Pete Seeger: How can I keep from singing?
Folk legend Pete Seeger talks about his life in music and social activism – and the power of making millions of small changes.
Pete Seeger passed away on Jan. 28, 2014 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital at the age of 94. His wife, Toshi Seeger, passed away last July. Pete was known around the world for his performance of the music of ordinary people, and for his passion for their concerns, especially labor struggles, the fight against war, civil rights, and cleaning up the Hudson River.
In New York state's Hudson Valley, where he lived for most of his life, he was known for showing up unannounced at community events, banjo in hand. And, along with Toshi, he organized the annual Clearwater Sloop Festival, named for the famous sailboat he took up and down the Hudson River, reminding people to care for and protect their iconic river.
Pete believed that change would come, not through big, grand pronouncements, but through the choices we each make. When I interviewed him in 2007, he said: “If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things.”
And when I asked him about what it had meant to him to be famous for so many years, he scolded me for even asking. “Fame is a trap and an illusion,” he said.
Pete Seeger has been a presence in my life since the time I was growing up in the Hudson Valley of New York. My family was among the scores who went to see him perform at a run-down little park on the Hudson with his sloop, the Clearwater, docked nearby. His songs of his love for a polluted, neglected water-way rekindled in people a yearning for connection to the great river.
Later, I heard him sing at rallies against the Vietnam War, and I knew then that there were adults who shared my passion for peace and justice.
More recently, Pete Seeger has been sending post cards to YES! with ideas for stories we might cover, and he made a donation that he said should be used to send a copy of YES! to each of the foreign embassies located in the United States.
Finally, in December , I had a chance to talk to him in person. We met at the home he built himself on a ridge overlooking his beloved Hudson River. He introduced us to his wife, Toshi Seeger, told stories, sang us songs, and showed us his electric pickup truck, powered by the solar panels on his roof. Here is part of our conversation:
Sarah: When did you first realize that music, especially the music of ordinary people, would define your life?
Pete: I didn’t know it would define my life. My mother gave me a ukulele at age eight, and I sang the popular tunes of the day.
[Sings] He’s just a sentimental gentleman from Georgia …
The other songs my family liked to sing were rounds.
Joy and temperance and repose …
I think my mother’s father taught it to her. He was a conservative New Englander. My father’s family were radical New Englanders—Unitarians and abolitionists from way back. But my mother’s father came from Tories.
Sarah: How did you go from pop music to folk music?
Pete: I was 16 when I came to New York. I had graduated to a tenor banjo in the school jazz band, and it was kind of boring—just chords, chords, chords. Then my father took me to a mountain music and dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and there I saw relatively uneducated people playing great music by ear.
I’ll never forget Mrs. Samantha Baumgarner, sitting back in her rocking chair with a banjo—oh, she’d painted the head of her banjo with brightly colored butterflies and flowers, and she was singing funny songs, tragic songs, violent songs, “Pretty Polly,” about murdering your true love.
Sarah: You did some traveling with Woody Guthrie later on, didn’t you?
Pete: He taught me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains. You don’t get on a freight when it’s in the station—the railroad bulls will kick you off. You go about 100 yards or maybe 200 yards outside to where the train is just picking up speed and you can trot alongside it. You throw your banjo in an empty car, and then you throw yourself in. And you then might go 200 or 300 miles before you stop.
Then I would knock on back doors and say, “Can I do a little work for a meal?” Or I’d sing in a saloon for a few quarters.
In six months I saw the country like I never would have seen it otherwise. I was curious to learn how workers were doing. I went out to Butte, Montana, which was a copper mining town then, and went a thousand feet down where it was hot, hot, and they were sweating, down there, working away.
They had a good union, though, and I knocked on the door and said, “I know some union songs, would you like to hear them?” And they paid me all of five dollars, which was a lot of money then, to sing some of the coal miners’ songs I knew from the East.
After World War II, we started a little organization we called People’s Songs. It was a very small organization; our publication had a circulation of about 2,000, and we finally went broke in 1949. The Cold War was too much for us. The ruling class knew just how to split the labor movement.
I dropped out of the communist movement about the same time as I moved up here to Beacon. I was never enthusiastic about being somebody who was supposed to be silent about being a member of something. On the other hand, I was still curious about what was happening to communist countries.
I went to the Soviet Union three times, in 1964, and in 1967, I think, and again in 1981. I concentrated on singing songs of the civil rights movement, rather than the labor movement, because that’s what really turned my life around: seeing what Dr. King did, without using force and violence, whereas the communists said the world would not be changed without a great revolution. I think that was the big mistake.
Sarah: Did you witness for yourself what Dr. King was doing?
Pete: Toshi and I were on the march from Selma to Montgomery for three days. And I sang in Selma and Montgomery from time to time, and one time in Birmingham and in Mississippi another time.
It was only through the years that I realized what an absolutely extraordinarily thoughtful person King was. He insisted, from the beginning, in winning the bus boycott without violence.
Some of the middle-class African Americans would say, “Dr. King, accept a compromise. More people are going to be hurt and killed.” These were doctors and lawyers who didn’t want to lose their business. And the young people would say, “They bombed us. Why don’t we bomb them back?” And King would bring them together to talk and listen to each other, and it might take a whole day or sometimes two days or even three days. But finally, they’d say, “Okay, this is what we’ll say and this is what we’ll do. Because we know we have to work together or we’re not going to win.”
Sarah: Besides the labor and civil rights movements, you were also involved in the anti-war movement.
Pete: There are still battles among people who are not quite sure what kind of actions can be effective. I tend to agree with Paul Hawken that it’s going to be many small things.
I think of Tommy Sands, an Irish song leader, who got song leaders from the North and the South singing together for a whole evening. They had people there who’d been killing each other—Protestants and Catholics—and at the end of the evening, they tentatively started talking to each other.
Sarah: When you sing, “Bring Them Home,” you say “one of the great things about America is that we can speak our minds.” And you said that at a time when you had been blacklisted for many, many years. Can you talk about what it means to you to be a patriot?
Pete: Well, Toshi and I are both deeply proud that we were able to be part of the anti-Vietnam War movement. And I say this is one of the great victories for the American people.
Now here’s another story you might like. In Albany, a woman named Ruth Pelham, about 25 or 30 years ago, found she liked to make up songs for kids, and the kids in her neighborhood liked to hear her sing.
She saved up enough money to get a suitcase of instruments and a little van. She’d go to one neighborhood on Monday, another neighborhood on Tuesday, and so on, six days a week.
And it got to be a favorite thing in Albany to go to the music mobile.
And she’s a good songwriter:
We’re gonna look to the people for courage in the hard times coming ahead.
We’re gonna sing and shout, we’re gonna work it out, in the hard times coming ahead.
With people’s courage, with people’s courage, with people’s courage we can make it!
We’re gonna look to the people for laughter in the hard times coming ahead…
And people just add verses:
We’ve gotta look to the people’s chutzpah!…
Albany is a different town than it used to be because of it. A few years ago, the mayor of Albany had a big gathering, and there were hundreds of people there with her, singing together.
Oh, I haven’t even told you about our local group! It’s called the Beacon Sloop Club. When the Clearwater first stopped here, we had a little party. A thousand people, mostly young people, came. Toshi made stone soup. You know the story of stone soup? I’d never heard of it before, but I got it published in the local paper, and Toshi fed a thousand people out of one big iron pot.
One woman brought down a chicken, and said “I was going to feed it to my family, but they’re all here.” Another brought down a roast beef—”my family’s here, you might as well take it!”
And then, when the festival was over, everybody said, “Now I’ve got to get back to my family, my church, my business, my veterans’ organization,” whatever it was.
And the next year when Clearwater started again, we had to start from scratch organizing the festival. At which point a teenager said, “Why don’t we have a sloop club here, so we have people who know how to put on a festival.”
I groaned. Another organization, minutes, elections. I called a meeting but only three people showed up.
Toshi said, “Don’t call it a meeting. Call it a potluck supper.” Then 30 people came. We have had a meeting the first Friday of the month for 36 years. When we have a holiday songfest, almost 200 squeeze in, and we’re practically part of the establishment. It’s funny.
Before the Clearwater started cleaning up the river, land was very cheap. This land was only $100 an acre when we bought it. Now my neighbor is trying to sell one acre for $100,000. That’s what’s happening in the Hudson Valley. The real estate people say, “We filled up Long Island. We filled up New Jersey. Now we will fill up the Hudson Valley.”
Sarah: [laughing] So you never thought you were helping the real estate industry when you cleaned up the Hudson?
Pete: I was complaining to a politician in Beacon, “We’ve grown too fast, we’re doubling every 20 years. We can’t do this forever. He says “Pete! If you don’t grow you die.” And, I didn’t know what to say, except at one o’clock in the morning I sat up in bed. “If it’s true that if you don’t grow you die, doesn’t it follow that the quicker we grow the sooner we die?”
That doesn’t mean that we know how to solve the problem. But the first step in solving a problem is admitting there is a problem to be solved.
Sarah: One of your most famous songs is “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To everything there is a season).” What kind of time do you think we’re in right now?
Pete: We are in a crisis time. I don’t give us a chance of—well, you never can tell. There might be a little tribe somewhere in the world on some isolated island, but I see human beings wiping each other off the face of the earth. We’ve invented such weapons—not just nuclear weapons but chemical weapons and all sorts of things.
I’ve been saying for years, it may be that climate change is a wake-up call for the whole human race. It’s going to be a multi-trillion dollar disaster for the rich countries, and a human disaster for the poor countries. Where’s Bangladesh going to put 45 million people? And Calcutta, and other cities? It’s going to be a disaster like nobody’s ever seen—and I hope people like Bush and people from the oil industry are still living so that they can see what a mistake they made.
Sarah: What’s your secret to getting children singing, getting people even at Carnegie Hall singing together, getting people to fall in love with their river and take care of it? Are there some things we can learn about why people choose to get involved?
Pete: Well, it’s been my belief that learning how to do something in your hometown is the most important thing. It’s not just me who thinks this. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” And the great biologist René Dubos said, “Think globally, act locally.” And E.F. Schumacher said “Small is beautiful.” And now Paul Hawken. All these people are saying the same thing.
If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things. The powers-that-be can break up any big thing they want. They can corrupt it or co-opt it from the inside, or they can attack it from the outside. But what are they going to do about 10 million little things? They break up two of them, and three more like them spring up!
• Sarah van Gelder interviewed Pete Seeger for Climate Solutions, the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. You can also watch a video excerpt of this interview and see Michael Bowman’s photo essay of Pete Seeger at home. Sarah van Gelder is executive editor of YES!