year, Pete Seeger, the folk singer who gave America
some of her best-known songs, celebrates his eightieth
birthday. Born in 1919 to a musicologist father and
violin-teacher mother, Seeger learned to appreciate
music at a young age. On a trip to North Carolina
with his father in 1936, he picked up the five-string
banjo, an instrument virtually unknown at the time.
Shortly after dropping out of Harvard's Class of
1940 (he was a classmate of John F. Kennedy's),
he met Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Burl Ives through
folk music revivalist Alan Lomax. A new blend of
political and folk music was emerging, and Seeger
led the way with the Almanacs (Seeger, Guthrie,
Lee Hays and Millard Lampell). Seeger served in
the army in World War II and then saw his career
explode with another folk group, the Weavers, who
became surprise celebrities and topped the charts
with their songs.
the Weavers' success disappeared in an instant.
The members were blacklisted because of their "radical" lyrics
and supposed communist sympathies, and the group
disbanded. In August of 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed
by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
He refused to cooperate and was sentenced to ten
concurrent one-year prison terms. Helped by friends,
Seeger spent only a few hours in jail, but the
experience was bitter. He was banned from television,
radio and concert stages and labeled "Kruschev's
he stubbornly clung to his faith in the power of
music to change people's hearts. During the ’50s
and early ’60s, he appeared around the country
before small audiences at schools and public auditoriums
and eventually college campuses. He also gave sold-out
idealist and pacifist, Seeger wrote freedom songs
during the civil rights movement and later became
an environmentalist. He released more than fifty
albums and wrote or popularized some of America's
best-known songs, including "If
I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the
Flowers Gone" and "We Shall Overcome." Gadfly spoke with Seeger at a house near
the Hudson River that he built himself, where he
and his wife have lived for the past fifty years.
How did you become a folk singer?
Well, my parents were into classical
music. My mother studied violin in the Paris Conservatory,
and if she had had better health, she might have
toured and given concerts. But instead she taught
violin for around sixty years. My father was a
curious man. He was fascinated by the power of
music and became a professor of musicology, so
as a child I could hear Chinese music or other
things that were very hard to find in those days.
Many years later, I became convinced that if people
wanted to write great music, they should start
with the roots of their own music, whether they
were Irish, African American, Chinese or whatever.
My father called it the vernacular; if you want
to reach the people where you are, start with the
music that they know.
My father was very involved in experimental
music for a while, the twelve-tone scale, Schoenberg
and Stravinsky. In the late 1930s, [my father]
was learning about country music, and he put me
in touch with a man named Alan Lomax. I think that
Alan, who is still alive but not in good health,
is the one person most responsible for what is
called the folk song revival. Myself, I think it
would have been better if he had not used the word,
because there really are as many kinds of folk
songs as there are folks. There is Chinese folk
music, Venezuelan folk music and so on. When people
call me a folk musician, I caution them to remember
that there are all kinds of folk music.
Your father also influenced you
That's right. My father's father
was a businessman, but his father had been an abolitionist
in Massachusetts. Well, this was not a popular
thing to be. Some abolitionists were lynched, even
in the North.
father picked up on this. During World War I, my
father was teaching at the University of California
at Berkeley. He had a very good job. He was head
of the music department, and he could have kept
[his position] if he had kept his mouth shut. But
he said it was disgraceful that people were murdering
each other to make a profit for the leaders of
their countries. The Germans were simply doing
what the Kaiser told them to, and the French and
English were simply doing what their leaders told
them to, and they were murdering each other. He
became a conscientious objector. My mother said,
can't you keep your mouth shut and keep your job?
No, he had to speak out. The next thing you know,
he was fired.
he came East to where my grandparents lived in
this part of New York State. They lived in a little
town over near the Connecticut line. My grandfather
had retired early; he was an importer and had an
office on Wall Street, and he had a comfortable
house. I can remember spending all my childhood
there. When the Crash came in 1929, my father's
analysis was that somebody had to make sense out
of the economy or people would be starving. There
would have to be a strong hand at the helm. He
decided he would throw in his lot with the Communists.
He and Aaron Copland, the well-known
composer, and several other composers had a small
group they called the Composers Collective. They
tried for several years to compose songs that the
proletariat would sing as they marched to the barricade.
In later life, he laughed. He said that they were
quite ignorant of what they should
do. They tried to compose German stamping music,
and they should have learned country music.
Did you become a folk singer
to bring about social change, or did you just
want to make music; or was it a combination of
say it was a combination. I've made music all my
life for the fun of it. In my book, Where Have
All the Flowers Gone, I wrote about how my
mother gave fiddles to my two older brothers, but
they rebelled, and I came along and my father said,
Oh, let Peter enjoy himself. But he left musical
instruments all around the house. Not just the
piano, but the organ, squeezebox, marimba, whistles...
When I was eight, [my mother] gave me a ukulele,
and that was my downfall. I played ukulele for
five years and at age thirteen switched over to
a tenor banjo so I could play in the school jazz
band. At age nineteen, I started playing the five-string
mountain banjo and have stuck
with it all my life. I've experimented with it.
I play Bach and Beethoven on it and occasionally
jazz and Latin American music or blues, which very
few people try to play on the banjo. It's been
a lot of fun.
did you meet Woody Guthrie?
was in March 1940. The actor
Will Geer met Woody in California. He told Woody
that there were a lot of people in New York who
would like to hear his music. So in February 1940,
Woody hitchhiked to New York, and while he was
standing there by the road with the cars going
past him, he was making up verses: "As I was
walking this ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway... " And
when he got to New York, he had the song ["This
Land Is Your Land"] written. I met him that
evening. It was a midnight benefit concert for
the California Agricultural Workers, and Burl
Ives and Leadbelly and Josh White and the Golden
Gate Quartet and Alan Lomax were there. These
were all people that Alan Lomax had helped discover
and urged to find an audience in New York.
all the years that you have been singing, what
time do you remember as being the most important?
I think the most important job I've ever done in my entire
life was to go from college
to college to college during the 1950s. First I sang
at very small places like Antioch, Oberlin and
Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and later on I
was able to sing in the big state colleges as things "loosened
we say. I was acquitted from
a charge of contempt of Congress in 1962. But
even before then, every year after the Korean
War ended, things got a little more free in this
country. Picket lines shouted "Seeger's
Kruschev's songbird!" All
I could do was laugh. All
they [the protesters] did
was sell more tickets. They
got me free publicity. As
a matter of fact, this is
one of the problems that
people trying to stop music
face. You can ban records
from radio, ban music from
television, clamp down on
night clubs and big concert
halls, but what are you going
to do when all someone is
doing is singing to ten people
here and fifty people there?
I think that is the most
important job I did: to encourage
people to make up songs and
though you were blacklisted
in the 1950s and part of the 1960s, did you feel
vindicated when you heard all the singing by the
younger generation in the ’60s?
was very proud when people like Joan Baez and
Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and the Kingston Trio [sang
my songs]. And I was happiest when people didn't
try to make a huge amount of money singing my songs,
but when they simply sang for their neighborhood.
are your thoughts on the 1960s?
course that was
a dramatic period, and I wrote several songs against
the Vietnam War, but, curiously enough, the song
which I will never forget was written by John Lennon
and Yoko Ono. It was a very, very short song. It
only had one line repeated over and over: "All we are
saying is give peace a chance." I
sang it for something
like eight minutes, I think the date
was November 13, 1969, and the
audience was about half a million people.
I have never
sung for such a huge audience and got
them all singing with me. I had tried
that was faster, but by the time the
words got out to the audience and back
to me, we were
all out of rhythm with each other. So
I tried this very slow song, and that
did the events of the 1960s affect you?
I wrote a
song about it, "False
from True." It was discouraging
to have to face up to the
fact that when a great person
does a great job, sooner
or later they get assassinated.
Abraham Lincoln got assassinated,
and Gandhi got assassinated,
and Martin Luther King and
Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy
was a politician—he
made all sorts of compromises—but
I think he
made a real
He was learning,
you can ask
in this world:
hope I have
some of my
in the civil
led the Mississippi
introduced the song "We
Shall Overcome" to
the civil rights movement
and played it for Martin
Luther King, Jr.
I played it for him in 1957, but he was not a
song leader. That song really sticks with you, doesn't
a guy named Guy Carawan who really introduced the
song to the civil rights movement. He had learned
the song, not from me, but from some people from
[the folk school called] Highlander. And his friend
Frank Hamilton also learned it from people from
Highlander. Frank Hamilton, who is white, was learning
about gospel music by attending the rehearsals
of a great black gospel choir in Los Angeles, the
St. Paul's Baptist Church Choir, and he heard them
singing what is known as twelve-eight time. When
Frank played it for Guy, Guy got that feeling and
that's the way Guy taught it: a slow song with
a clapping on the offbeat, which is the ancient
African-American way of doing things—not
clapping on the downbeat. Guy taught it to some
young people in February or March 1960, and they
Guy, you've got a great song there." About
a month and half later, in April, the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded
in Raleigh, North Carolina. Several hundred young
people from all around the South were there at
the founding convention, and somebody shouted, "Guy,
teach us ‘We
Shall Overcome.’" And
to call it that.
know you've probably
answered this question a million times, but what
exactly happened at the Newport Folk Festival
in 1965 during Bob Dylan's performance? Did you
try to pull the electricity out, or did Alan
Lomax try to cut the electrical cord when Dylan
was playing, or...
Alan didn't have anything to do with that. What
happened was Bob Dylan came on with a band, and
they took a long time to get set up with the microphones.
When they did start singing, it was so loud you
could not understand the words. I was backstage,
and I ran over to the person in charge of the controls,
and I said, "Clean
that sound so we can understand the words," and
shouted back, "No,
is the way they want it." I
it ever since.
is your memory of Paul
Robeson? I know you two appeared in a concert together
the day of the Peekskill riots.
was not a riot. It was a well-planned attack!
The first concert was supposed to be August 27,
1949, but a mob came in during the afternoon and
beat up the people setting up the stage, chairs
and public address system. Paul had asked me to
sing a few songs at the beginning of the concert.
I couldn't get through the crowd. Finally I saw
a state trooper with a broad hat. I said, "Officer,
can you help me get through?
I'm supposed to be singing here tonight." He
gave me a peculiar look and simply said there
was not going to be
any concert, and
he strode off. So I turned around and drove
home. And the next day I found out what had
happened [riots broke out]. Robeson got on
the air. He said it was America, he had a right
to sing, and he was going to sing.
week, the concert did take place, and great precautions
were taken. When we drove there, there was a small
crowd at the gate hollering things like, "Kikes!" "Nigger
and the concert took place.
found out later, went into one car to leave and then
went right through it into another car so people
outside didn't know which car he was in. It must
have been a full hour; the cars had been slowly leaving,
but my family and I were in no hurry. We had seven
in our car, including my wife's father, who said, "I'm
because you insist you want to take your children.
I don't think it's safe." I
it's going to be safe.
I'm sure that with all
this publicity nothing
will happen." Well,
was very wrong. We had
a baby a few years old
and a baby one year old
and we had a Jeep station
wagon, and I saw some
glass in the road, and
I said, "Uh oh,
be prepared to duck,
somebody may throw a
was the understatement
of the year. Around the
corner was a pile of
stones almost waist high,
and a young man threw
with all his force at
every car that came by.
Around the corner was
another pile of stones
with another young fellow
throwing them and around
the corner another pile
of stones. Within the
space of a mile or a
mile and a half, there
must have been ten or
twenty piles of stones,
and everybody got their
windows broken. One man
lost his eyesight, but
nobody was killed. Robeson
was told to lie on the
floor so they would not
see him, because people wanted to kill him.
was a policeman standing only fifty feet away
from a man throwing stones, and I came to a stop.
I tried to roll the window down, but I could only
get it down about one inch. It was all splintered.
I said, "Officer,
aren't you going to do something?" And
just hollered to move on, move on, motioning with
hand. I turned around, and the man behind me was
stone after stone. He was going to get killed
I didn't move, so I moved on. About five or ten years
I was singing in Denver, and a man my age came backstage
and said, "Pete,
were at Peekskill, weren't you?" I said
He said, "I was
the car behind you." I
was an attack.
you ever want to back down?
to say, it was a scary time, but I confess, my
wife and I were building a house to live in that
very week. I was chopping down trees, and we were
digging the foundation for our house that we have
lived in ever since. I had friends who said, "Pete, what
are you building a house for? Don't
you know that a year from
now, Senator McCarthy or somebody like him is gonna
be the dictator of this country? This is how Hitler
took over. People like us will be jailed behind barbed
wire, run off to Canada or in hiding." I
was not convinced.
are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
to confess that I don't know. I think we have a
fifty-fifty chance. When you say we have a fifty-fifty
chance, this implies that maybe my little grain
of sand will be the one that tips the scale in
the right direction and the human race will survive.
I am convinced that no big organization is going
to save this world, no one political party. I'm
convinced that this was the big mistake of the
Communists, who thought that if you had a big international
organization and if a few leaders decided on the
correct course, everybody would follow it. Have
you ever read the great book by Dr. Seuss called Horton
a Who, where
microscopic little speck
the whole situation? We are all just microscopic
specks. But who knows? If there is a
chance in this world, we might
the speck that saves it.