Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep from Singing?
Editor's note: In 2002, AG interviewed Pete Seeger about his life and influence on contemporary folk music for its July cover story. This is that interview in full.
Few individuals have enriched our musical lives in as many ways, and for as many years, as Pete Seeger. As a young Harvard dropout in the late â€™30s, he collected songs with Alan Lomax; in the â€™40s, he hardwired folk music and politics with Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers; in the â€™50s, he helped spark the folk revival with the Weavers; and heâ€™s piped up at countless concerts and rallies around the world ever since. Along the way heâ€™s written, adapted, popularized, or otherwise spread an incredible array of songs (â€śWhere Have All the Flowers Gone,â€ť â€śWimoweh,â€ť â€śTurn! Turn! Turn!,â€ť â€śIf I Had a Hammer,â€ť â€śWe Shall Overcome,â€ť â€śGuantanameraâ€ť. . .), and inspired generations of pickers with his high-energy 12-string guitar and banjo work. And he has taught us how itâ€™s done, from his pioneering 1943 book How to Play the Five-String Banjo to his lucid explanations of Leadbellyâ€™s guitar style, how to make and play steel drums, and much more. Through all this, Seegerâ€™s mission has not been to bask in the spotlight but to shine it onus,offering the tools and encouragement to raise our voices in song and protest.
As Seeger strides ahead in his 80s, a rack of recent releases testifies to the vitality of his music and life. To name a few: two volumes of The Songs of Pete Seeger collect tributes by artists from Ani DiFranco to Bruce Springsteen; a reissued/expanded Greatest Hits set brings us his own classic performances from the â€™60s; and Pete Seegerâ€™s Storytelling Book shares some of his favorite yarns, including several that he starts and, in typical fashion, asks us to finish. And the man once indicted by Congress and blacklisted from national television and major concert venues finds himself honored by the Kennedy Center and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recognized as the pillar of American music and society that he is.
For all of his activities and activism in so many fields, Seeger truly lives in song, and he seems incapable of talking for more than three minutes without breaking into one. I reached him at his home in Beacon, New York, alongside a Hudson River much cleaner thanks in no small part to his efforts.
You are closely associated with the banjo, but youâ€™ve also made a big contribution to guitar music. How did you learn to play?
Seeger When I was around 21, I jumped off a freight train and broke my banjo, and the only cheap instrument I could getâ€”it was five dollars at a local hock shopâ€”was a small guitar. And I quickly learned the chords so I could play in a few primary keys. I used a flatpick--bass/chord, bass/chord, thatâ€™s all I knewâ€”and discarded that guitar as soon as I could get a good banjo again.
But when I was around 30, Leadbelly died, and I and many people said, â€śGee, why didnâ€™t we learn how he played the 12-string?â€ť A friend got me started with Travis picking, so I learned a bit about Leadbellyâ€™s guitar style and about Travis picking. Leadbelly didnâ€™t play fancy chords, but boy, what beautiful bass lines he made up.
I also went down to the Bahamas once and looked up Joseph Spence. He was a very cordial man, and he played everything in dropped-D tuning. Iâ€™d played in dropped D occasionally, but I found out how nice it was to play all the time. I guess I must play 95 percent of the time now in dropped D.
Was it long after Leadbelly died that you began working on the book A Folksingerâ€™s Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly?
Seeger Oh, yeah, long after he died. Late â€™30s, I guess. You know, my basic philosophy in life is Iâ€™m a teacher trying to teach people to participate, whether itâ€™s banjos or guitars or politics or whatever.
What initially attracted you to the banjo?
Seeger I love rhythm. It was vigorous, and I was young and full of vigor. I just loved â€śJohn Henryâ€ť and â€śOld Joe Clark,â€ť nice, sparkling songs like that. As the years go by I find, of course, that I also like other songs, so I find myself playing the slow, two-part melody out of Beethovenâ€™s Seventh Symphony.
How did you learn to play?
Seeger Well, old Bascom Lunsford, who was a country lawyer in Asheville, North Carolina, put on one of the first outdoor Appalachian festivals, the Asheville Mountain Song and Dance Festivalâ€”this was 1936. Thatâ€™s where I heard Aunt Samantha Bumgarner in her rocking chair, rocking and picking a banjo and singing old ballads and having so much fun, with a big grin on her face. Bascom later found I was playing a tenor banjo; he says, â€śOh, you should play a five-string, and hereâ€™s what you do: you pluck up on that middle string, now you pluck up on that first string, and now you put your thumb on that little fifth string, and you get this pattern:boom pick-a,boom pick-a, boom pick-a, boom.â€ť And so in five minutes he taught me the basics.
In 1940, I took the whole summer hitchhiking west and south. A teacher in New York had said, â€śMy cousin Rufus in Kentucky can show you a lot about the banjo,â€ť so I aimed for his house, and thatâ€™s where I learned a little clawhammer playing.
Did those patterns apply to the guitar?
Seeger They certainly helped my dexterity; however, I had to learn a lot about syncopation and so on before I was able to play â€śFreight train, freight train, goinâ€™ so fast.â€ť My brother and sister learned directly from Libba [Elizabeth Cotten, who worked for the Seegers as a maid]. I would go down to visit them in Washington [D.C.] and marvel at what she was doing, but I couldnâ€™t figure what it was. Ten years later I got it. However, I once played it to her, and she said, â€śYouâ€™re not playing it right at all! Youâ€™re playing it in D; I always do it in C.â€ť I played it in dropped D. I still like it in dropped Dâ€”you get a lot of open strings.
Your banjo book introduced a new way to teach music, reviving tablature and coining now-standard terms like hammer-on and pull-off. How did you arrive at your approach?
Seeger I was in the army 55 years ago when my father says, â€śPeter, do you realize that not many people have your knowledge of writing as well as knowledge of the banjo? Have you ever thought of putting out a banjo manual?â€ť I really didnâ€™t know a thing about banjo manuals, except that I didnâ€™t like the ones I had seen, which were too technical. And they werenâ€™t very funny, didnâ€™t entice you to read further. So I took some students, and for about ten weeks we had a weekly lesson. One of the students was Eric Weissberg [who recorded the Deliverance theme â€śDueling Banjosâ€ť], and within a month or two he was playing rings around me. His father was a photographer, took a picture of him with an astronautâ€™s hat on, a space suit, and holding a picture of the Weavers in his hand. Eleven-year-old Eric Weissberg.
After teaching them, I was off to try and help Henry Wallace get elected president, a spectacular failure. But in the hotels I had hours to sit around every day while Mr. Wallace was being interviewed, so I typed up mimeograph stencils, and the original banjo book was, I think, 59 pages. I mimeographed 100 copies, and they sold in four years.
You used tablature in that book, yet youâ€™ve taught standard notation elsewhere.
Seeger Yeah, I wrote a book called Henscratches and Flyspecks, persuading people that itâ€™s not really that hard to learn how to read music. You donâ€™t need to be scared of it. My mother, who was a violin teacher, tried to get me to learn music at an early age, but I rebelled, as did my older brothers. When I came along, my father sensibly said, â€śOh, let Peter enjoy himself.â€ť What she did was leave musical instruments around the houseâ€”not just a piano and an organ but a squeeze box with buttons and a pennywhistle in C and a marimba, a wooden marimba with mallets that I could go plinkety-plunk. By the time I was five, I could pick out a tune on all these instruments, and I knew what made a major chord different from a minor chord, even though I didnâ€™t have a name for it. And that if you raised the fifth note of your major chord you got a strange new thing. My mother said, â€śThatâ€™s called an augmented chord.â€ť I didnâ€™t bother calling it that; I just played it. I was eight years old when I learned Irving Berlinâ€™s â€śBlue Skies,â€ť and that great augmented chord comes in the second bar.
So I knew a hell of a lot about music without knowing the names for anything. I could tell you all the pop songs of 1927 and â€™28, â€™29, â€™30. My mother gave me a ukulele in â€™27. [Sings] â€śHeâ€™s just a sentimental gentleman from Georgia, Georgia / Gentle to the ladies all the time / And when it comes to lovinâ€™/ Heâ€™s a real professor, yes sir / Just a Mason Dixon Valentineâ€ť [laughs]. I knew the words were silly, but I was intrigued by the cleverness of the harmonies; and then later I realized that cleverness is not enough in this world. I loved these old folk songs that had one or two or, at most, three chords. Thatâ€™s when I met Woody Guthrie, and he was leery of trying a lot of chords. Even songs that demanded that double dominant, he would not do it. Like â€śDo Re Mi,â€ť he used the tune of a country song [sings], â€śHang out the front door key, babe / Hang out the front door key,â€ť and if youâ€™re playing in G, you should hit an A major seven there. Woody refused to. He was rebelling against all that cleverness, and he would hit a plain D7.
Did your interest in folk music lead you to songs with political content, or did the two go hand in hand?
Seeger It really went hand in hand. We had an idea that working people were going to be the saviors of the world, and we should learn more about working peopleâ€™s music. And the most honest working peopleâ€™s music was the old country songs, even when they werenâ€™t strictly working peopleâ€™s . . . I mean â€śGreensleevesâ€ť is obviously not a working personâ€™s song. It was a pop song of the 16th century.
What did you, as a musician, learn from Woody?
Seeger I learned the genius of simplicity. He didnâ€™t try and get fancy, he didnâ€™t try to show how clever he was. He had done a lot of thinking, and he read voraciously. I remember the time he got hold of Rabelais and got through it all in one or two days, and in the following weeks you could see him trying some of the same stylistic tricks of piling on adjective after adjective. However, he once said, â€śI must steer clear of Walt Whitmanâ€™s swimmy waters.â€ť I think he decided that if he was going to write songs, he wanted the lines to rhyme, and he liked things to be in meter.
Woody Guthrie wrote some of the countryâ€™s most truly great songs. Not just â€śThis Land Is Your Land,â€ť but â€śSo Long (Itâ€™s Been Good to Know You)â€ť and â€śDo Re Miâ€ť and the one that I think may be widely sung in the coming century in Spanish, â€śDeportees.â€ť A Chicano in California, a Puerto Rican, and now somebody in Ecuador, I understand, have made translations of it. The metaphor comparing throwing food away to throwing people awayâ€”get rid of those people, we donâ€™t need them.
Woody wrote songs at such an incredible rate. How did that affect you?
Seeger I was deeply envious to see how quickly he could write songs. Once we flew to Pittsburgh in â€™46 to sing for the Westinghouse workers on strike; while Lee [Hays] went to sleep and I read a magazine, Woody made up verse after verse after verse about the towns we were flying over, wondering what life was like in those towns, and then looking at the pretty stewardess and wondering what her life was like, and then he gets up and leaves these pages in the seat. He literally wrote verses everywhere he was every day. When Alan Lomax met him, he said, â€śWoody, do you realize you are like the person who wrote the ballads of Robin Hood? Your job in life is to write balladsâ€”donâ€™t let anything distract you from writing ballads.â€ť
Had you written songs before meeting Woody?
Seeger Nope. When my mother once asked me to write a song for her father, my grandfather, who died, I was surprised. â€śWhy does she think I know how to write a song?â€ť I wrote poems occasionally for the school magazine, but they werenâ€™t worthy of being songs. But I met Woody and got the idea you could write songs. I first tried putting new words to old tunes, which is what he did, and found that I was better at putting new tunes to old words.
From your perspective, is songwriting more about borrowing and rearranging than pulling something entirely new out of the air?
Seeger Have you heard the latest song that I sing everywhere called â€śArrange and Rearrangeâ€ť? It has a four-letter word in it, and I am delighted I am able to get huge audiences singing shit. Itâ€™s right in the chorus, [sings] â€śOh-wee, oh-wye, and only have to shit a little shit.â€ť I had 3,000 Quakers singing it a few years ago.
You get an idea for a song, and nobody knows where it came from. I guess psychologists have said there are right and left halves of the brain, and sometimes the brain puts things together that you could never have done consciously, whether itâ€™s a melody or phrase. On the other hand, I quote Edisonâ€™s dictum, â€śGenius is five percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration.â€ť I got the idea for the last line of â€śWaist Deep in the Big Muddyâ€ť (â€śand the big fool says to push onâ€ť) all at once. It came to me in a flash when I was looking at a picture of American troops wading across the Mekong River. It was such a good idea, I couldnâ€™t let it go. But I struggled with it for two or three weeks before I got a usable song.
As far as instrumentals go, youâ€™ve said that â€śLiving in the Countryâ€ť is one guitar piece that stands out for you.
Seeger I am really proud that Leo Kottke did it, and I understand that some piano players made a record of it too. I just improvised it. I was trying to play â€śPay Me My Money Down,â€ť which my sister Peggy had been singing, and all of a sudden I had a new tune. And, as of last month I have put, of all things, words to itâ€”not to my tune, but to what Frank Hamilton improvised. We made a Folkways record years ago called Nonesuch, and on a steel-string guitar, he played three notes above the melody of â€śLiving in the Country,â€ť and it was a melody all on its own. So I am now sending this to my long-suffering publisher and saying melody by Frank Hamilton, words by Pete Seeger. [Sings] â€śIf you would be patient and teach me I think that I could learn to dance.â€ť Itâ€™s the best love song Iâ€™ve ever written. I wrote those words ten years ago, but I couldnâ€™t figure what to make of the rest of it until just three weeks ago.
Are there things that have happened to songs you wrote or popularized that have particularly surprised you?
Seeger It happens all the time. I was particularly surprised that anybody did anything with â€śWhere Have All the Flowers Gone.â€ť I only had three verses, and I sang it as a slow air, with no rhythm, with two other very short songs; I called them my â€śShort Shorts.â€ť After a year, I went on to other songs and stopped singing itâ€”it was a nice song, but I didnâ€™t think it was that great.
What happened was that Joe Hickerson heard my song on a Folkways record and sang it at summer camp to see what the kids thought of it. The kids started kidding around with him, â€śWhere have all the counselors gone? Broken curfew every one,â€ť and by the end of the summer, the two verses that Joe added, â€śWhere have all the soldiers gone?â€ť and â€śWhere have all the graveyards gone?â€ť seemed to make a nice circle out of it. Thatâ€™s the way the kids took it back to New York, and thatâ€™s where Peter, Paul, and Mary started singing it, thinking it was an old folk song, and thatâ€™s where the Kingston Trio got it, thinking it was an old folk song.
I gave Joe 20 percent of the royaltiesâ€”it was lucky I didnâ€™t give him 50 percent, because I now think I should send 20 percent to Russia, because thatâ€™s where the original idea came from. The three verses were out of the middle of an old Russian song, â€śKoloda Duda.â€ť I am now trying to figure how to send some money to the Archive of Folk Song, whether they are in St. Petersburg or Moscow.
All around the world, songs are being written that use old public domain material, and I think itâ€™s only fair that some of the money from the songs go to the country or place of origin, even though the composer may be long dead or unknown. Thatâ€™s why 50 percent of the story-song â€śAbiyoyoâ€ť is going to South Africa, because â€śAbiyoyoâ€ť is an old lullaby. And with â€śTurn! Turn! Turn!â€ť [based on Ecclesiastes in the Bible], I wanted to send 45 percent, because [*in addition to the music] I did write six words and one more word repeated three times, so I figured Iâ€™d keep five percent of the royalties for the words. I was going to send it to London, where I am sure the committee that oversees the use of the King James version exists, and they probably could use a little cash. But then I realized, why not send it to where the words were originally written? So weâ€™re sending some money to help the Israeli Committee for Arab Home Defense, which is trying against all logic to persuade Arabs that not all Israeli Jews are evil, selfish people.
Isnâ€™t a songâ€™s origin often hard to pinpoint?
Seeger Well, yeah, youâ€™re quite right. â€śAbiyoyoâ€ť might have been made up by another tribe, not the Xhosa people, a thousand years ago, and who knows? I want to persuade the rest of the Weavers that we should send some money to the Irish folk song archives for the song â€śKisses Sweeter than Wine.â€ť Itâ€™s an old Irish song: [sings]â€śMush-a sweeter than thou.â€ť It was a song about a dead cow. This Irish artist sang it to Leadbelly, and Leadbelly started singing it, but he put an African rhythm to it. And along comes Lee Hays and puts words to it, and itâ€™s still being sung after all these decades. I sing it at every wedding Iâ€™m at.
Do you think that given the way communication and immigration happens these days, music travels around the world in a different way?
Seeger Undoubtedly it is happening faster, and over broader distances than ever before. You can only laugh if you donâ€™t cry. The rich are getting richer and the poor are being left behind the eight ball and getting more and more angry. I donâ€™t think there will be a human race here in 100 years unless the rich countries realize itâ€™s in everybodyâ€™s interest that everybody in the world have a job and be decently fed and clothed. And when some people have billions, so their only worry is, â€śHow can I make more billions?â€ť or â€śHow am I going to give away all my billions?â€ť that becomes a big problem. Itâ€™s a very bad situation. In an upside-down way, maybe out of this terrible tragedy in New Yorkâ€”I know two people who were killed thereâ€”maybe the better nature of the USA will come to the surface and say, â€śNo, dropping more bombs is not going to solve this problem. Itâ€™s just going to make people angrier. What will solve it is finding out why they are so angry and finding ways to stop the anger.â€ť
Do you know Granny D.? At age 88, she told her son, â€śDrive me to Los Angeles,â€ť and she started walking to Washington ten miles a day. Her most recent letter comes out with this statement; I Xeroxed it and carry it around in my pocket. Listen: â€śWe cannot kill our way to love and respect, where our only true security resides.â€ť Well me, at nine years younger than she is, I say, amen.
Pete Seegerâ€™s Legacy
AG asked several folk singers about Seeger's legacy in 2002 and these were some of their responses:
"When I sift back through my early memories of music, Pete is always there. My first concert memory is of sitting in his lap while he sang a childrenâ€™s song. My first guitar memory is of leafing through the Weaversâ€™ songbook to learn basic chords. My first political memory is the blacklist, and Pete telling performers they shouldnâ€™t refuse to perform on TV just because he wasnâ€™t allowed.
His dedication to bringing all music to all peoples has made our universe a larger one. His refusal to pander to fame, to stardom, to the trappings of ego and narcissism, have set the standard for folk musicians these past five decades. Because of Pete, weâ€™ve managed to avoid many of the sad excesses promulgated by pop musicâ€”and survive our own fleeting fame."
"I purchased my first banjo in 1955, and the only book that was available to teach me how to play it was Pete Seegerâ€™s How to Play the Five-String Banjo. For me, as for so many other youngsters in New York City who were discovering folk music in those days, Pete was the source of all good songs and the key to the world of traditional styles."
"Part of what makes Pete a great player is that weird attitude of his. He doesnâ€™t subscribe to one school or style; heâ€™ll appropriate anything and just turn it to a banjo or a guitar. As far as I know, he was the first character to come along and do that. It informed his playing and his writing to the point that heâ€™s had quite a few huge hits. For a guy who wanted to try anything but capitalism, itâ€™s been amazing, and I think validating, the popular nerve that heâ€™s hit."
Copyright 2002, Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers (www.jeffreypepperrodgers.com).