From his earliest memories of music to now, music has been a way of interacting with others for singer Pete Seeger, even though this famous minstrel says he’d rather be a hermit.
“It’s the only way to be an honest person in this world,” he says. “Once you start participating in the world, you start being hypocritical.”
In spite of himself he stepped out into the world, compelled to reach others through music. Once he stepped out, he noticed his surroundings needed improving. He tackled issues using his musical ability — a tool given to him by his father, a music teacher.
I talked with Seeger about his family, music, activism and his friendship with another famous bard, Woody Guthrie. I even had to answer a few of Seeger’s questions and do some harmonizing because no one comes away from Seeger without having learned a song.
GM: Can you tell me about your earliest memory of music?
PS: I don’t remember anything under 3 years old, but my mother played a very good violin and my father accompanied her on a folding pump organ. When I was only 2 years old-I have pictures of this in my book-my father would hold me on his lap while he was playing the little organ and my mother was playing her fiddle. I must have been conscious of it. I did like to hear my father play Chopin etudes on the piano. But what I really liked was when he’d let me play with one finger some melody while he improvised. I’d play on the upper half of the piano and he’d play all around the lower half of the piano.
GM: The next epiphany also came with help from your father…
PS: At 17, I got out of high school. That summer my father took me to the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville North Carolina. And I suddenly found people making music who didn’t have the faintest idea of what it was to read music. They just played by ear. Members of their family played music and they picked it up from them. I remember Mrs. Samantha Bumgarner in her 50s in a rocking chair with a banjo. She covered the head of her banjo with flowers and butterflies. It was very colorful. She was singing about adventurous things in old times.
GM: How did you come up with the phrase written on the face of your own banjo?
PS: I made it up. Woody [Woody Guthrie, author of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” and “This Land is Your Land”] had on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists” in World War II. And after World War II, he kept it on, and we said, “Woody, Hitler is dead. Mussolini is dead. Take the sign off.” He said, “These fascists come along every time the rich people get the generals to help them stay in control.” I wanted to have something a little more peaceful: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” While it’s true, there are still people in the world that hate, small groups here and small groups there…and the stupid scientists invented horrible things that they can do if they get the right weapons.
GM: Would you talk a little bit about your relationship to Woody Guthrie?
PS: He was seven years older than I was and vastly more experienced…In 1940, when I met Woody Guthrie, he taught me how to hitchhike and ride freight trains…He said, “That guy Seeger is the youngest man I ever knew. He don’t drink. He don’t smoke. He don’t chase girls. He’s weird!” But I had a very good ear and I could accompany anything he played, the first time through. I didn’t have to hear it twice.
GM: When you started out on your musical journey, where did you hope it would take you?
PS: I was looking for a job as a newspaperman and failing utterly to get one. A school teacher said, “Pete, come sing some of your songs for my class. I can get $5 for you.” A lot of people had to work all day to get $5 then. There I got $5 just for having fun for an hour. I went and took the money and quit looking for an honest job [laughing]. Pretty soon, I was singing at another school and then another school. I got jobs singing at summer camps, and then 10 years later, the kids were in college. And after World War II, I went from college to college.
GM: Why did you want to be a journalist?
PS: [I was] thinking it was a way to save the world from probable end. Einstein supposed to have said this: “Two infinite things: one is the universe and the other is human stupidity.” Then he adds, “I am not sure about the universe.”
GM: When did you get a sense that music was taking you much further than college to college?
PS: I didn’t. I could have kicked the bucket in 1959 because along came a lot of young people who picked up on what I was doing, great songwriters like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell , Buffy Saint Marie and so on, a lot of them. I really could have kicked the bucket and 90 percent of my life’s work was done.
GM: What was the 90 percent?
PS: I showed you didn’t need to make a living by singing in nightclubs, or singing on television or radio. You could sing songs that really meant something.
GM: That’s what you gave to music. What did music give to you?
PS: Oh, it’s fun and a really great melody gives you hope for the future of the world. For 60 years I’ve said, we have a 50/50 chance of there being a human race here in 200 years. But I said that largely because that implies that any one of us might be the grain of sand to tip the scales the right way.
GM: Do you think that the activism that happened in the 60s could happen again anytime soon?
PS: Which part of the 60s-another endless war?
GM: People getting inspired to start making noise and do things on their own…
PS: Well, that is going on now but most newspapers don’t report it because it’s all such small things. There are 800 community gardens in New York City. Do they get in the newspaper? No. A dozen people here and a couple of dozen there, or three or four somewhere else…Nobody is writing about them. But I think that is the big news of this decade. Have you read the book by Paul Hawken? Do you know who he is?
GM: No, I don’t.
PS: A small business man…[spells his name] H.A.W.KE.N. His book is called “Blessed Unrest.” You should read it. I am serious. He figures that there are thousands of little things going on in this country, usually local. There is also a lovely book about community gardens called “Seed Folks” written by Paul Fleischman. It’s about a community garden in Cleveland…
After a pause, he muses further…
PS: It may go down to failure because the TV is such a strong thing. I’ve got a 14-year-old granddaughter that looks at TV and is getting together with boys and she thinks I’m a bore.
GM: How many music channels are on that TV?
PS: I don’t know. I never look at it. I often quote John Philip Sousa, who was a great bandleader. In 1910, he said, “What will happen to the American voice now that the phonograph has been invented. He was right. Men used to sing in bars. Now there is a TV there. All women used to sing lullabies to their kids. Now, some do, but most don’t. Put the kid in front of the tube. He’ll fall asleep soon.
GM: Does singing a song for an audience feel different now than it did 30 years ago, or at different phases of your life?
PS: These days, I am out to teach audiences this little thing…I say “Do you know this song?” ‘You Are My Sunshine’ [singing] and of course everybody knows it. “Who knows the high part?” I ask playing two notes at once [singing the harmony] and by gosh, when we sing the song a lot of people are singing the high part and you hear them both at once, instead of just the melody.