- Pete Seegerlegendary folk singer
Today we spend the hour with the legendary folk singer, banjo player, storyteller and activist Pete Seeger. For over 60 years Pete Seeger has been an American icon. In the 1940s, he performed in the Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie as well as the Weavers. 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. He 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. At the age of 88, Pete Seeger continues to perform and be politically active. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we spend the hour with the legendary folksinger, banjo player, storyteller, and activist, Pete Seeger. For over 60 years, he’s been an American icon. In the 1940s, he performed in 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 Not Be Moved.” In the ’60s, 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.
At the age of 88, Pete Seeger continues to perform and be politically active. In 2004, he recorded a song about the Iraq War called “Bring Them Home.” He was joined on the song by Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle and Billy Bragg.
SONG: If you love this land of the free,
bring ’em home, bring ’em home.
Bring all troops back from overseas,
bring ’em home, bring ’em home.
It will make the generals sad, I know,
bring ’em home, bring ’em home.
They want to tangle with the foe,
bring’em home, bring ’em home.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger’s music continues to move listeners. Bruce Springsteen has paid tribute to him by releasing We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The album features a collection of songs that were once performed by Seeger.
In 2004, Pete Seeger joined us in our Firehouse studio to talk about his life and perform a few songs. I began by asking him about his childhood.
PETE SEEGER: My father was a professor of musicology. My mother was a very good violinist. Her mother wanted her to tour and give concerts, but she said, “No, I don’t have the physique to do that, traveling all the time and staying in hotels; I’m going to raise a family.” I had two older brothers and was born in 1919 here in New York. But my grandparents had a farm up upstate, and that’s what I remember, camping out in the barn and going swimming in the local brook. And I put up a teepee out in the cow pasture. I had to put a fence around it so the cows didn’t break it down. I was a big fan of Native Americans.
Did you ever hear of Ernest Thompson Seton? He wrote books about Native Americans. He said, “If you want to have role models, don’t go to Europe. Right here were men who were strong and women who were strong, and they cooperated. If there was food, everybody shared; if there was no food, everybody, including the chief and his family, were hungry.” And that seemed to be the way people should live.
AMY GOODMAN: Your parents both taught at Juilliard?
PETE SEEGER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And your father also at the University of California, Berkeley?
PETE SEEGER: Well, he was originally in charge of the music department there at the young age of 24, the youngest full professor at the university. But along comes World War I, and he had been radicalized, as people tend to when they go to Berkeley, and he made speeches against imperialist war. My mother said, “Can’t you keep your mouth shut?” He said, “But something’s wrong, you should speak out about it.” The old New England idea, goes back to Sam Adams, and before that, I guess. Well, he got fired. Later on, when the crash of ’29 came — the marriage had broken up — he married a young, extraordinary young composer named Ruth Crawford and had four more children.
But he, in those early days, linked up with the Communist movement. He and Aaron Copland and Henry Cowell and Marc Blitzstein. They had a thing they called the Composers’ Collective. After all, in Russia they had collectives this and collective that. And there, they decided, as skilled musicians, they would compose the new music for the new society. Well, their attempts were laughable. Aaron Copland put music to a poem by Alfred Hayes, same man who wrote “Joe Hill” — “Into the Streets May 1st.” But only a very expert singer could sing it, tremendous range, and only a very expert pianist could accompany it properly. Of course, no proletariat ever sang him.
AMY GOODMAN: So, they had an interesting philosophy in raising you. Your mother wanted to formally teach you music, and your dad said, “No, you’ll wreck it for him”?
PETE SEEGER: Well, my father said, “Let Peter enjoy himself. We’ll see what happens.” And I think he was curious, because he knew I liked music. My mother just left instruments all around the house. So I could bang on a piano or an organ or a marimba, on a squeezebox or a penny whistle or an auto-harp. And at age seven I was given a ukulele, and I’ve been into fretted instruments ever since then. In prep school I joined the jazz band. And then a few years later, my father took me to a square dance festival in the Southern Mountains, and I suddenly realized there was a wealth of music in my country that you never heard on the radio: old-time music, my brother called it — I think a better name than folk music — all over the place. Depending where you are, you hear different kinds of old-time music. And I still feel that I’d like to see people not forget the old songs at the same time they’re making up new songs.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember any of the songs that you heard then?
PETE SEEGER: Oh, good gosh, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: That you’d like to play now?
PETE SEEGER: I can’t play them. My fingers are froze up, and my voice, you hear, I can’t really sing anymore. What I do these days, I get the audience singing with me. If I’m singing for children, needless to say, I say, “Kids, you all know this song. If you don’t, you will in a minute. She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes. Toot! Toot!” I’d say, “Can’t you get the toot? Toot! Toot!” Well, pretty soon they’re all doing it. “She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes. Toot! Toot!” And the last verse, it’s cumulative, so you repeat all the previous things. “She’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! She’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! Wearing red pajamas, she’ll be wearing red pajamas, she’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! Hoink-shoo! Yum! Yum! Hi, Babe! Woe, back! Toot! Toot!” And even if the kids never heard the song before, they’re doing it with me.
AMY GOODMAN: You weren’t always going to be a musician, even if you had musical instruments around your house and you played them.
PETE SEEGER: Oh, I ran school newspapers for six years. At age 12, I started. I remember selling them for a penny. At the next school I found they had a mimeograph machine. And I’d tried shining shoes to make a little extra cash, because my parents gave me practically no allowance, but that was slow going. And when I found out I could use the school mimeograph machine, I now collected the news, typed the stencils, sold the copy for a nickel a copy and kept the money. Free enterprise. I found out years later that’s why they allowed me to stay at school, because the old woman who paid the bills liked my little newspaper, gave her all the dirt, the gossip. And even in college, Arthur Kinoy and I were co-editors of the Harvard Progressive.
AMY GOODMAN: But you didn’t stay at Harvard. You didn’t graduate from there.
PETE SEEGER: No, I was disillusioned about academia. I went to one of my professors. I said, “Do you have to use such long words?” And he kind of smirked, he says, “Well, you have to impress people.” Well, he thought it was a joke. But I didn’t think it was a joke, and I wasn’t sorry when I left. My parents had run out of money. I got too interested in politics and let my marks slip, so I lost my scholarship. Without a scholarship, I couldn’t stay there.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete, you traveled the South with Alan Lomax, and to a lot of people that may not be a familiar name.
PETE SEEGER: Alan Lomax was the son of a Texas fella who collected cowboy songs a hundred years ago. And that’s how we know “Home on the Range” and other songs like it, “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo.” And in 1908, he got President Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, to write a short foreword for his book of cowboy songs.
Thirty years later, he had a son, and Alan was only 22 years old, his father got him installed as the curator of the Archive of American Folksong in the Library of Congress, and Alan in a few years did what most people would take a lifetime to do. With utmost self-confidence he calls up the head of Columbia Radio and says, you have a school of the air, why don’t you spend one year learning about American folk music? And the Columbia symphony can play the music, after you’ve heard some old person croak out the old ballad. And if he couldn’t find an old person to do it, he got young me, age 19 and 20. And I still sing some of the songs I learned then.
’Tis advertised in Boston, New York and Buffalo,
five hundred brave Americans, a waggling for to go,
singing, blow ye winds of the morning, blow ye winds, high ho!
Clear away your running gear, and blow, blow, blow.
He interviewed the woman who collected that song when she was a teenager sailing on her father’s whaling ship in the 19th century. Now, as an old woman, she came out with a beautiful book, Songs of American Sailormen. Joanna Colcord was her name, so he interviews her, has me sing a song, and then the symphony orchestra plays it.
Well, Alan got me started, and many others. He’s the man who told Woody Guthrie, he says, “Woody Guthrie, your mission in life is to write songs. Don’t let anything distract you. You’re like the people who wrote the ballads of Robin Hood and the ballad of Jesse James. You keep writing ballads as long as you can.” And Woody took it to heart. He wasn’t a good husband. He was always running off, but he wrote songs, as you know.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember when you first met Woody Guthrie?
PETE SEEGER: Oh yeah, I’ll never forget it. It was a benefit concert for California agricultural workers on Broadway at midnight. Burl Ives was there, the Golden Gate Quartet, Josh White, Leadbelly, Margo Mayo Square Dance Group, with my wife dancing in it. I sang one song very amateurishly and retired in confusion to a smattering of polite applause.
But Woody took over and for 20 minutes entranced everybody, not just with singing, but storytelling. “I come from Oklahoma, you know? It’s a rich state. You want some oil? Go down on the ground. Get you some hole. Get you more oil. If you want lead, we got lead in Oklahoma. Go down a hole and get you some lead. You want coal? We got coal in Oklahoma. Go down a hole, get you some coal. If you want food, clothes or groceries, just go in the hole and stay there.” Then he’d sing a song.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you form the Weavers?
PETE SEEGER: That was after World War II. Lee Hays from Arkansas and his roommate Millard Lampell and I had started a group called the Almanacs. And I wrote to Woody, I said, “Woody we’re singing for unions all around. Come out and join us. We’re in Madison Square Garden singing for striking transport workers.” And so Woody, once again, deserted his wife, came and joined us. But Woody used to say, “The Almanacs are the only group I know that rehearse on stage.” We were very badly organized. And after World War II, Lee says, “Pete, do you think we could start a group that would actually rehearse?”
And we were fortunate to run into one of the world’s greatest singers, Ronnie Gilbert. She was in her early twenties, beautiful alto voice, and a strong alto voice. I’d have to be two inches from the microphone. She could be two feet from the microphone, and she’d drown me out. She stood up to three strong-voiced men, and the four of us, however, were about to break up when we did the unthinkable. We got a job at a nightclub.
Well, little Greenwich Village place, it’s still down there, the Village Vanguard. And the owner paid us — he didn’t want me first. He said, “I can’t pay for a quartet. I’ll pay for you. I’ll pay you $200, like I did two years ago.” I said, “Well, what if the all four of us were willing to come for $200?” That was low pay, even then. And he had laughed, he said, “Well, if you’re willing.” And we got $200 and free hamburgers, until a month later he came and saw the size of the hamburgers I was making. He said, “Let’s make that $250, but no more free hamburgers.”
And we stayed there six months. Near the end of it, we met an extraordinary band leader, Gordon Jenkins, who loved our music and got us signed up with Decca, and we had a record called, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” and on the other side, the B-side — it was a record —- ”Irene,” good night, which sprang to number one, and for three months stayed up there on top of the hit parade. It was the biggest seller since World War II, and—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about “Irene”?
PETE SEEGER: Well, it was the song, the theme song of the great black singer, Leadbelly. He died in '49, and if he'd only lived another six months, he would have seen his song all over America. It was an old, old song. He’d simply changed and adapted it, added some verses and changed the melody, what my father called the “folk process,” but which happens all through all kinds of music. In fact, all culture, you might say. Lawyers adapt old laws to suit new citizens. Cooks adapt old recipes to fit new stomachs.
Anyway, I learned this 12-string guitar from Leadbelly. A high string and a low string together, but played together to give a new tone. And the song I really would like to sing to you is — always have to do with it —- I don’t sing it anymore. I give the words to the audience, and they sing it. I says, “You know this song. To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season. Sing it.” And the whole audience sings, ”Turn, turn, turn. There is a season. And a time. And a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. Sing it. A time to be born, a time to plant, to reap. A time to plant a time to kill, to heal. A time to kill, a time to laugh, to weep. A time to laugh, a time to” -—
You know, those words are 2,256 years old. I didn’t know that at the time, but Julius Lester, an old friend of mine, he’s a — I don’t know if you know him — he’s a black man who is officially a Jew. He became fascinated with the Bible. I asked him, “When was these words written?” He says, “Well, the man’s name was Kohelet, meaning “convoker,” somebody who calls people together to speak to them. In the Greek translation, they called him Ecclesiastes, and he’s still in the King James Version as this. And it’s a type of poetry, which is Greek. The Greeks have a word for it, anaphora, and it means you start off a line with a word or a phrase. You don’t have rhyme at the end of the line, but you do have — it becomes poetry by the way it’s organized.
Well, I didn’t realize—I liked the words, but I realize now those are maybe some of the most fundamentally important words that anybody could learn. You see, you and I, we’re all descended from killers, good killers. The ones who were not good killers didn’t have descendants. But we’re descended from good killers. For millions of years our ancestors were good killers. They say if they hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be here today. Now is a new period. In other words, it’s a time, you might say, the human race needed to have good killers. Now, if we don’t change our way of thinking, there will be no human race here, because science acts very irresponsibly — oh, any information is good. Ha, ha, ha. They don’t realize that some information is very important, some, frankly, forget about until we solve some other problems. Einstein was the first person who said it; everything has changed now, except our way of thinking. And we’ve got to find ways to change our way of thinking.
Sports can do it. Arts can do it. Cooking can do it. All sorts of good works can do it. Smiles can do it. And I’m of the opinion now that if the human race makes it — I say we’ve got a 50-50 chance — if the human race makes it, it’ll be women working with children, these two very large oppressed classes in the human race. Children, doing what the grownups say they’re supposed to do, and yet they’re going to have to pay for our mistakes. They’re going to have to clean up the environment, which had been filled with chemicals, the air being filled with chemicals, the water being filled with chemicals, the ocean being filled with chemicals. And they’re going to have to clean it up. And I think it will be women working with kids that’ll do this job. In millions of little ways, maybe done in your hometown. In my hometown we’re starting a project to put in a floating swimming pool in the Hudson, because now the Hudson is clean enough to swim in. Let’s swim in it. And if it works in our little town, maybe other towns will do it. In fact, if this swimming pool idea — it’s like a big netting in the water.
So, I confess I’m more optimistic now than I was 58 years ago, 59 years ago, when the atom bomb was dropped.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger here on Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMANL: Pete Seeger here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue with our conversation with him. He was also joined in 2004 in our studio by Jim Musselman, the founder of Appleseed Records.
AMY GOODMAN: Right before the atom bomb was dropped, you did serve in World War II, You were a soldier?
PETE SEEGER: I first wanted to be a mechanic in the Air Force. I thought that would be an interesting thing. But then Military Intelligence got interested in my politics. My outfit went on to glory and death, and I stayed there in Keesler Field, Mississippi, picking up cigarette butts for six months. Finally they let me know, yes, they’d been investigating me, opening all my mail.
I did finally get permission to go overseas in what they call a “Special Service outfit.” And my little company went to the island of Saipan in the Western Pacific. Vic Wertz, the Detroit outfielder, his job was to set up softball teams all over the island. And there were some good newspaper reporters. Their job was to set up battalion mimeographed newspapers all over the island. We had movie projectors, and they set up 16mm movie theaters all over the island, little island, 13 miles long.
And I was given the job of hospital entertainment, and I got in a jeep and bounced over the island and put up a notice on bulletin boards. “If you can entertain in any way, music or jokes, whatever it is, call this number. There’s thousands of men back from Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and they need a little cheering up.” And I booked gospel quartets and string bands and jazz combos and magicians, and I’d go join them sometimes. I remember there were Korean forced laborers on the island, and I got permission from one of their teachers to take them through the wards. They’d clip-clop in their wooden sandals. And usually after the first few notes, smiles would appear over the soldiers’ faces. The kids were all singing Protestant hymns in Korean.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger, when you came back, they continued to investigate you.
PETE SEEGER: Well, I have assumed most of my life that if there wasn’t a microphone under the bed, they were tapping the phone from time to time and opening my mail from time to time. Who knows?
AMY GOODMAN: But it was more than that, wasn’t it?
PETE SEEGER: Well, sometimes they’d have picket lines out, but, you know, in a crazy way all it did was sell tickets. I remember one concert did not sell out. My manager said, “Pete, we should have gotten the Birches to picket you. Then it would have sold out.”
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a transcript of the House Un-American Activities Committee, August 18th, 1955, when they started off by saying, Mr. Taverner said, “When and where were you born, Mr. Seeger?” You actually answered that question.
PETE SEEGER: Well, I wish I had been more — spoken up more. I just did what my lawyer, a very nice guy — he says, “Don’t try to antagonize them. Just don’t answer these questions, because if you answer this kind of question, you’re going to have to answer more questions. Just say you don’t think it’s legal.” Well, I said, “I think I’ve got a right to my opinion, and you have the right to your opinion. Period.”
And so, eventually I was sentenced to a year in jail, but my lawyer got me off on bail. I was only in jail for four hours, and I learned a folk song. They served us lunch, a slice of bread and a slice of bologna, and an apple, and the man next to me was singing, ”If that judge believes what I say, I’ll be leaving for home today.” The man next to him says, “Not if he sees your record, you won’t.” But that’s an old African melody, you know. It’s in many, many African American folk songs.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Musselman, longtime friend and record producer for Pete Seeger, this-
JIM MUSSELMAN: Right, I just wanted to invoke one thing dealing with the McCarthy era and Pete. Basically he was one of the few people who invoked the First Amendment in front of the McCarthy Committee. Everyone else had said the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination, and then they were dismissed. What Pete did, and what some other very powerful people who had the guts and the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the committee and say, “I’m gonna invoke the First Amendment, the right of freedom of association.”
And I was actually in law school when I read the case of Seeger v. United States, and it really changed my life, because I saw the courage of what he had done and what some other people had done by invoking the First Amendment, saying, “We’re all Americans. We can associate with whoever we want to, and it doesn’t matter who we associate with.” That’s what the founding fathers set up democracy to be. So I just really feel it’s an important part of history that people need to remember.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were sentenced to a year in jail?
PETE SEEGER: And a year later the appeals court acquitted me. Ironically — the contradictions of life still amaze me — the judge who acquitted me, the head judge — there were three judges — had been Irving Kaufman, the man who sentenced the Rosenbergs to the chair ten years earlier. But he acquitted me. He said, “We are not inclined to lightly disregard charges of unconstitutionality, even though they may be made by those unworthy of our respect.”
However, I feel that — both my wife and I feel we’re lucky to be alive and lucky to be on good terms with our neighbors, and in the little town where we live, people shout out, “Hi, Pete! Hi, Toshi!” And I’d like to —- I wish I could live another twenty years just to see things that are happening, because I believe that women working with children will get men to wake up to what a foolish thing it is to seek power and glory and money in your life. What a foolish thing. Here we are -—
There’s a politician in my hometown, a very nice guy. He used to be a shop steward for the union in the local factory, but for twenty years he represented our town in the county legislature. And he said, “Pete, if you don’t grow, you die.” One o’clock in the morning, I sat up in bed and thought of the next question. If that’s true, if you don’t grow you die, doesn’t it follow the quicker you grow, the sooner you die? Nobody is facing up to that question, but it’s very definitely true. Now the first step in solving a problem is to admit there’s a problem. Then we can argue about ways it could be solved.
I suppose one person will say. “Well, let a few people have trillions of dollars and the rest of the people obediently do the work, and the people in charge will see that everything is done right.” On other hand, I think what was in the Declaration of Independence is true now, just as it was then. Those great lines, they’re written by Ben Franklin, you know, not Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that when any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger, can you tell us about “We Shall Overcome”?
PETE SEEGER: I thought, in 1946, when I learned it from a white woman who taught in a union labor school, the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, that the song had been made up in 1946 by tobacco workers, because they sang it there to strike through the winter of 1946 in Charleston, South Carolina, and they taught the song to Zilphia Horton, the teacher at the labor school, and she said, “Oh, it was my favorite song.” And I printed it in our little magazine in New York, People’s Songs, as “We Will Overcome” in 1947.
It was a friend of mine, Guy Carawan, who made it famous. He picked up my way of singing it, “We Shall Overcome,” although there was another teacher there, Septima Clark, a black woman. She felt that “shall” — like me, she felt it opened up the mouth better than “will,” so that’s the way she sang it. Anyway, Guy Carawan in 1960 taught it to the young people at the founding convention of SNCC, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC for short. And a month later, it wasn’t a song, it was the song, throughout the South.
Only two years ago, I get a letter from a professor in Pennsylvania, who uncovered an issue of the United Mine Workers Journal of February 1909, and a letter there on front page says, “Last year at a strike, we opened every meeting with a prayer, and singing that good old song, 'We Will Overcome.'” So it’s probably a late 19th century union version of what was a well-known gospel song. I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome some day.
AMY GOODMAN: You sang it for Martin Luther King?
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 25 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. Anne 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: Jim Musselman, do you want to add to that?
JIM MUSSELMAN: Yes, I just wanted to interject one thing. Pete has always said that the beauty of a song is how it can be used and reused and changed for different movements and everything, and the song “We Shall Overcome,” which was used in the Civil Rights Movement was then used in Tiananmen Square and used in so many movements around the world; and when we put out the first volume of The Songs of Pete Seeger, I did the song “We Shall Overcome” with Bruce Springsteen. And Bruce said, “I wanted to do a totally different version of the song,” and he personalized it and sang it on a personal level, like he was singing it to one individual.
And everybody was at first criticizing us, saying, “Why would you take that song and personalize it to an individual?” And then I started getting letters from parents whose children had leukemia and they said they were singing Bruce’s version of the song to their child, that we’ll overcome this disease. And then after the Columbine massacre, one of the students out there played the song “We Shall Overcome” that Bruce Springsteen had done out at the Columbine funerals. And then, after September 11th, we got a call from NBC News on September 12th, and they wanted to do a video montage of the rescue workers, and they wanted to use Bruce’s song, “We Shall Overcome,” and the song was played every single hour on the hour by NBC News, and it gave people a sense of hope and a soothing, not only because of Bruce’s voice, but also the song that they had known, which had been used to overcome so much adversity throughout our history.
And that’s the wonderful thing about the songs that Pete has found, is that they keep being used and used and used for different movements. And that’s the beauty of not only the songs, but the timeless nature of how they’re always going to be used for different things. And it’s just beautiful to see the way “We Shall Overcome” has been used in so many battles and so many people’s movements around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Even as you are singing songs like that, it has also often been seen as a tremendous threat to the establishment. In 1963, the Fire & Police Research Association of Los Angeles warned before one of your appearances, Pete Seeger, that folk music in young gatherings were being used to brainwash and subvert vast segments of young people’s groups.
PETE SEEGER: Oh, poor — I hope they’ve learned a little different now. That’s 40 years ago, 41 years ago, but the establishment has always been concerned about music. I’ve quoted Plato for years, who wrote, “It’s very important that the wrong kind of music not be allowed in the Republic.” And I’ve also heard there’s an old Arab proverb, “When the king puts the poet on his payroll, he cuts off the tongue of the poet.”
During the 1930s, I was very conscious that radio stations played nice love songs and funny songs, but only by accident did a song like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” get through. The other songs tended to be more like Bing Crosby’s hit of 1933, I think. ”Wrap your troubles in dreams. Dream your troubles away.” That’s how we’re going to lick the Depression?
AMY GOODMAN: Did you know Yip Harburg, who wrote “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”?
PETE SEEGER: I knew him. I knew him very well. He was a wonderful guy. And I learned from — his son wrote a lovely biography, The Man Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz. Is there time to tell that story?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we have told it on Democracy Now!
PETE SEEGER: Oh, well, then if you told it…
AMY GOODMAN: No, no, no. There are many who haven’t heard it.
PETE SEEGER: Yip and Harold Arlen, the musician, work out this plum of a job to write songs for a musical version of The Wizard of Oz, and they got this song, and then the producer was going to cut it from the show, says it slows up the opening. And they fought like tigers: “This movie is not going to be made unless this song is in it.” Finally, it took Louis B. Mayer, himself, who says, “We’re wasting a lot of money sitting around here arguing. Let’s get started. Let the boys have their song.” And, of course, it’s that song that brings back a revival of the movie all the time. It’s a great song.
I sang it last Feb 15th, a year ago. Wow! I was on First Avenue. There must have been hundreds of thousands of people stretched out. And I said, “You know this song. I’ll give you the words.” And I gave, just like I did with “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I said, “Somewhere over the rainbow.” And they sang, ”Somewhere over the rainbow.” “Way up high.” ”Way up high.” “There’s a land I heard of once in a lullaby.” ”There’s a —” So through the whole song, the hundreds of thousands of people sung it.
But near the end — I do this whenever I sing the song — I say, “There’s two more short lines to this song, but I have to change two words.” And I look heavenward and say, “Somewhere up there I can hear Yip saying, 'Pete, you can fool around with your old folk songs, but don't you touch “Over the Rainbow,” please.’ Yip, wherever you are, I got to change two words 'cause if I'd been there when little Dorothy said, 'Why can't I?’ I’d tell her, 'You know why you can't, Dorothy? Because you only ask for yourself. You’ve got to ask for everybody, because either we’re all going to make it over that rainbow, or nobody’s going to make it.’ And so, sing it, 'If plucky little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why can't you and I?'” And the whole crowd sings these slightly different words. It's beautiful. And, of course, that’s the story of Noah’s Ark and the rainbow. I’m sure Yip was thinking of that.
This world will survive when we learn how to coexist. Okay, we disagree. You like to eat this way, and I like to eat that way. You like to dance that way. I like to dance this way. You think of this word meaning such and such. I use the same word, but I’m thinking of something different. But if we learn the lesson of the rainbow, we will be here a hundred years from now.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Pete Seeger, and on this allmusic.com bio of you, it says “Pete Seeger’s adherence to the sanctity of folk music came to a boiling point with the advent of folk rock, and it’s long been rumored that he tried to pull the plug on Bob Dylan’s very electrified set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1965.” Is that true?
PETE SEEGER: No. It’s true that I don’t play electrified instruments. I don’t know how to. On the other hand, I have played with people who play them beautifully, and I admire some of them. Howling Wolf was using electrified instruments at Newport just the day before Bob did. But I was furious that the sound was so distorted you could not understand a word that he was singing. He was singing a great song, “Maggie’s Farm,” a great song, but you couldn’t understand it. And I ran over to the soundman, said, “Fix the sound so you can understand him.” And they hollered back, “No, this is the way they want it!” I don’t know who they was, but I was so mad I said “Damn, if I had an axe I’d cut the cable right now.” I really was that mad. But I wasn’t against Bob going electric.
As a matter of fact, some of Bob’s songs are still my favorites. What an artist he is. What a great — I would say maybe he and Woody and Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell and Malvina Reynolds are the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century, even though Irving Berlin made the most money. They wrote songs that were trying to help us understand where we are, what we gotta do. Still are writing them.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger, here on Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation.
AMY GOODMAN: In 1967, you made your stand against the Vietnam War clear on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Can you talk about that?
PETE SEEGER: Well, the Smothers Brothers were a big, big success on CBS television. And way back the year before, I think in the spring of '67, 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, “Okay, you can have him on.” And I sang this song ”Waste 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, “Okay, okay, 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 at 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 gotta keep putting it in, because if we don’t keep putting teaspoons in, it will leak out, and the rocks will go back down again. Who knows?
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see those cracks, those places, today in mass media? I know you don’t watch TV and all that, but, for example, you going on Smothers Brothers. Do you think that it is as constricted today?
PETE SEEGER: Not as constricted, no. There’s all sorts of little things going on. I understand this program may be on some TV stations. I’ve gotta find out where, when, so I can see it. You’re right, I don’t look at TV much, except to check on the weather for my skating rink. I’m a read-aholic and a magazine-aholic, I get 40 or 50 magazines a month. And I read music magazines, environmental magazines, union magazines, civil rights magazines. Who knows?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
PETE SEEGER: Well, I was sitting in an airplane on my way to sing at Oberlin College. I was over Ohio, and —
AMY GOODMAN: What year?
PETE SEEGER: — half-dozing. Year, 1955. And all of a sudden, three lines, which I had read in a book, took form. In the book, it simply said “Where are the flowers? The girls have plucked them. Where are the girls? They’re all married. Where are the men? They’re all in the army.” It’s an old Russian folk song. And the Don Cossacks — maybe it’s a Ukrainian folk song. “Koloda Duda” is the original name, but I didn’t know that. All I knew is I had read these three lines in the book And Quiet Flows the Don by a Soviet novelist. And all of a sudden, I had three verses. I didn’t realize it at the time, I had swiped part of the verse from an old Irish song. I had been recording a lumberjack song from the Adirondacks: ”Johnson says he’ll load more hay, says he’ll load ten times a day.” You can really see, I slowed it down, and I pinned the words to the microphone that night and sang them.
And a few weeks later I was walking down 48th Street, Manhattan, stopped in at Folkways Records, said, “I made up a new song.” And then, Moe Asch propped a mike up in front of me and recorded it. And a few months later it was out on another LP. An Oberlin College student got the LP at a job at a summer camp, and the kids were fooling around with the verses: ”Where have all the counselors gone, broken curfew everyone.” But by the end of the summer, he had made up the two extra verses we know. “Where have the soldiers gone, gone to grave yards. Where have the grave yards gone, covered with flowers.”
And the kids took the song back to New York. Peter, Paul and Mary were singing in the Village, Greenwich Village, and picked it up, started singing it. The Kingston Trio learned it from them. About three years later, my manager says, “Pete, didn’t you write a song called 'Where have all the Flowers Gone'?” I said, “Yeah, about three years ago.” He said, “Did you copyright it?” “No, don’t guess I ever did.” He said, “Well, you ought to. The Kingston Trio have recorded it.”
Well, I got on the phone to Dave Guard. He was an old friend. He had started playing the banjo because he got my book, my bestseller. I mimeographed it first, but later printed it. It’s printed 100,000 copies. How to Play the Five-String Banjo. He wrote me a year later. He says, “I’ve been putting that book to hard use. I and two others have a group we call the Kingston Trio.” So I called him up. “Oh, Pete, we didn’t know it was your song. We’ll take our name off it.” It was very nice of him, because technically, legally, I had, as they say, quote, “abandoned copyright.” But they took their name off, and my manager copyrighted it. It pays my taxes these days, that song. It’s been translated into dozens of other languages.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete, could you play “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
PETE SEEGER: Well, I’ll sing it more like I wrote it, which had no rhythm. It’s like an Irish slow aire.
Where have all the flowers gone,
Long time passing.
This is the way Dominic Behan sang it. He’s the brother of Brendan Behan, the writer. And he liked it this slow way, like an Irish slow aire. Come to think of it, President Kennedy met Dominic Behan once when he went back to Ireland, and he said, “You Behan, the singer?” And Dominic said, “Yes.” He said, “Do you know this fellow, Seeger?” And Dominic said, “Oh, I know him well.” “Good man,” said Kennedy. And this was when I was still under indictment.
But Kennedy, I had written him a letter. Never gotten an answer, but I had reminded him that one of his favorite poems was written by my uncle way back in World War I. My Uncle Alan got mowed down by German machine guns, about six months after he wrote a poem:
I have a rendezvous with death,
At some disputed barricade,
When the spring comes back
with rustling shade and apple blossoms fill the air.
I have a rendezvous with death,
When spring brings back blue days and fair.
Maybe he shall take my hand and lead me into his dark land,
And close my eyes and quench my breath,
But maybe I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When the spring comes north again next year,
And the first meadow flowers appear.
God knows ’twere better to be deep,
pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where the love throbs out in blissful sleep.
And hushed awakenings are dear,
But I have a rendezvous with death at midnight in some flaming town.
And I to my pledged word I am true,
I shall not fail my rendezvous.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete, you didn’t actually fully sing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Do you want to give us a little more of it?
PETE SEEGER: Where — ah, maybe I’ll just sing the very, very last verse, because the contradictions of life still amaze me. You have to laugh, if you don’t cry.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one.
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?
AMY GOODMAN: You still have your voice.
PETE SEEGER: It’s in the cellar.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about getting older?
PETE SEEGER: Oh, it’s no fun to lose your memory or your hearing or your eyesight, but from my shoulders on down I’m in better condition than most men my age. I can go skiing with the family, although I stick to the intermediate slopes. I don’t try the double diamond.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete, you sit here listening with headphones on. You’re a singer. Sound is very important. It’s not as easy for you to hear things so clearly anymore. How has that affected you?
PETE SEEGER: Well, I’m singing to myself all the time, just humming or just in my brain. I’m not making any sound. But admittedly, I can’t — unless I have earphones on, I can’t really — even with what they call hearing aids, I can’t really hear music. I don’t listen to CD’s. I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t listen to TV. And occasionally, when friends come around, I’ll join in with them, but my fingers are slowing down. I hear records that I made years ago and say, “How did I ever play that so fast?”
On the other hand, these are exciting times. There’s never been such as exciting times. And win, lose or draw, it’s going to be very, very exciting. And I applaud what you are doing. I think what Democracy Now! is doing is just fantastic. This couldn’t have been done half a century ago, could not have been done.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
PETE SEEGER: Well, they didn’t have the technology for it, I guess. So as I say, technology will save us if it doesn’t wipe us out first.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, final words, Pete Seeger, as we wrap up this conversation — the role of music, culture and politics.
PETE SEEGER: They’re all tangled up. Hooray for tangling!
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. 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 there’s a 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?
AMY GOODMAN: Legendary folk singer and activist, Pete Seeger, here on Democracy Now!