Songs to Save the Planet
An interview with Pete Seeger
By Jayson Whitehead and Tanya Stanciu

From Gadfly July 1999

This 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.

But 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 songbird." Still, 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 concerts overseas.

An 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 ideologically.

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.

My 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.

And 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 both?

I'd 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.

When did you meet Woody Guthrie?

It 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.

In 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 up," shall 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 sing them.

Even 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?

I 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.

What are your thoughts on the 1960s?

Of 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 another song 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 worked.

How did the events of the 1960s affect you?

Well, 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 could have made a real difference for this country. He was learning, and that's really all you can ask in this world: that somebody learns. I hope I have learned from some of my mistakes. I believe that the most important things I've learned have been from Martin Luther King and other people in the civil rights movement, like Robert Moses, who led the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

You introduced the song "We Shall Overcome" to the civil rights movement and played it for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Well, I played it for him in 1957, but he was not a song leader. That song really sticks with you, doesn't it?

It was 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 said, "Oh, 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 this tall young white fellow taught the whole crowd, which was mostly black, and I think that's when they got the idea of crossing their arms in front of them and holding hands with the people next to them so their shoulders touched. This became very important. The song was not just a song. It was a piece of choreography, if you want to call it that.

I 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...

No, 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 up that sound so we can understand the words," and they shouted back, "No, this is the way they want it." I said, "Goddamn it, if I had an ax, I'd cut the cable." I was really furious. But I was not against him electrifying; after all, Howling Wolf, the blues singer, was electric, and a number of other people in Newport played electric instruments. It was my mistake, and it was a very serious mistake. I was the emcee that night, and I could have easily said to the audience: "Why did somebody boo Bob? Did you boo because you didn't like the song? Did you boo because you didn't like the electric instruments? Why didn't you boo Howling Wolf yesterday? He was using electric instruments. Bob's got a right to sing any way he wants to." But instead I just kept my mouth shut and did a second-rate job of being a master of ceremonies, and I have regretted it ever since.

What is your memory of Paul Robeson? I know you two appeared in a concert together the day of the Peekskill riots.

It 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.


The following 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 lovers!" "Go back to Russia!" But they weren't throwing anything, and their hollering didn't do any damage, so we just drove in. The first concert might have only had one thousand people, but now there were ten or twenty thousand. It was an enormous crowd, and I sang three songs, including "If I Had a Hammer," which had only just been written a few months before. Then Paul sang for an hour, and the concert ended and we all congratulated ourselves: See, it's America, we had a right to have this concert and the concert took place.

Paul, I 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 coming because you insist you want to take your children. I don't think it's safe." I said, "Oh, nonsense, it's going to be safe. I'm sure that with all this publicity nothing will happen." Well, I 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 stone," which 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.

There 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 he just hollered to move on, move on, motioning with his hand. I turned around, and the man behind me was getting stone after stone. He was going to get killed if I didn't move, so I moved on. About five or ten years ago, I was singing in Denver, and a man my age came backstage afterward and said, "Pete, you were at Peekskill, weren't you?" I said yeah. He said, "I was in the car behind you." I said, "Boy, I bet you were glad when I moved on." He said he sure was. Well, it was an attack.

Did you ever want to back down?

Needless 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.

Overall, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

I have 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 Hears a Who, where this microscopic little speck saves the whole situation? We are all just microscopic little specks. But who knows? If there is a fifty-fifty chance in this world, we might be the speck that saves it.