Clicky
Modal close

Dear Democracy Now! visitor,

You turn to Democracy Now! for ad-free news you can trust. Maybe you come for our daily headlines. Maybe you come for in-depth stories that expose government and corporate abuses of power. Democracy Now! is different because we don't accept government or advertising dollars—we count on you, our global audience, to fund our work.Right now, all donations to Democracy Now! will be doubled by a generous donor. Pretty amazing, right? It just takes a few minutes to make sure Democracy Now! is there for you and everyone else in 2018.

Non-commercial news needs your support.

We rely on contributions from you, our viewers and listeners to do our work. If you visit us daily or weekly or even just once a month, now is a great time to make your monthly contribution.

Please do your part today.

Donate

“We Shall Overcome”: Remembering Folk Icon, Activist Pete Seeger in His Own Words & Songs

Listen
Media Options
Listen

We end our Fourth of July holiday special remembering the late legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. For nearly seven decades, Seeger was a musical and political icon who helped create the modern American folk music movement. We air highlights of two appearances by Seeger on Democracy Now!. Interspersed in the interviews, Seeger sings some of his classic songs, “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” He also talks about what has been described as his “defiant optimism.” “Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what [the album] 'Seeds' is all about,” Seeger said. “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?”

Seeger led an illustrious musical career. In the 1940s, he performed in The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Then he formed The Weavers. In the 1950s, he was blacklisted after he opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger became a prominent civil rights activist and helped popularize the anthem “We Shall Overcome.” In the 1960s, he was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired generations of protest singers. He was later at the center of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. With his wife Toshi, Pete helped found Clearwater, a group to clean up the Hudson River. Toshi died in 2013 just weeks before their 70th wedding anniversary. In 2009, he and Bruce Springsteen performed Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.

Related Story

Video squareWeb ExclusiveJan 31, 2014VIDEO: Pete Seeger Recalls the 1949 Peekskill Riot Where He And Paul Robeson Were Attacked
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We spend the rest of the hour remembering Pete Seeger.

PETE SEEGER: [singing] If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

If I had a bell,
If I had a bell,
Ring it in the morning,
I’d ring it in the morning
Ring it in the evening!
Ring it in the evening,
All over this land,
Ring out danger
Ring out danger,
Ring out a warning,
Ring out a warning,
Ring out love, ring out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

If I had a song,
If I had a song,
Sing it in the morning,
Sing it in the morning
Sing it in the evening!
Sing it in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d sing out danger
I’d sing out danger,
I’d sing out a warning,
I’d sing out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

Well, I got a hammer,
Well, I got a hammer,
I got a bell,
And I got a bell,
And I got a song,
All over this land,
This hammer of justice,
The bell of freedom,
Song about love between
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died in January 2014 at the age of 94. For nearly seven decades, Pete Seeger was a musical and political icon who helped create the modern American folk music movement. In the 1940s, he performed in The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Then he formed The Weavers. In the '50s, he opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee. Pete Seeger became a prominent civil rights activist and helped popularize the anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” He was also a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired a generation of protest singers. Later in his life, Pete was at the center of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. With his wife Toshi Seeger, Pete Seeger helped found Clearwater, a group to clean up the Hudson River in New York. Toshi Seeger died [in 2013], just weeks before their 70th wedding anniversary. In 2009, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama, when he first became president.

Pete Seeger last joined us on Democracy Now! in August of 2013. We’ll play highlights from that interview later, but first I want to turn to Pete Seeger in 2004, when he joined us in our firehouse studio at Democracy Now! I asked Pete Seeger to talk about his time serving in the military during World War II.

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.

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: 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—head one was Irving Kaufman, the man who sentenced the Rosenbergs to the chair 10 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 20 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 20 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 Septima—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 Nonviolent 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 our 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. 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: 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, 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 ”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, “OK, OK, he can sing the song.” On 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 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 got to 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: That’s Pete Seeger in our firehouse studio 10 years ago in 2004. We continue remembering Pete in his own words and song.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger, singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to remember the life of Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer and activist. We return to our interview back in 2004, a decade ago, in our firehouse studio. I asked Pete Seeger to talk about one of his most famous songs, “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 10 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 mic 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 graveyards. Where have the graveyards gone, covered with flowers.”

And the kids took the song back to New York. Peter, Paul and Mary were singing in the Village, in Greenwich Village, and picked it up, started singing it. The Kingston Trio learned it from them. And 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: 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 CDs. 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: Pete Seeger speaking a decade ago in 2004 on Democracy Now! He last appeared on Democracy Now! in August 2013. He talked about one of his most famous songs.

PETE SEEGER: The song, “If I Had a Hammer,” went all sorts of places that I could never go, and I’m very glad.

[singing] If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
Hammer out a warning,
Hammer out love between,
All of my brothers,

Oh, a woman said, “Make that 'My brothers and my sisters.'” Lee says, “It doesn’t roll off the tongue so well. But she insisted. He said, “How about 'All of my siblings'?” She didn’t think that was funny.

[singing] All over this land.
If I had a song,

Don’t need to sing the whole song. You can sing it to yourself, whether you’re driving a car or washing the dishes or just singing to your kids. We haven’t mentioned children much on this program, but it may be children realizing that you can’t live without love, you can’t live without fun and laughter, you can’t live without friends—and I say, “Long live teachers of children,” because they can show children how they can save the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And we end with more Pete Seeger last August [in 2013].

PETE SEEGER: We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I know that I do believe,
We shall overcome…

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been listening to Pete Seeger in his own words and song. He died in 2014 at the age of 94. For a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org, and go there to watch all of our Pete Seeger shows, including his 90th birthday celebration featuring Bruce Springsteen and Bernice Johnson Reagon and Joan Baez.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

VIDEO: Pete Seeger Recalls the 1949 Peekskill Riot Where He And Paul Robeson Were Attacked

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.

Make a donation
Up arrowTop