Like a train in a Woody Guthrie song, Pete Seeger just can’t stop. Activist and pacifist, preacher and congregant, teacher and student, Seeger, 87, still believes that a song can change the course of humankind.
Billboard recently visited Seeger in Beacon, N.Y., to get his reaction to Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” The album features songs that Seeger popularized over dozens — and decades — of albums, mostly for Folkways, Vanguard and Columbia.
Seeger hopes the album will inspire other popular performers to explore the great American songbook. Of music with a message, he says: “There aren’t hundreds of songs — there are thousands. You don’t have to reinvent them. Just sing them the best you can.”
Gazing out at the mighty Hudson River over cantaloupe and croissants at the home of his dear friends and neighbors, Connie Hogarth and Art Kamell, founders of the Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., Seeger was positively Pete. He had hiked from his mountaintop home a mile away, tall and trim in a schooner’s cap damp from a gentle rain.
In a strong and hopeful voice, Seeger also discussed what happens when parents ignore their children; greed, consumerism and narcissism; anti-Semitism in the American workers’ movement; indigenous peoples and the world’s 4,000 languages; faith, friendship and Toshi Ohta, his wife and companion of 63 years; African melodies and a pressing need for U.S. copyright reform; planting forsythias; and the lesson of Noah’s Ark: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, fire next time.”
Tell us about “The Seeger Sessions”
Three weeks before it came out, Bruce phoned me to say the project was being released. I was honored, but I would have suggested another title. I didn’t pick the songs or craft the arrangements. [For a couple of songs] I only added lines-“Jacob’s Ladder” and “We Shall Overcome.” And, good heavens, I don’t need the publicity.
Springsteen says he’s attracted to your work because it represents the scope of the American experience.
A: Bruce once said, and I never forgot this, “A rock singer can last as long as he can look down in the crowd and see his own face looking back.” I liked that.
What about the songs he selected? Some critics wished for a more political slant, like “Bring Them Home,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” or “King Henry.”
The one I wished for was “Walking Down Death Row.” It’s a wake-up call to the human race. It goes: “If we could learn to love each other’s lives, we’d not be sitting here!/And if only this we could believe/We still might, we might still be reprieved.”
Did you see any of the shows on Springsteen’s current tour?
Had I found a disguise to wear, I would have.
Springsteen put on a particularly powerful performance at the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans this year. He restored an old verse to “The Saints”: “Some say this world of trouble is the only world we’ll ever see/But I’m waiting for that morning when the new world is revealed.”
I sang those words with the Weavers in 1950!
How do you see protest music affecting a new generation?
Protest music has been around for thousands of years. It just leaks out every so often. When did the leak start this time? [Smiles]
Why aren’t more recording artists speaking out against the war? Surveillance of American citizens? The dangers of a warming climate?
[Long pause] I will duck the question.
I’ve implied the answer.
Do popular performers, through their enormous influence, have a social responsibility to speak out?
Does Billboard cover the coffeehouse circuit? Thousands of people are making up songs about war and peace. We just don’t hear them on the radio.
What would Woody Guthrie sing about today?
He’d say, “Reach the kids!” You never heard “This Land Is Your Land” on radio or television so how come everyone knew it? It got into the schools!
In the new forward to your autobiography, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (Sing Out Press), you refer to folk music as “the folk process.”
My father, Charles, taught me that the folk process is tens of thousands of years old; it’s a part of every field and every walk of life. Cooks rearrange old recipes for new stomachs. Lawyers rearrange old laws for new citizens.
What makes the folk process so rewarding?
Honesty. John Henry was a steel-driving man. Pretty Polly was a murder victim. A girl went astray in the House of the Rising Sun — those are honest songs.
Honest, like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
During the Great Depression, Yip Harburg wrote, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Bing Crosby sang, “Wrap your troubles in dreams/And dream your troubles away.” Was that really honest?
Do you hear honest music today?
A: Ten thousand, 20,000 years ago, each tribe had sacred songs. They never changed. The men knew the paddling songs. The women knew the corn-pounding songs and the lullabies. A folk singer today is someone who stands in front of a microphone.
Isn’t that dismissive?
Honest songs aren’t written for money.
How has the Internet affected the ability to organize and demonstrate?
Change comes through small organizations. You divide up the jobs: Some people sing bass, some sing soprano. Some copy the sheet music, others drive and pick up those who ride the subway. You take small steps until you’re in a position to act.
Do you use the Internet?
I don’t. It’s a family joke. But I plan to.
Where is the first place to work for change?
Right where you are.
Think globally, act locally.
Being generous of spirit is a wonderful way to live. Maybe you can bring cheer to a hospice or build a colorful playground for toddlers. The last thing to change will be the corporations. But what can they do about little projects everywhere, like the 800 community gardens in New York City? Developers can’t bulldoze them away!
Tell us about the courage it took for you to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.
The real meaning of courage was the personal sacrifice of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
Are you writing any new songs?
Sometimes a new melody will bubble up. Then I realize it’s my subconscious singing, “Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself/It’s later than you think.”
Your greatest hope?
That scientists will know how, and when, to keep a secret.
Would you share a fond memory?
When a half million people sang, “All we are saying/Is give peace a chance,” at the Washington Monument in November 1969. Parents swayed with children on their shoulders. Everyone moved like a gigantic ballet.
What inspires you?
Singing for children. Seeing their smiling faces. It reminds me that millions of children, tens of millions of children, can save our world.
A benediction, please.
If there’s something wrong, speak up!