“He’s had one of the most perfect lives of anybody I know.”
That was filmmaker Jim Brown’s response when asked why he profiled Pete Seeger in a PBS “American Masters” documentary. Few would disagree with Brown’s assessment. In a career that spanned over 70 years, Seeger embodied the idealism that once defined the American spirit. A tireless crusader for social justice, world harmony and environmental causes, Seeger was even called, at the height of his activism, “America’s tuning fork.”
The trajectory of Seeger’s life is dazzling. Born May 3, 1919, he first wanted to become a journalist. Music beckoned, however, and following a period where he assisted folk-song archivist Alan Lomax, he teamed with legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie to form the politically oriented Almanac Singers. Drafted into the Army in 1942, Seeger served out his duty and then co-founded the folk group, the Weavers. In addition to popularizing the Guthrie classic “This Land Is Your Land,” the Weavers topped the charts in 1950 with their version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene.”
Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, the Weavers disbanded in 1953. Informally banned from TV programs and radio shows—as well as from many concert stages—Seeger began performing at high schools and on college campuses. Concurrent with the folk revival of the early ’60s, his songs became better known to the public at large. Thanks to hit versions by the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, and the Byrds, the Seeger-written songs “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” have become part of the American lexicon.
Into his 90’s Seeger remained vibrant, creative and deeply attuned to social and environmental issues. He and Toshi—his wife of 70 years before she passed away in July of last year—lived on a wooded hillside in New York overlooking the Hudson River, in a cabin they built with their own hands decades ago. Since 1969, Seeger worked closely with the Clearwater organization, an environmental group that seeks to protect the Hudson River, its tributaries and related waters. Each year he invited more than 10,000 children and adults onto his sailboat, where they sang and discussed the history of the Hudson.
Pete peacefully left this earth last night, January 27, at a New York Hospital at the age of 94. To remember him, below is one of the last conversations we had with him five years ago at his home, where he talked about his songs, his passions and his relationship with Woody Guthrie. We will miss your loving, sweet spirit, Pete, and are grateful for your time on this earth. You made us better.
You recorded a remake of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on your new CD. That song has relevance once again, since it addresses war. It’s also the song you performed on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at a time when you were blacklisted.
That’s right. In the spring of 1967, their program was tops in the ratings. CBS said to them, “We love what you’re doing. Can we do anything nice for you?” And they said, “Let us have Seeger on as a guest.” CBS said they would think about it. Finally, in October of ’67, they said, “OK, you can have Seeger on.” I flew out to California and sang, among other songs, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” The tape was then flown back east, to go on the air a few days later, but they scissored out my song. On the air you could see me with a guitar, and then, a fraction of a second later, I was standing there with a banjo in my hand. It was obvious something had been cut, and, in fact, it was that song.
Didn’t the show eventually air it?
Well, Tommy and Dick [Smothers] took their protest to the print media. They said, “CBS is censoring our best songs and jokes, and they also censored Seeger’s best performance.” Some felt CBS might have done it purposefully to get some publicity. Finally, in February of 1968, CBS said, “OK, you can do the song.” On a day’s notice I flew back out to California and sang again—this time the song ran. But then, pressure was put on CBS, from Washington I’m sure, saying, “What the hell are you doing? We’re trying to win this war in Vietnam, and you’re cutting the ground out from beneath us.” So the Smothers Brothers’ show was dropped in ’68. On the other hand, not long after that, Johnson decided not to run for re-election.
Another controversy occurred in 1965, when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. What really happened?
I myself prefer not to work with drums, although occasionally I do. I also don’t know how to play the electric guitar, but I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated listening to B.B. King, how he can make a note sing out. It’s a relatively new instrument and quite different from an acoustic guitar. If there’s a human race 200 years from now, the electric guitar might well be remembered as the most popular instrument of the folk music of the late 20th century.
But anyway, Dylan was singing a wonderful song—“Maggie’s Farm”—but you couldn’t understand a thing he was singing, because they had the sound system so distorted. I ran over to the guy managing the controls, and said, “Fix the sound, so we can understand the words.” And he shouted back, “No! This is the way they want it!” They wanted it loud enough that all these folkies would “boo,” because this was Bob’s chance to show them he’s bidding “Bye Bye Baby Blue” to them. I was so mad, I said, “Dammit, if I had an ax, I would cut the cable.” I wanted the lyrics to be understood. That’s my main complaint about a lot of singers. I hear so much of the accompaniment, I can hardly understand the words.
On the new album you also remade the old Weavers hit, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” recording it as a three-language version. What was the idea behind that?
The man who wrote the music, Issachar Miron, is my age, and he’s very proud that the song was popular during World War II. He was also proud when the Weavers made it a hit in 1950. But both he and I felt that in these modern times, when Jews and Arabs are killing one another and threatening to wipe each other off the face of the earth, a three-language version might help. It’s sung in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
You once said that being blacklisted was a blessing in disguise, in that it steered you away from the commercial world. Can you elaborate?
I never liked the commercial world. It was a bunch of hypocrisy. I don’t drink or smoke. I don’t like nightclubs and never went to them. Around 1953, I got a letter from some students at Oberlin College asking if I could come there and sing. They said they couldn’t pay much, but they had a basement in the art department that held about 200 people, and they were sure if they passed the hat they could cover my bus fare. So I took a bus out to Ohio, and, sure enough, they passed the hat, and I made about $200. The following year I came back and sang in the chapel for 500 people. And then the next year I sang in the school auditorium, which held about 1,000, and we filled it. By the ’60s, I was singing in big state colleges. That, probably, is the most important work I ever did. It showed that in order to make a living as a musician, you didn’t have to go to nightclubs, hotels or radio stations.
This took place long after you had formed the Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Had you written any songs before you met him?
I had written a few poems when I was in school. My father had tried writing songs, and I had an uncle who was a poet during World War I. One of his poems—“I Have a Rendezvous With Death”—was reprinted widely. It’s often cited as one of President Kennedy’s favorites. But it was Woody, as much as anyone, who inspired me to write songs. Also, Alan Lomax was four years older than I was, and vastly more experienced in many areas. Lomax was my mentor until I met Woody. After that, Woody became my mentor, as a songwriter and performer.
What was the most important lesson you learned from Guthrie?
He was a genius at simplicity and a great lyricist. He rarely made up melodies. There’s a story involving the song “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” When the American destroyer ship, the Reuben James, was sunk off Greenland in October 1941, Woody wrote about 20 verses. He wanted the names of every person who drowned to be in that song. We said, “Woody, no one except you is going to sing a song that’s this long. Can’t you at least give us a chorus that we can join in on?” He grumbled, but within a week he had pared the song down to five verses and written a very strong refrain. (Sings) “What were their names / Tell me, what were their names / Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?” That song is still being sung today. It’s a great song, and it attests to his ability to write something simple and powerful.
You once pointed out that whereas Guthrie put new words to old music, you put new music to old words.
That was true, more often than not. Sometimes I took an old tune and put new words to it. And sometimes I was merely a matchmaker. I would take one person’s tune and put it to someone else’s words.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” is one of your best-known songs. Do you remember the details of writing it?
I got a letter in 1959 from one of my publishers, saying, “Pete, can’t you write another song like ‘Goodnight, Irene’? I can’t market these protests songs you keep writing” (laughs). I was a little angry. My first thought was that I needed to get a different publisher, since that was the only type of song I knew how to write. But then I pulled these words out of my pocket, where I had copied them onto a piece of paper, and improvised a tune off the top of my head. I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I recorded it and sent it to him. A week later I got a lovely letter saying, “This is just what I was looking for. Thanks.” It was that same publisher who got the song into the hands of the Byrds. They made a few slight changes and came out with that terrific record.
Do you remember your impressions the very first time you heard the Byrds’ version?
Well, they changed one or two notes. Originally I thought, “Did they have to do that?” Later I felt they were right to have done it.
Did you know you had something special on your hands when you and Lee Hays wrote “If I Had a Hammer”?
No, we didn’t, although we knew it was a good song and a good idea. Lee wrote the four verses and mailed them to me in the last days of December 1948, I believe. I sat down at the piano and worked out the tune. The Weavers had just gotten together and picked a group name. We sang it at various places, but we were just a bunch of lefties then. We recorded it for a tiny little company, and it sold about 500 copies. Our tune never caught on as widely as it did when Peter, Paul & Mary re-wrote my melody. Mine was slower and lower-pitched. Actually my favorite version is the one by Sam Cooke.
Do you feel songs have a special power, above other arts, to effect change?
No one can prove that. But it’s true that people who run countries generally want to control the music. I don’t know exactly where it appears, but Plato is supposed to have said that it’s very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music in the republic. I’ve also been told there’s an Arab proverb that says, “When the king puts a poet on his payroll, he cuts off the tongue of the poet.” During the 1930s there was a Depression, but did you have songs about that? Only one sneaked through—“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” All the other songs were designed to make you forget your troubles. Bing Crosby even had a hit titled “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.” I suppose it was felt that was how to solve the Depression.
Given the disposable nature of today’s culture, is it still possible to write a folk song that will resonate a century later—the way a Stephen Foster or Woody Guthrie song does?
If somebody writes a truly great song—with a great melody and great words—that song will be remembered. The song “Greensleeves,” for example, was a pop song of the 16th century, and it refuses to die. It became a political parody in the 17th century and then a Christmas carol in the 18th century. It had such a great melody, no one wanted to forget it. The same is true of some of Stephen Foster’s or Irving Berlin’s greatest songs. To this day I often lead audiences in singing Berlin’s “Blue Skies.”
What’s your best advice to young people?
Sing for as many different kinds of audiences as you possibly can. Old people, young people, angry people, sentimental people, religious people, anti-religious people, lefties, righties, and in-betweenies. Sing for them, and you will learn from all of them.
—By Russell Hall, Lead photo by David Redfern/Retna
Category: In Case You Haven't Heard