Pete Seeger turned 85 last May 3 and could be forgiven if he hung up his five-string banjo and relaxed with his wife Toshi at their home up the Hudson River in Beacon, New York. But that is not Pete Seeger’s way.
During a 50-minute interview by telephone with the People’s Weekly World, the famed folksinger and fighter for peace and environmental justice enthused on his immersion in a half-dozen projects.
Seeger was on his way down to Texas for the National Assembly of the Unitarian Universalists. He is a man of restless energy and creativity.
He is completing a new edition of his songbook, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” A CD of the songs will accompany it. “People need to hear the songs so they can sing them,” Seeger said. “You have to hear the syncopation of African songs to sing them right.”
He has set up a foundation so that Third World nations will receive royalties from songs and folk tales he has popularized, such as the South African “Abiyoyo” and “Wimoweh.”
The last time this reporter spoke to Seeger in person was at the Feb. 15, 2003, demonstration a few blocks from the United Nations, protesting George W. Bush’s rush to war on Iraq. A biting wind tore up the avenues. Surly New York police were treating the freezing protesters like cattle to be herded and penned.
Pete Seeger led the crowd in “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Over the decades he has become a familiar sight, singing and playing his banjo on behalf of every conceivable struggle for democracy and human rights. “I will come and sing again if I am asked even though my voice is 90 percent gone,” he said. “The list of songs is down to about a dozen, ‘This Land is My Land,’ ‘Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’”
He relies now on a time-tested strategy. “I line-out the hymn,” he said. “I recite the lines of songs everybody knows a few beats ahead of the crowd so that they can do the singing.” Getting crowds to sing along with him is part of Pete Seeger’s genius in enlisting grassroots people in the rebirth of folk music as a living art form.
He understood early the power of song as a force for social change. He said he was not surprised that singer Bruce Springsteen was a huge draw as he campaigned alongside Democrat John Kerry before the Nov. 2 election. Kerry often thanked Springsteen for turning out more people than he himself could attract. “Many movements now realize that music can bring the crowds to listen to speeches,” Seeger said.
Yet he was not surprised that George W. Bush captured a second term. “I kind of expected it, because the Bush gang had so much money they could pay for any kind of trick, big or small,” Seeger said. “On the other hand, I’m more encouraged by this election than ever before. So many people voted and 56 million voted against Bush. We had more voters than in any election in 30 years. The very worst thing is for people to say: ‘My vote doesn’t count. So why bother to vote at all?’ People rejected that and turned out. That gives us good reason for hope.”
Seeger was not alone in the movement that succeeded in reclaiming folk music. There were singers like Huddie Ledbetter, better known as “Leadbelly,” with his 12-string guitar. From his experience as a prison inmate in the jim-crow South, Leadbelly immortalized African American work songs like “Take this Hammer” and “Midnight Special.” Seeger also spoke warmly of Woody Guthrie who joined Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell in The Almanac Singers in 1941. They were favorites at rallies of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, singing “Talking Union,” “There Once Was a Union Maid,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” They also sang sea chanteys like the “Greenland Whale Fisher Song” and other work songs.
“Woody was out in Oregon composing ballads for the Bonneville Power Administration such as ‘Roll on Columbia,’” Seeger said. “I called him up and invited him to join The Almanac Singers. He hitchhiked across the country. Along the way, he went into a diner and heard on a juke box Kate Smith singing ‘God Bless America.’ He started right then to pen his answer, ‘This Land is Your Land.’”
The song was never on the hit parade, Seeger said, but was spread as sheet music and 78 RPM records mainly through the nation’s public schools. “Music teachers would hear it and say, ‘That’s a good song. Children can sing it.’” Now it is so widely beloved that it has become a sort of unofficial national anthem.
“Woody showed up at Almanac House June 23, 1941, the day after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union,” Seeger continued. “I opened the door and said, ‘Woody! You got here!’ And he replied, ‘Well, we won’t be singing those peace songs.’ Three weeks later he wrote ‘The Good Reuben James’ about the Nazi torpedoing of a Liberty Ship with all hands lost.”
Seeger spoke of his ties to the Daily Worker. He remains today a reader of the People’s Weekly World. His father, an ethno-musicologist at Juilliard and later at UCLA, wrote a column for the Daily Worker under the byline Carl Sands. “Woody wrote a column called ‘Woodie Sez’ for the Worker,” Seeger noted.
Seeger was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the depths of Cold War McCarthyism to be questioned on his ties to the Communist Party USA. He cited the First Amendment in refusing to testify. He would not “name names.” He was cited for contempt and sentenced to a year in prison. The sentence was overturned on appeal. But Seeger endured years of blacklist.
Bobbie Rabinowitz, founder of the New York City Labor Chorus and a longtime friend of Seeger’s, spoke for many. “Pete was a major inspiration,” she told the World. “He would come to our rehearsals and teach us songs.” Now, she said, labor choruses have sprung up in Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., North Carolina and Brooklyn. “I first heard Pete sing as a teenager at Camp Kinder-land,” she said. “He was on the stage with a log and an axe. As he sang a logger’s song, he chopped and the chips flew. I caught one. I have it still. It’s like one of those home-run balls that kids catch at a baseball game.”
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover have been disgraced and thrown in the “dustbin of history.” George W. Bush is likely to join them.
As for Seeger, he is a man beloved of the people and standing tall at 85.
The author can be reached at email@example.com. **(see related story below)
Not merely a teenage crush
By Susan E. Wheeler
PORTLAND, Ore. — When I was a 15-year-old girl with stars in her eyes I wrote a fan letter to Pete Seeger. My contemporaries were in love with Elvis Presley, but I fell in love with Pete.
Pete and my parents were fond acquaintances, sharing a history of struggle and resistance to political persecution. My father was subpoenaed numerous times. There was a strong connection between our families.
Pete had been blacklisted for years and it was difficult to find a hall for him to perform in. He sang at venues like the Rotary Club in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Osteopathic Association in New Mexico; Ethical Culture Society in New York City; Home for the Aged, Portland; and at various universities. We organized a concert in Port Angeles, Wash., in 1957, which drew 75 people.
A year later that number was doubled for a concert he did with Sonny Terry and J.C. Burris, Sonny’s nephew, who played the spoons. Pete sang two of local logger Russ Farrell’s songs, “There Shall Be Peace” and “The Scaler had a Long Thumb,” which Pete got published in Sing Out magazine. I could not believe so few people turned out, but Pete said it was a good turnout for a town without a college.
I wrote in my diary, “I’ve met the man with the banjo the first time outside the Moore Theater in Seattle. I knew his music; I’d heard him sing and play, and I loved him for that, as did thousands of other people across the country. There, under the glaring lights of the ticket office, was the top-coated, striding Pete Seeger. I became suddenly timid, my voice failed and my knees knocked, my heart thudding uncontrollably in my throat.
“My brother rescued me. I shook hands with him, the world’s greatest banjo picker. His eyes were as warm as his handshake. He had a large nose and irregular teeth, and in one cheek was a ragged crease made because he sings with his head back and his mouth crooked to one side. He wore a red scarf about his neck, for it was November and hands-plunged-in-pockets cold.
“I felt as if I were shaking hands with every person, great and humble, Black and white, who has ever had faith in the people and hope for the future. Here was Sean O’Casey, John Keats, John Brown, Thaddeus Stevens, Karl Marx, and a multitude, and I was face to face with them.
“I’ll never forget it, not in a thousand lifetimes. Tongue-tied, all I could manage was an intelligent, ‘Golly.’”
Pete and Lee Hays organized The Weavers in 1950. They were an enormous success, selling over 4 million records. But the organized blacklist intervened. The House Un-American Act-
ivities Committee began an investigation into the entertainment industry. Pete’s FBI file was leaked by J. Edgar Hoover to the New York World Telegram.
Radio stations stopped playing the Weavers’ music, concerts were canceled, and the group was banned from television appearances. The Weavers were the first musicians in American history to be investigated for sedition.
Then Harvey Matusow named Pete as a member of the Communist Party. Pete was called before the committee, where he pled the First Amendment, not the Fifth. A photo with the caption, “Sings for people, not committees,” appeared in the left-wing press.
On July 26, 1956, the House of Representatives voted 373-9 to cite Seeger for contempt of Congress. Pete was indicted along with playwright Arthur Miller and six others for contempt. After worldwide protests, an appeals court eventually ruled Seeger’s indictment faulty and dismissed it.
But Pete was still blacklisted in many places until the late ’60s. In September 1967, Pete appeared on the Smothers Brothers TV show, where he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and the censors axed it. (He later appeared again and the song went on.)
Pete once said, “I’d sing for the John Birch Society or the American Legion if they asked. So far they haven’t.” But he was invited to the White House, and received the nation’s highest artistic honors at the Kennedy Center in December 1994.
The album “Pete” won a Grammy in 1996. The album includes “How Can I Keep From Singing,” with the lyrics penned by Doris Plenn during the ’50s Red Scare: “When tyrants tremble sick with fear/and hear their death knell ringing/when friends rejoice both far and near/how can I keep from singing.”
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.