of what would have been the Seegers’ 70th wedding anniversary.

Pete, my condolences on the death of Toshi.

PETE SEEGER: She was the brains of the family. I’d get an idea, but she’d figure out how to make them work.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk a little more about Toshi?

PETE SEEGER: We met square dancing in New York, and I came to sing for the square dance group and stayed to dance. And then I remember she volunteered to help me alphabetize a big mess of songs that I had. And one thing led to another.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any words of wisdom for couples? You almost hit 70 years together.

PETE SEEGER: Well, she was such an extraordinary person. All I can say is that we—I think we needed each other. And although we were quite different in some ways, we supported each other. Her father was Japanese. And because of the Oriental Exclusion Act, passed by union members on the West Coast that didn’t want to have to have cheap Chinese laborers taking their jobs away from them, Toshi couldn’t leave the country. I’d sing in Canada, and she’d stay in a hotel, motel, 'til I got out, because if she had gone up there, she wouldn't have been able to get back in—until two very conservative congressmen put out a new immigration law. And this is interesting. Quite often, good things can be done in spite of ourselves. I’ve made lots of fool mistakes. The dumb things I’ve done in my life, I wince when I think of them. But I’ve made lots and lots of—done lots and lots of foolish things in a long life. But you keep—you keep trying to learn.

AMY GOODMAN: Words of wisdom for surviving a beloved spouse?

PETE SEEGER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts?

PETE SEEGER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Your advice?

PETE SEEGER: Keep a sense of humor. As a matter of fact, if there is a world here, if there is a human race here, humor may be one of the things that may save us.

AMY GOODMAN: Pete, there are so many historic anniversaries this year. We just passed the 50th anniversary of your historic Carnegie Hall concert that—where the We Shall Overcome album was released. You didn’t play at the March on Washington 50 years ago, August 28th, coming up, but your songs were sung—what, Peter, Paul and Mary sang "If I Had a Hammer," with its final stirring verse—

PETE SEEGER: And just last week—

AMY GOODMAN: —"the hammer of justice."

PETE SEEGER: Just last week, it was the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Hiroshima.

AMY GOODMAN: Right. In fact, today—well, August 6th was the anniversary of Hiroshima, and August 9th is the bombing of Nagasaki.

PETE SEEGER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You didn’t play at the March on Washington, but your songs were played, and, of course, the song you helped popularize, Joan Baez sang "We Shall Overcome." And you sang at President Obama’s first inauguration, and you sang the forbidden verses of "This Land is Your Land."

PETE SEEGER: Yes. They didn’t get on the recording, but Woody Guthrie had that great line: "Was a great high wall there that tried to stop me, great big sign there said 'private property.'" Isn’t that wonderful, to rhyme "stop me" with "property"? "But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’. That side was made for you and me." This guy was one of the greatest geniuses, and he made lots of mistakes, too, in his life.

AMY GOODMAN: Woody Guthrie.

PETE SEEGER: But he didn’t stop trying to create. And in spite of the mistakes that you make, you keep on trying.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your goals now at 94?

PETE SEEGER: Well, I thought I’d follow the lead of Scott Nearing, the old lefty, who when he was going to hit a hundred, he said to his wife, "Honey, I can’t do what I used to do. I’m just going to stop eating about a month before my hundredth birthday. And on my hundredth birthday, there will be a party. And if I’m still alive, I’ll be at the party. If I’m not alive, why, you’ll have a party without me and maybe remember me." And he did live an extra 10 days. I have an acronym for this. I call it INKSIA GAP. GAP means "going away party." But the earlier thing, INK—I spell "committed" with a K—"it’s not kommitting suicide, it’s a going away party."

AMY GOODMAN: Do you want to take us out with a song? "We Shall Overcome"?

PETE SEEGER: Yes, that is something the human race needs to be reminded of. Don’t give up. And this old, old spiritual originally was "I Will Overcome," and then "We Will Overcome." I guess me, with my Harvard education, thought of "shall." It opens up the mouth better. "We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart, I know that I do believe..."

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