Pete Seeger His answers are in his songs
Cambridge, Massachusetts — Pete Seeger isn't just interested in the folk music he's been singing for 40 years, or the causes he's equally well known for supporting. What starts out as a simple conversation about his career ends up touching on the problem of chemical wastes and pollution, masonry and church steeples, "the best pizza in the Hudson Valley," Carmen Miranda, and the art of sailing.
From the start, it seems apparent that Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi, haven't let the celebrity side of their lives take over. One can't help but feel they're just plain folks. Maybe it's the bumper sticker, "Split wood not atoms," on their Saab that gives that impression. Maybe it's Toshi's gentle reminder for Pete to take his glasses off, and not to perch on the back of the chair because it's not theirs. Maybe it's Pete's wry suggestion to a photographer that a shot of their open suitcases, while not aesthetic, might be the most accurate look at their life.
It was from his father that Pete caught an interest in music. Why is music different from other kinds of communication? Is music a game? Is play important in music? All through his life, musicologist Charles Seeger was intrigued by such questions. The elder Seeger insisted folk music be learned in the proper way.
"He said if you want to revive folk music. . . listen directly and learn through the ear instead of from the printed page," Pete Seeger recalls. "One of his friends once said, "Charles, you must get your son to study voice.' He said, 'If I catch him studying voice I'll stop it immediately.'"
Pete Seeger, however, wanted to be a journalist, not a singer. He started singing professionally after dropping out of Harvard in 1938 during his sophomore year.
"I failed utterly at the job as a journalist, tried painting pictures, failed at that, did some hitchhiking and a little bit of this and that," he says with his banjo on his knee and a smile that hints at what's coming next. "Then some relatives said, 'Can you come and sing some songs at school for the kids,' and they paid me all of $5 to do it. It seemed like stealing to take money for what I'd done all my life, but I took the money and haven't done an honest job since."
Fascinated by the trade union movement and the drive for artists to join, he met up with the late actor Will Geer (who was known most recently for his role as Grandpa on CBS's "The Waltons"). A strong union man, Mr. Geer had a road show called "Let Freedom Ring" about the organization of textile workers in the South. And it was through Geer that Pete Seeger met "my main influence," Oklahoma balladeer and folk composer Woody Guthrie. In 1942 they formed the Almanac Singers, and toured the country performing at migrant camps and union halls.
"Nobody was paying us for the music; we were one jump ahead of welfare," he recalls. "I was trying to use the word 'ain't,' which I'd never used in my life; people would say, 'He ain't from the hills -- he's from Harvard,' and they were right."
Today, 30 years later, Woody Guthrie's son, Arlo, occasionally teams up with Pete Seeger. The younger Guthrie says it brings back the feeling of what music used to be for -- people singing and listening to each other rather than just one person performing. He says in some ways the two of them are carrying on the tradition of his father.
"I don't think my father started any tradition personally. I think he was one of a series of 'people's poets,' if you want to put it that way, who started maybe with Homer and have been coming down the line every so often ever since. Pete is in that minstrel tradition. . . ."
"I like to be a part of a changing world," says Pete Seeger, himself, "and, while I love to make music by myself, I love even more making music with other people. . . . I really like to get a crowd singing with me. I don't have much of a voice, and a lot of people can play a lot more banjo than I can, but I'm an old hand at getting a crowd singing -- I've been doing it for the whole 60 years ever since I was a little kid."
Arlo Guthrie attests to Pete Seeger's ability to get a crowd singing.
"Pete's rapport with the audience is legendary. . . . You begin to develop a sense that the audience is participating in what you're doing -- you're not doing something for them so much as doing something all together. There's no technique or anything; it's just a kind of consciousness. . . ."
The sell-out crowd at a Seeger performance recently in Cambridge was no exception. Whether he was singing old favorites like "The Old Gray Goose is Dead," "If I Had a Hammer," and "There's a Hole in the Bucket," or Nicaraguan carols and African tribal songs, the foot-stomping, handclapping audience was with him all the way, even when it came to learning Spanish choruses. And, as for untrained voices struggling with the long drawn out notes in "Amazing Grace, " Pete Seeger tells them not to hesitate if they run out of breath.
"No matter how long I go on, just take another breath and keep on going -- no one will ever know the difference."
Actor John Houseman, who worked with Pete Seeger briefly in the 1940s, still remembers the first time they met.
"Two things impressed me about him. One, he was a fantastic banjo player, almost the best in the world. On top of that there was a kind of purity about him, a kind of dedication, much the same as I felt with Will Geer. There was always this absolute fervor that was simply wonderful."
Then, says Mr. Houseman, the entertainment industry didn't think much of Pete Seeger, or rather they scarcely thought of him at all. In fact, a Seeger concert at Mr. Houseman's Las Palmas Theater drew only 18 people, led by stalwart friend Will Geer.
"It was a wonderful concert, and nobody came," Mr. Houseman says. "But I was so impressed with him that when I did a production of 'Dark of the Moon' I got Pete as the narrator. He was absolutely wonderful with his great big banjo. He was simply electrifying."
Even then, says Mr. Houseman, Pete Seeger was considered a highly political person because of his union activities. And later, during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, he was cited by the Committee on Un-American Activities of the US House of Representatives for refusing to answer questions about his political beliefs and associations. As a result, he and The Weavers, the group with whom he was singing then, were blacklisted. Because they were relatively obscure anyway, however, the blacklisting didn't ruin their careers.
"I was a moving target," he says, "There were some places I couldn't play, some I could. I even got on TV occasionally. I'd call the station, and they'd say, 'The Weavers? "Good Night Irene?" Come on by.' I'd be off before the American Legion could make a protest. If I'd been better known it would have been different. There wasn't an auditorium in the country that would let Paul Robeson sing."
Indicted on ten counts of contempt of Congress Mr. Seeger was found guilty in 1961, but the United States Court of Appeals reversed the conviction by unanimous decision. The court ruled the indictment had failed to define clearly enough the authority of the committee to hold the hearings.
Pete Seeger doesn't deny that many of his songs have distinct political overtones. But he adds that he honestly believes a lot of people kid themselves when they think some of their actions are not political.
"Suppose someone makes a decision, 'I'm not going to vote. The whole thing's a snare and an illusion.' That's a political decision. By not voting, they're probably helping some person get elected who might not have if they'd bothered to vote.
"One of the most political songs I know is 'Wrap your troubles in dreams and dream your troubles away.' And there's another favorite old barbershop harmony song," he says, then singing: "'With someone like you A pal so good and true I'd like to leave it all behind Someplace that's known To God alone Just a spot to call our own. We'll find the perfect peace Where joys will never cease Out there beneath the kindly sky. We'll build a sweet little nest Somewhere out in the West Let the rest of the world go by.'"
As he thinks about it one can see sudden anger in his face. Then he says emphatically, "Well, what's coming out of the sky right now is killing you and me, and that comes from too many people letting the rest of the world go by! And I say that song is partly to blame for people dying today. If that'sm not political, then what is?
"It's shamefulm for people not to recognize you cannot be living without being involved with politics. Somebody once said, 'The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for men of goodwill to do nothing.' And the world is full of people unfortunately who say, 'I can do nothing.' They're wrong -- everybody can do something."
He points out that sometimes the most eloquent people are those who do something simple, some good deed.
"It might be a blind person who knows how to sing a song or tell a story and tells it to somebody else in a hospital who's in despair."
He admits his own decades of activism have led to a change in viewpoint on more than one occasion, and he confesses he's no expert in what he calls "stractics and tategy."
"In the very early '40s I was singing peace songs. Then in the central '40s I was singing some war songs -- songs to beat Hitler, when I was in the army. Then after the World War was over I was singing more peace songs again.There are all kinds of twists and turns in this world. I sometimes compare it to tacking in a sailboat.
"Somebody looking from the shore sees the boat zigzag and says, 'How foolish! Why don't they just sail in a straight line where they want to go?' But when you're sailing against the wind, you can't sail in a straight line. You use the wind against you to push you over here then over there, and even though it's trying to blow you backwards, you edge up into the wind. . . . Almost any of your courses is full of contradictions.Two boats may be heading northeast and northwest, but they're both trying to go north."
He hasn't lacked for causes over the years -- labor organizing, war and peace in the '40s, brotherhood during the civil rights demonstrations in the '50s and '60s, peace during the Vietnam war in the '60s and early '70s, a clean environment and nuclear safety since then. And he refuses to give up hope.
"A lot of people are discouraged because they are waking up to how serious the world situation is. I tell them, 'While there's life, there's hope. Don't give up, because if you do give up then there's really no hope.'
"I'd be foolish if I tried to deny how serious the situation is. I think every year goes by we're in a more dangerous thing, as inventors make it easier and easier for fewer and fewer people to do more and more damage."
He is especially concerned about how badly we treat our environment, and he tries to keep up with the latest developments.
He is happy to report progress in one fight against pollution. Ten years ago Seeger and fellow supporters launched a fullscale replica of a Hudson River sloop named 'Clearwater' to dramatize the need to clean up the river. Since then, thousands of children and adults have sailed in it and have learned much about the problem from its crew.
"Ten years ago lumps of [sewage] would float right past you," says Mr. Seeger with a grimace. "There were hundreds of pipes carrying raw sewage into the river, not only from New York City but from little towns, too. [But with the new] sewage treatment plants. . . this summer I was swimming all around from Tappan Zee up to Kingston. I couldn't have done that 10 years ago."
Now the Clearwater group is preparing for the annual "Great Hudson River Revival" at Croton Point on June 21 and 22. According to Mr. Seeger, about 200 musicians, dancers, jugglers and other entertainers are scheduled to perform at the environmental festival.
He stares out the window, lost in thought, but his attention is drawn to a nearby church.
"Hey, that is a beautiful church steeple out there," he says in awe. "Do you realize that steeple is made by [means of] one of the great folk arts, masonry. That's not cut stone; that's fieldstone, except for maybe a few rocks right near the top. Down below it's fieldstone, just like a Bucks County barn. And I'm willing to bet that the masons making that slanted the top of each rock slightly to the outside so in case wind should ever blow rainwater into a crack it can only drop a few inches before it hits the top of a rock and flows to the outside of the wall -- it's like a stack of shingles. If they slanted the rock toward the inside, incorrectly, the water would catch, stay on the inside, freeze and crack the wall. Toshi and I made part of our house of fieldstone, and the local mason showed me that."
Then, asked a question about the times with Will Geer and Woody Guthrie, he starts to answer, only to veer off again.
"Well, folk music was an unknown word then. Sometimes I wish it were still unknown, because the so-called folk music boom in 1964 was really rather a phony thing. I once wrote an article called 'Tin Pan Alley has the Garbage Touch' instead of the Midas touch.
"Popular culture has a tendency to reach out to a good idea, and in popularizing it cheapen it. Carmen Miranda comes up from Brazil with some wonderful sambas, but they're not interested in the subtlety of the samba -- and it's a great art form. All they want her to do is shake her hips, crack jokes, and be one more sex symbol for Hollywood.People in this country think they know what a samba is. They say, 'Oh yes, . . . I saw Carmen Miranda,' but they don't really know."
He pauses, frowning, searching for other examples. In true Pete Seeger form, he remembers pizza.
"A real pizza with real homemade tomato sauce and real mozzarella is quite different from the schlock you get with tomato sauce made out of California tomatoes you can drop 100 feet and not squash and mozzarella churned out in a huge factory with ultrapasturized milk.
"In the Catskills not far from Woodstock I met a young Italian who came over ten years ago and is very proud of running a good pizza place. He makes all his own tomato paste -- goes up to Albany to the vegetable market and buys fresh tomatoes when they're ripe. The same thing with flour -- he's not satisfied with the usual flour so he sends away specially to get it. And that's one of the best pizza places in the whole Hudson Valley. People come from miles around to get pizza there."
Well then, what is real folk music?
"To me it's homemade music with a large element of tradition in it. It's conservative music in some ways. On the other hand it's full of the people's stubborn determination to fight for their rights, so maybe it's radical music, too. . . [although] maybe those terms are oversimplified and misleading. But there's as many different kinds of folk music as there are folks.
"If you look around America and think how many different kinds of folks there are -- black and white, young and old, from Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, country, and city -- [you realize] some folk music sounds so different from the other you'd say, 'Well how can you say they're both the same thing?' They're both folk music because they're both homemade by ordinary people. . . .
"Up in Maine there are still people who sing these old ballads with 20 and 30 verses, and that's different from a kid on the street playing a bongo drum. People say, 'Please give me a word which separates these two.' I say, 'Well, this is a folksong from Maine, and that's an Afro-American folksong from the sidewalks of New York.'
". . . There are more combinations now. And sometimes you can say the combinations are being made so quickly . . . there's nothing traditional in them. But certainly I'd say it's a tradition of the New World to combine cultures. I once wrote a song about it called 'All Mixed Up,' using a calypso beat. 'I like Polish sausage I like Spanish rice Pizza pie is also nice. . . .'"
He says there's no single message in his songs. In fact one of the great joys is the variety of messages each song can have.
"When I sing a song like 'John Henry,' it's got hundreds of messages. They can be humorous, tragic, bawdy, related to technology, related to pride, macho feeling. That's why it's lasted so long. I've sung it now for almost 50 years. I learned it with my father from a painter, Tom Benton, who played a harmonica and sang 'John Henry.' That was around 1930, and I still enjoy singing it."
But one gets the feeling that singing simply for people's enjoyment isn't his real mission. A story he often tells reinforces that feeling.
"I imagine I've been hired to sing on a rich man's yacht. Since I need the job I say okay. The party boat pushes off from Buffalo and heads downstream, and I say to the captain, 'Hey, isn't there a big waterfall down there?' He says , 'Yeah, but we've got plenty of power in this thing.' As the evening goes on . . . the guests get drunker and drunker, and it seems to me the water's speeding up. I go to the captain and say, 'Don't you think we ought to turn around?' He says, 'Look, my job is to run the boat; your job is to sing songs.' So I go back to the owner, and he says, 'Come on, sing us a song!' He's so deep in his cups he doesn't know what's going on. I go to one of the deck hands and say, 'Are you as worried as I am?' and he says, 'We've never been this far down river, and this captain's drinking, too.' Do I try to sober up the owner? Do we hit the captain on the head and try to run the boat ourselves. You answer it."