Pete Seeger on youth, careers, and social movements

Part 2 of a 3-part interview

David Kupfer visited with Pete Seeger just before his 90th birthday in the spring of 2009, on a warm afternoon. The home he shares with his wife Toshi overlooks the Hudson River and Denny’s Point near Beacon, New York. This is the second installment of a three part series based on the interviews. (The first part: Pete Seeger on the power of songs, an interview.)

Growing up

 David Kupfer: Didn’t Ernest Thompson Seton have a big influence on you as a young man?

Pete Seeger: He boosted the idea of learning about the North American Indians. I learned that they shared everything that they had. If somebody shot the deer, everything was shared with the rest of the tribe. There was no such thing as one person in the tribe going hungry and others having full bellies. If there was hunger, everybody was hungry. The chief was hungry, and his wife and children were hungry. That seemed to me to be a sensible way to live.

Now today I know that anthropologists call that tribal communism. So I say that I was a Communist ever since I was age seven, when I first started reading about Seton. So these teenagers, they argued with me and said, “you’re going to be nice and let the rest of the world go to hell. That’s your idea of morality?”

DK: When you were a teenager?

PS: I was about 13, I was going to prep school at the time. I decided they were right. They posed their Jewish traditional sense of social consciousness against my more New England, Thoreau way of thinking. I decided they were right, so I got more involved. The following year I joined the Harvard student union, and I have been more involved, in one way or another ever since.

DK: Was joining the Harvard student union pivotal for you?

PS: I was a sophomore, in the second year there. My first year there, I tried to keep my independence but some friends criticized me, saying “you mean you’re at Harvard and you’re not a member of the Harvard student union?” So I went back and joined and pretty soon I was the secretary of the club. We decided to run a monthly magazine all of four pages – The Harvard Progressive.

Outlooks and viewpoints

PS: If I’d known then what I know now, I would have worked to see that someone like Dr. King came along. He really turned my thinking around.

DK: How did Dr. King turn your thinking around?

PS: When you face an opponent over a broad front, you don’t aim at your opponent’s strong points. People say “why did he waste time trying to get a seat on the bus? Why didn’t he spend time working on jobs or education or housing or voting?” But he took on the view that you don’t aim for your opponent’s strong points, you take on something to the side. You win it, you capture it, and then you go on to something else.

DK: You once said you were a Communist like the average Indian would be, and your view on Communism involved nothing that wouldn’t fit in the Constitution. In today’s North America, what does being a Communist mean to you?

PS: After I dropped out of college in 1938, I joined part of the Youth Communist League, making posters. I drifted out of the Communist Party in the early 1950s. This past Memorial Day, someone asked me “Seeger, are you a Communist?” and I said, “depends on the description.” I became one at age seven and in a sense I still am one. I would to like see a world with no millionaires.

DK: You mentioned you have reassessed Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Why?

PS: I did not realize what a job he had to do. I read this book about Lincoln and the team of rivals he put together. The men of his cabinet really disapproved of one another. The Republican Party was a coalition of dissatisfied Democrats and some abolitionists.

Lincoln pulled together this coalition and then three years into the war they started bringing in the black troops. I didn’t know how horrible the draft riots were, the Irish didn’t want to be drafted. If when you came over here you had $300, you’d pay that and you didn’t have to be drafted. In other words, rich people didn’t get drafted. The Irish blame that on the Africans having a whole batch who were just lynched in New York City. This went on for several weeks and then finally Lincoln found a way to cool them down to end the draft riots, which was to bring the Republican coalition together.

They were all ambitious people; at least 3 of them thought they should be president, and if they did not win the nomination on the first ballot, they would win it on the second. Lincoln kept himself in the background. He did not run against it on the first and he did not run against it on the second ballot. But on the 3rd ballot, he all of a sudden came forward. Lincoln would say a word here and a word there and he was able to pull together that coalition that would win an election.

Career and influences

 DK: What role did your musicologist Dad play in your career choice?

PS: A very big influence. He was a brilliant scholar and writer, though he only put out one book, a collection of papers that he produced for the Society of Musicologists.

I remember at age nine, he told me that a rich person could live cheaper than a poor person. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “Well, take rent for example,” he said. “The average person pays rent all of his life, but if you can get far enough ahead of the game and can buy a place, taxes will never be as much as rent is.”

My father was the one who started me thinking about radicals. In 1929, like a lot of people, he thought the crash was the end of the free enterprise system. He started a group called the Composers Collective. Aaron Copeland was a member and Marc Blitzstein and half a dozen others. They were trying to think of what kind of music this new social situation demanded. However, their efforts were almost laughable failures. They went in for dissident, counterpoint Schoenberg, Stravinsky and so on. The working people were quite uninterested in learning their songs.

My father brought Aunt Molly around to the Composers Collective, and they listened to her and said, “but Charlie, this is all music from the past. We are supposed to be composing music for the future.” He took Molly back to her apartment on the Lower East Side and he said, “Molly, I am sorry they did not understand you, but I know some young people who are going to want to learn your songs.” And I was one of them. She was outspoken.

(sings) “I am a union woman, as brave as I can be, I do not like the bosses and the bosses don’t like me.”

Photo: 1964 anon for BBC Tonight In Person – #08 Pete Seeger playing mountain banjo. By blacque_jacques, CC 2.0

Pete Seeger on Woody Guthrie, youth and the environment,



David Kupfer
David Kupfer

David Kupfer is a freelance feature article contributor on topics related to the environment and agriculture. He produced the San Francisco Green Map and is an educator, lecturer, and consultant on environmental issues. Kupfer is San Francisco-born and his work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Sun, Bay Nature, Earth Island International Journal, Yes, Singout!, Whole Earth Review, and The Progressive.