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Happy Birthday, Pete Seeger!

| May 3, 2013 | 14 Comments

“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’s spanned over 70 years, the 94-year-old Seeger has 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.

These days Seeger remains vibrant, creative and deeply attuned to social and environmental issues. He and his wife, Toshi, continue to live 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 has worked closely with the Clearwater organization, an environmental group that seeks to protect the Hudson River, its tributaries and related waters. Each year he invites more than 10,000 children and adults onto his sailboat, where they sing and discuss the history of the Hudson.

To celebrate his birthday today, here is Pete’s story behind his timeless “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

“I had been reading a long novel—”And Quiet Flows the Don”—about the Don River in Russia and the Cossacks who lived along it in the 19th century. It describes the Cossack soldiers galloping off to join the Czar’s army, singing as they go. Three lines from a song are quoted in the book: ‘Where are the flowers? The girls plucked them / Where are the girls? They’re all married / Where are the men? They’re all in the army.’ I never got around to looking up the song, but I wrote down those three lines.

“Later, in an airplane, I was dozing, and it occurred to me that the line ‘long time passing’—which I had also written in a notebook—would sing well. Then I thought, ‘When will we ever learn.’ Suddenly, within 20 minutes, I had a song. There were just three verses. I Scotch-taped the song to a microphone and sang it at Oberlin College. This was in 1955.

“One of the students there had a summer job as a camp counselor. He took the song to the camp and sang it to the kids. It was very short. He gave it rhythm, which I hadn’t done. The kids played around with it, singing ‘Where have all the counselors gone? / Open curfew, everyone.’

“The counselor added two actual verses: ‘Where have all the soldiers gone? / Gone to graveyards every one / Where have all the graveyards gone? / Covered with flowers every one.’ Joe Hickerson is his name, and I give him 20 percent of the royalties. That song still brings in thousands of dollars from all around the world.”

—  By Russell Hall

—Photo by Econosmith

Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 113

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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  1. Happy Birthday, Pete Seeger! | Learn How to Write Songs | May 3, 2012
  1. Alannah Fitzgerald says:

    I first met Pete at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in Petersburgh NY. I was just a teen and he inspired me so much. Over the years , Pete continued to be a major icon for all of us. What a blessed life he led.

  2. TOM says:

    HE WAS A GREAT AMERICAN HERO , FOR SURE !!!!

  3. Robert H Horton says:

    Yes, but I didn’t know Pete until recently,…all of those songs I knew from that time frame! Great work!

  4. Tom Cerullo says:

    My first recollection of this song was from the Kingston Trio’s version. I have ” learned” from it and I’m a relentless and tenacious advocate of peace, a tree hugging liberal and have a social awareness that inspired me to write this note from this song. RIP Pete, You are my hero.

  5. Ann Palmquist says:

    The more we give the more comes back to us and that is what Pete did with his music. Writting a column about the valueable role of trees play I was reminded of Pete Seegers envoirmental concerns. His words made it sound so simple but his actions were relentless in showing how important our part was to take action, speak out and be part of something bigger than ourselves. His words made it all seem so simple and we thank you for showing we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. Thanks and sleep well under the stars and sweet pines. St. Augustine Beache

  6. deepthi amaratunga says:

    The more you hear more you admire the person. A prophet is seldom admired in his land. I think he would have gathered more fame if he did not choose the path he had taken, but he had proved that truth prevails in the long run and since he lived long he saw it from his own eyes.
    He is a unsung or rather less-sung great personality perhaps among the greatest of the century like Mandela or Ghandhi or any other lesser known but larger than life persons we do not hear often.

  7. charlie says:

    my favourite song of all time

  8. Elliot Bardavid says:

    I just returned from Vietnam after spending two weeks traveling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with TOP (Tours of Peace) Vietnam Veterans. On our last day in Vietnam we had the privilege of having lunch with our counterpart, a North Vietnamese Army veteran by the name of Mr. Son and his daughter Mai. Imagine our surprise and delight when, after lunch, Mr. Son took out his guitar and he and his daughter sang Where Have All The flowers Gone! It was very moving. It brought tears to our eyes. I think Pete would be pleased to know that his song has made it half way around the world to Vietnam and brought veterans on both sides together in peace.

  9. Chas says:

    Still brings tears to my eyes

  10. Michael Trujillo says:

    I have been playing Where Have All The Flowers Gone? for 48 years. I will lead it for our Memorial Day Service at the Evergreen Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Marysville, Washington. I will dedicate this beautiful song to this beautiful Man!

  11. Alexandra Thrift says:

    Love the story about “where have all the flowers gone”

    My much older brother Richard Thrift ( still playing folk and country) taught me all the words and I sang it with him and the whole family when I was a little girl along with many other songs by Pete. I still sing it sometimes. It is simple and poignant and easy to play.

    Much love to Pete xxx

  12. Troy Gipson says:

    “Where have all the flowers gone” has been one of my all time favorite songs…. Great Song, Great Man!

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!

  13. Chris Price says:

    What a wonderful story
    what a perfect way to write a song
    what a wonderful man

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