Pete Seeger: Folksinger, Recording Artist

Our special guest is a folksinger, songwriter, banjoist, recording artist and legend —PETE SEEGER. Born in 1919, Pete Seeger met and performed with folksinger Woody Guthrie in 1940. Soon, Pete Seeger was inspired to write his own songs. In 1948, Pete Seeger formed the folk group The Weavers and the group sold 4 million record copies. They helped popularize Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” into the beloved song we know today. They recorded a version of Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene” that topped the chart for six months.

When the folk boom of the early sixties took place, groups like The Kingston Trio, the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary had hits with Pete Seeger songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Pete Seeger has definitely made his mark on the world. He has earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Harvard Arts Medal, the Kennedy Center Award, The Presidential Medal of the Arts, Two Grammys, and membership in both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many would say that Pete Seeger is arguably the most important living American folk musician. He continues to record and perform occasionally. Throughout his 70 year career he has recorded dozens of albums and influenced everyone from Don McLean to Bruce Springsteen. His songs have been recorded and performed by everyone from Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Roy Orbison, Bobby Darin, Dolly Parton, Judy Collins, Johnny Rivers, and hundreds of others.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to welcome our special guest, Pete Seeger. Thank you so much for joining us.

 

Well, Paul, what can I tell you that you don’t know already?

 

(Laughs) There’s plenty I don’t know but for starters, who is Pete Seeger?

 

Well, I was born 93 years ago to a family of musicians. My mother was a very good violinist. My father invented the term “ethnomusicology” and he studied the music of all the world. And he took me, at age 17, to hear the Kentucky Mountain Banjo Pickers and I fell in love with what they call the folk banjo. And, uh, never suspected at the time I’d making a living singing it. But, uh, I’ve been a song leader all my life. At eight years old I had a ukulele and at school I’d get the kids singing around me the pop songs of the day.

 

What is it about banjo music that you like?

 

Well, it’s a very rhythmic instrument. The guitar can be rhythmic and mandolins and other string instruments played with picks but banjo is especially well-adapted to playing all sorts of syncopations and unusual rhythms. For example in Africa, where the banjo came from, it’s very common to break up eight short beats into three, three and two short beats (imitates rhythm) and this is the rumba rhythm when it’s slowed down (imitates rhythm). And the banjo is well-adapted to doing that at lightening speed. This is what Earl Scruggs did. He invented a way of playing the banjo at lightening speed in syncopated rhythms.

 

You mentioned some of the music you heard growing up. Can you remember an artist that, in particular, was a favorite of yours?

 

No, except my father. He played the piano beautifully and I loved to hear him do occasional classical pieces that were not too complicated. I remember once, one of my favorites was a Chopin etude, which means a study, where the left hand played two beats per measure and the right hand played three beats per measure. This is very common in parts of South America where there’s one guitar – one guitar would be playing in a three-rhythm (imitates rhythm) and the other guitar is playing in two-rhythm (imitates rhythm). Of course, some people in India pride themselves on even more complicated rhythms. They’ll play four against five or six against seven (laughs).

 

Of the banjo players performing today, who do you most appreciate?

 

I think Earl Scruggs is still the king of them all, although he died recently. But, uh, he was beautiful – not just clever, he was truly beautiful. As was Doc Watson, who died even more recently. These were country people who liked to make music all their childhood, and when they grew up they made their music for people all over the country and in other countries, too.

 

Our special guest is Pete Seeger. What is it like to write with Lorre Wyatt, and how did you meet him?

 

Uh, Lorre Wyatt is a very good songwriter. He – I met him when the Clearwater first sailed into Long Island Sound. The Clearwater, the sloop Clearwater was built up in Maine and when we sailed into Long Island Sound we stopped at Port Jefferson. And there was a skinny young fella who made up wonderful new verses. And one of his songs he put to a kind of a blues stomp, a very fast blues stomp. ‘Sailing up!’ and the whole crowd repeats that – ‘Sailing up!’ And then you say ‘Sailing down!’ and they all repeat that. Then you reverse it and you say ‘Up!’ and the crowd says ‘Down!’ and you say ‘Down!’ and the crowd says ‘Up!’ (laughs). And, uh, this has been a Clearwater favorite ever since. Let’s see, since 1969. That means, uh, 53 years (laughs). And he’s still making up songs. He made up Somos El Barco. It’s a one, uh, one short song introducing people to the Spanish language. (Seeger sings)

 

Somos el barco, somos el mar,

Yo navego en ti, tu navegas en mi

We are the boat – that’s what ‘somos el barco’ means

We are the sea – ‘somos el mar’

I sail in you, you sail in me.

 

And then the verses, uh, are quite creative and beautiful. And, uh, he made this about 30 years ago and the Clearwater folks have sung it ever since.

 

On that note, who do you think is the great – the truly greatest songwriter out there?

 

Hard to say. I really would find it hard to say. Joanie Mitchell is one of the great ones. Buffy St. Marie is another one of the great ones. And Tom Paxton is another one of my favorites. But it’s hard to say. Oh! I know – Stan Rogers, the Canadian. I’ve been trying to memorize his great ballad about the sinking of the Mary Ellen Carter. It’s a, it’s a narrative ballad made up by a rank and file seaman – (laughs) at least in the song – about a ship that sank and he and his friends decide they will raise it. The second verse says:

 

The owners wrote her off; not a nickel would they spend.

She gave twenty years of service, then met her sorry end.

Insurance paid the cost to us, so let her rest below.

Then they laughed at us and said we’d have to go.

But we talked of her all winter, some days around the clock,

She’s worth a quarter million, afloat and at the dock.

With every jar that hit the bar, we swore we would remain

And make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

 

And the whole crowd sings ‘Rise again, rise again!’ It’s a truly great ballad. And was written by a truly great man. Stan Rogers was riding in an airplane that had a fire and the pilot landing this plane at the nearest airport where he could set her down. And Stan Rogers got out but he heard somebody hollering inside so he ran back inside the plane and dragged a person out. Then he heard another person holler and he went inside a second time and dragged a person out. And he went in a third time to drag another person out but this time he did not return.

 

Who do you think is going to do a good job of carrying on the folk tradition?

 

Oh (laughs), I don’t like to talk in terms of ‘best’. That’s like asking your mother ‘What’s your favorite child?’ That means ‘at any one time (laughs) – at any one time, this or that is my favorite.’

 

What are your memories of meeting Lead Belly?

 

I was surprised he was not a tall man. I’d say about – well, he was medium-tall, about 5’10”, 5’9” – yes, 5’9” – but, boy, was he muscular! He had spent his life working on prison farms, uh, chopping trees, digging holes, doing whatever they asked him to do on the chain gang. And when he took off his shirt he had muscles like a prize fighter and walked light on nice feet. Although he was in his 60’s, he had a spring in his step. Then he died of Lou Gehrig disease only 10 or 15 years later, after he was discovered and let out of prison. He met – oh, yes! A folklore collector recorded him and Lead Belly said ‘Do you know the governor?’ and, uh, Mr. Lomax, the folklore collector, said ‘Well, I don’t know him well but I meet him occasionally.’ He said ‘Well, play him this song: Governor Neff, if I had you where you have me, I’d wake up in the morning and set you free.’ (Laughs) And by gosh, the governor did.

 

What was your first impression when you met Bob Dylan?

 

Wow, what a fantastic talent! Absolutely fantastic! But then, he did not want to be owned by his fans any more than he wanted to be owned by anybody. He didn’t want to be controlled by anybody. And so, he purposely, uh, did something that he knew at least half of his fans would objectto and he went electric. Now, I didn’t mind him going electric. What I minded was that I couldn’t understand a single word of he was saying because they had the sound turned up so high you could not hear him. (Laughs) I ran over to the sound man – this was 1955 in Newport – and said ‘Fix the sound so we can understand the words!’ And he shouted back ‘No! This is the way they want it!’ – his managers – and, uh, I said ‘Damn it, if I had an axe I’d cut the cable!’ (laughs).

 

What do you think about Bob Dylan today?

 

I cannot understand one word. I went to hear him when he came and played for 4,000 people in our local baseball park. Willie Nelson was with him and I could hear every single word that Willie Nelson sang but Bob I could not understand a single – no … one word the whole evening I got.

 

You’ve had so many honors through the years, like being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

 

Too many.

 

You’ve sold albums. People have recorded your songs like, for instance, everybody knows the song Where Have All the Flowers Gone?. what has been the greatest honor for you, Pete Seeger?

 

The fact that I can walk into my local school and get the kids singing with me in any one of the classes. One of the classes had so much fun singing, they were singing in the hallway and disturbing the whole school so they were told they couldn’t sing anymore. And they liked it – singing – so much that a friend of mine helped them and they got together every week after school and got a name for themselves. They called themselves The Rivertown Singers. And they were making up songs as well.

 

Amazing. Your song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? – why do you think that that song has resonated in so many people’s heart?

 

Well, everybody gets blue at times and, uh, wonders what chances there are for the future. And this is actually an old song that I simply made an English translation of. I was reading a book and it told the Cossack soldiers – this book, a Russian book – and it described the Cossack soldiers were galloping off to join the czar’s army 150 years ago, and they were singing as they went:

Where are the flowers? The girls plucked them,
Where are the girls? They’re all married.
Where are the husbands? They’ve gone to war.

And from those three lines, I made up a new song. I’ve since found that there’s a Yiddish song, also 150 years old, with a completely different melody. Come to think of it, my melody is – I never knew what the Russian song was so I put my melody to it. Oh! (Laughs) I thought it was my melody until a friend pointed out it’s an old Irish lumberjack tune (sings):

 

Johnson says he’ll load more hay.

Says he load ten times a day.

 

(Laughs) I just slowed it down.

 

You’ve recently released two albums. What inspires you to keep recording?

 

Basically, Lorre Wyatt, who is still writing songs but was slowing down in his old age, and asked if he could visit me and maybe the two of us together could help finish some songs and that’s what we did. In a three-day period we finished about four or five songs, I believe. Some of them funny and some of them rather sad but we ended up recording them in a local recording studio. Oh – it’s an interesting recording studio. It’s nothing more than the garage of a tremendously talented West Indian drummer, Jeff Haynes by name. He’s traveled the world but now he’s got a family and wants to settle down a little bit so he turned his garage into a recording studio. If anybody needs an inexpensive but good recording studio, here it is in little Beacon, population 14,000.

 

One of the people that you’ve recorded songs with is Bruce Springsteen. What is he like to sing with?

 

He’s a very nice guy. Uh, good sense of humor and doesn’t fuss around. If he can do something, he’ll say yes. If he can’t do something, he’ll say no.

 

What inspired you to create the album Pete Remembers Woody?

 

I guess it was Woody’s daughter, Nora, who said ‘You were one of the first people in the East that got to know Woody and then you helped spread his song, This Land Is Your Land, until everybody in the whole country knew it.’ But people don’t know what an extraordinarily creative person he was. He inherited a disease which took him to a mental hospital when he was only 42 years old. His mother died of it, his grandfather died of it, and two of his daughters by his first wife died of it. It’s called Huntington’s. But he, uh, started creating when he was only a child. And a teacher in his primary school found this extraordinarily creative kid and put him on to books that most kids don’t start – he was a voracious reader. He also liked to draw pictures and play jokes. Then they went to a different town in a different state and the teacher in that high school, another teacher, found out what an extraordinarily creative person he was and, again, she fed him all sorts of things. So now, by the time he was a teenager he was starting to write songs and a big mistake was made. He got married to a 16-year old girl. Had three kids. One of them got killed in a train accident but the other two got Huntington’s. However, he married again and his four children – oh, the first child was killed in a terrible accident. Her mother went around the corner and left her four-year old daughter in the house alone for no more than five minutes. And she came back to find her four-year old daughter running around the house screaming, with her dress on fire. Of course, if she had been older she would have known you throw yourself in the rung and wrap yourself up with it, or put a blanket around yourself to put the fire out. But she was too badly burned and she died on the way to the hospital. But Woody had already written for her several dozen of the greatest children’s songs that have ever been written. And now they’re popular all around the world. (Laughs) One of them is (sings)

 

Why, oh why, oh why, oh why?

Why, oh why, oh why?

Because, because, because, because.

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Why can’t a dish break a hammer?

Why, oh why, oh why?

Because the hammer’s got a pretty hard head.

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

 

(Laughs) By now, the whole crowd is singing it. The second verse is

 

Why does a cow drink water?

Why, oh why, oh why?

Because a cow gets thirsty like you or me or anything else.

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

 

There’s a bout 20 silly verses like that. I think the last one is:

 

Why don’t you answer my questions? (Laughter)

Why, oh why, oh why?

Because I don’t know the answer.

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

 

Now as your listeners can tell, at 93 I don’t have much of a voice left but what I can do is get a crowd singing. So these days (laughs) I get a crowd singing and they hardly listen to me. They’re singing to themselves.

 

(Laughs) That reminds me of a quote I heard one time: People go to a concert not to hear an artist but to hear themselves singing (laughs). Well, one of the interesting things about your album, Pete Remembers Woody, is that it has a number of spoken-word memories from you about your time with Woody. That’s something you’ve done on some of your past albums. What made you want to do an album like that?

 

I guess it was mainly Woody’s daughter, Nora, that persuaded me to do it. People have heard Woody’s songs but they don’t really know what he was like as a person. Now, Woody make a joke about me, ‘That young guy, Seeger, is the youngest man I ever knew. He don’t drink, he don’t smoke, he don’t chase girls.’ (Laughs). I was – he was seven years older than I was. He was 27, I was 20, and he let me tag along and look after him because I had a good ear and I could accompany him, give him a banjo accompaniment to his guitar. Or if he wanted to play the mandolin – he made up a great melody called, I called it Woody’s Rag (imitates rhythm). It’s a wonderfully syncopated little mandolin tune. And I could back him up in anything he played without having to hear it a second time.

 

One of the most touching recordings I’ve ever heard, personally, is from an album called Seeds. It’s a rendition of Over the Rainbow. What inspired you to sing that tune?

 

Well, I knew the guy who wrote the words. He was a bit of a lefty like I was. And he never wrote melodies. He wrote one famous song at the beginning of the depression (sings):

Once I built a railroad, made it run.
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad. Now it’s done.
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

It’s a song of somebody who is dead broke but he led a very creative life, helped do great things. (Sings)

 

Once I built a tower to the sun.

Brick and rivet and lime.

Once I built a tower. Now it’s done.

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

 

It was a hit song way back in 1932, I think. He also wrote a – oh, I can’t, my brain is gone. I can’t remember the second very well-known song. But then, in 1938 a musician named Harold Arlen, a truly great melody writer, was coupled with Yip Harburg, to make all the songs in the movie, The Wizard of Oz. And when they first sat down to write the songs, Yips says ‘Harold, get me a melody for the phrase over the rainbow.’ I suppose you know the rainbow is a world-wide symbol for getting along, people getting along together. There’s an old spiritual that says (sings):

 

God gave Noah the rainbow sign.

No more water. Fire next time.

Pharaoh’s army got drowned.

Oh, Mary don’t you weep.

 

Great old spiritual. Well, Arlen said ‘Yip, there’s no rainbow in The Wizard of Oz. I’ve read the script!’ And Yip says ‘I’m putting it in.’ Well, then Harold came in with this beautiful melody but he played it grandly, all up and down the 88 keys. Yip says ‘Oh, Harold. That’s not for little Dorothy. That’s for Nelson Eddy or some grand opera singer.’ Poor Arlen. His collaborator turned down his great melody. He knew it was great. Well, they both knew another man who wrote lyrics for songs and that was the brother of George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin. And it was about midnight but they call him up and say ‘Ira, we need your help. Can you come over and advise us?’ and Harold listens to it and he says ‘Harold, play it a little faster. Give it a little more rhythm.’ And Yip says ‘Oh, now I see it. Yep. Yep.’ And he came back – I don’t know whether it took him four hours or four days but he got this fantastic set of words. And I have changed two of his words art the very end because if anybody told me, or if I had been there, rather, when little Dorothy was singing Why can’t I? Why can’t I? I’d tell her ‘You know why you can’t? Because you only say – you’re only singing for yourself. You gotta sing for everybody ‘cause either we’re all gonna make it over that rainbow or nobody’s gonna make it. So at the end say Why can’t you and I? (laughs). I can hear Yip up in heaven saying ‘Pete, don’t futz around with my old, my songs. You can futz around with your old folk songs but don’t you touch Over the Rainbow!’ (Laughs) And then I’d tell him the story if I had been there with little Dorothy who says Why can’t I?, I’d tell her. So now, I get the audience singing it and I do what a lot of preachers in gospel churches do. They call it lining out the hymn. You give the words, and if I had a microphone I don’t need to shout, I’d say the words very clearly into the microphone, and then the audience sings them at a much slower speed (alternately speaks then sings slowly):

 

Somewhere over the rainbow
Somewhere over the rainbow

Skies are blue

Skies are blue

And the dreams that you dare to dream really …

And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come …

 

Somewhere over the rainbow. And once I got 80,000 people singing it in New York City. They had a peace demonstration. And I couldn’t hear them well because they stretched over 30 blocks on 1st Avenue, a big avenue on the east side of Manhattan. But I was told people sang. They had the loudspeakers stretched over 30 blocks. That’s over a mile (laughs).

 

That is incredible.

 

Plus, I got singing, in Washington, DC, a half-million people with the verses as well as the chorus of This Land Is Your Land. There’s a great verse there that says (alternately speaks then sings slowly):

There’s a great high wall there
There’s a great high wall there
That tried to stop me
That tried to stop me
There’s a great big sign
There’s a great big sign
That said “private property”
That said private property
But on the other side
But on the other side
It didn’t say nothing
It didn’t say nothing

I hope you realize what I’m doing. I’m giving you what I do in the mic and then, right after that, it’s slower – that’s what the audience is doin…

 

Yeah.

 

… is singing the song (sings):

 

This land was made for you and me.

 

It has to be amazing to be witnessing something like that firsthand.

 

Well, I’m really rather proud of it because, as my own voice gets worse and worse, I can get audiences singing better and better, sometimes in harmony. A song I wrote 54 years ago – I didn’t think anybody but me would ever sing it – but now I get audiences singing the whole song with me. It’s a rather fast song in the beginning but it slows down at the very end. Audiences slow down with me and they’re harmonizing. It’s, it’s – I do it almost everywhere I go these days.

 

Well, we were just talking about rainbows and rainbows are something that we see on the horizon. What is on the horizon for you?

 

Well, I’m in fairly good physical condition for somebody who’s 93. I split wood and occasionally help my daughter dig in the garden. And I have to admit that it doesn’t do all that I should. I never did sitting up exercises. But I got a split disc, a very painful thing in your backbone, and the chiropractor that I went to said ‘You’ll get over it and you’ll stay over it if you lie on the floor – not on a nice soft mattress – but lie on the floor and straighten your backbone. And that’s not going to be easy. The first time you try it, it’ll take about 10 minutes before your back is really straight.’ Now it only takes about two minutes (laughs).

 

Wow. What is the best thing about being Pete Seeger?

 

Oh, I’d say having a nice family and a wife I’ve been married to for 69 years, and a wonderful daughter who knows how to use a computer. And so, she can handle the finances because my memory is really going. People look at me and think that I’m still the same person I was, but they don’t know (laughs) my brain is half gone.

 

I have to say you sound very, very sharp. I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit.

 

Oh! Before I go, I’ll give you my mantra – my reason for hope in the world. Ten thousand years ago we had a thing called the agricultural revolution. Up, before that, women dug for roots and picked berries and men tried to shoot an animal, probably with a bow and arrow. We were hunters and gatherers but over thousands of years, we had an agricultural revolution. And now we eat better but kings and queens and other powerful people rule the world. Then we had an industrial revolution. That took hundreds of years. I guess it is about 300 years ago that the steam engines were first invented. And then, now we have the information revolution and this is the hope of the world. In decades things are happening which no one believed would happen. And I think the women’s revolution will be part of the victory. I describe this is the kind of victory: imagine seesaw and one end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a basket half-full of big rocks. The other side of the seesaw is half up in the air because it’s a basket not quite half-full of sand.And we’ve got teaspoons we’re trying to put more sand in that side. Most people are laughing at us, saying ‘Oh, people like you have been trying for thousands of years but that seesaw hasn’t moved. Those big rocks have been there, they’re going to stay there.’ But we say ‘No. We’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time. And we think that in a few years our side of the seesaw is going to become more than half-full of sand and you’ll see that whole seesaw go slowly, slowly in the opposite direction. And the big rocks will not be able to keep their side down anymore because they’ll be more and more sand. And we’re getting more and more people with teaspoons. And I get letters from people who sign themselves ‘Another member of the teaspoon brigade’.

 

Well, Mr. Seeger, I can tell you it’s been a real pleasure to do this interview with you – an honor.

 

Well, thank you very much! I’m sorry I won’t be down singing in Atlanta again. I used to get down there every few years and one of my best songs is about that young fella who is only 14 years old, going to school in Alabama. And he graduated from high school at the age of 15. but when he was 14 somebody published a newspaper and said ‘Why do negroes want to marry whites? Don’t they know that we’re supposed to be separate races?’ and this 14-year old writes ‘Dear Editor, Surely Mr. So-and-so, who wrote that letter yesterday, must know that if there are people in America of mixed ancestry it’s not because negroes want to marry whites. It’s because of aggressive white males taking advantage of defenseless black females.’

 

Wow. Well, Mr. Seeger, anything you’d like to say to our audience before we part?

 

Don’t give up! Oh, the Hope Tree! Do you know about the Hope Tree?

 

What’s that?

 

Down in the bottom end of Manhattan, in 1911 – that horrible fire? There was a little tree that was burnt by the fire but the roots were not killed. And the next spring they sent up green shoots. And somebody said ‘Let’s make sure that tree is watered.’ And they got a little committee together and they took turns watering it, and now the tree is – oh gosh, it must be 8 or 10 feet tall, and this committee has grown. It’s called the Hope Tree.

 

TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA

 

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