Pete Seeger’s Session
An interview with the great folk singer on God, religion, and whether music can change the world.
Pete Seeger, America’s best-loved folk singer, has lived long enough to go from being jailed and blacklisted in the 1950s for his political beliefs to receiving Kennedy Center honors and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the ’90s. His message-filled songs (“Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” “If I Had a Hammer,” among hundreds of others) have been a fixture of every progressive social movement, from labor and civil rights to peace and environmentalism. Now 88, Seeger lives on a mountain in upstate New York where he chops his own firewood and takes part in the Beacon Sloop Club, a branch of the Clearwater organization he spearheaded in 1969 with the aim of cleaning up the Hudson River. Though in this Beliefnet interview he occasionally spoke of a failing memory and a worn-out voice, he was eloquent as he defined his life’s purpose: “trying to raise people’s spirits” and “urging all religions to tolerate talking with each other.”
A new generation was introduced to your songs with Bruce Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions.” Was there any song you would have added?
“Walking Down Death Row…” I was going to write a letter to Bruce about it…if you ever do any other record of songs I made, put in one serious song like that song. Or maybe the one “Quite Early Morning,” which people like the tune of–“You know it’s darkest before the dawn/ this song keeps me moving on/ if we could heed these early warnings/ the time is now, quite early morning.”
What was your upbringing like?
I came from an intellectual family. Most were doctors, preachers, teachers, businessmen. My grandfather was a small businessman. His father was an abolitionist doctor, and his father was an immigrant from Germany. My mother was a mixture. Her grandfather came over from France and ran a preparatory school in New York. My mother was a very good violinist, my father was a musicologist and spent most of his life in academia. I came along and was a teenager in the Depression and nobody had jobs. So I went out hitchhiking, when I met a man named Woody Guthrie. He was the single biggest part of my education.
If you were to choose an organized religion, what would it be?
My mother was briefly a member of the Unitarian Church. I actually joined the Community Church [a Unitarian-Universalist church] on 35th Street, in New York, because I had a chorus and we needed a place to rehearse. My wife Toshi thinks it was very dishonest of me to join a church simply because I needed to rehearse the chorus. But I’ve been on good terms with them ever since. And sung for them occasionally. And if I ever sing at all now, I would do it down there.
What are your religious or spiritual beliefs?
I now feel that there must be microscopic electromagnetic waves that come out from our brain. All I know is that I’m not the only person who will be thinking of somebody and all of a sudden the telephone rings, and it’s that somebody. My wife also, when things are lost, sometimes can close her eyes and fix her mind on that thing and try and visualize it, maybe it’s a key or a notebook. And she finds her feet moving, and she follows her feet moving and she puts her hand on the key or notebook. Nobody knows for sure. But people undoubtedly get feelings which are not explainable and they feel they’re talking to God or they’re talking to their parents who are long dead.
I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.
I’ve had preachers of the gospel, Presbyterians and Methodists, saying, “Pete, I feel that you are a very spiritual person.” And maybe I am. I feel strongly that I’m trying to raise people’s spirits to get together.
Does writing a song like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” come from a spiritual place?
Songwriters can’t explain. You get an idea and you don’t know where it’s come from. And if you’re lucky, you have a pencil or pen and can write it down. I was in an airplane, and leafing in my little pocket notebook where I write down ideas, I came across three lines which I had read in the translation of a famous Soviet novel about the Cossacks and the river Don. Mikhail Sholokhov wrote it in the ‘30s and it was published here in a book called “And Quiet Flows the Don.” And the three lines the translator gave were, “Where are the flowers? The girls have plucked them/ Where are the girls? They’re all married/ Where are the men? They’re all in the army.” Sitting in the airplane I rephrased it and added to it two lines that I made up, “Long time passing” and “When will we ever learn?”—the intellectual’s perennial complaint.
When people sing together in community, is there a spirit that takes over?
If you call that a spiritual experience, I’d agree with you. My main purpose in life at this age—almost 90 years old—I’ve decided that if there’s a human race here in one hundred years, it will be because we learn how to participate with each other, even though we may disagree about many things.
I’ve often thought, standing onstage with 1000 people in front of me, that somebody over on my right had a great-great-grandfather who was trying to kill the great-great-grandfather of somebody off to my left. And here we are all singing together. And wouldn’t it surprise all those great-grandfathers if they could see their great-grandchildren singing together? They’d probably say, “Why did we fight so hard?” Good question!
We all go to different churches or no churches, we have different favorite foods, different ways of making love, different ways of doing all sorts of things, but there we’re all singing together. Gives you hope.
What is your definition of God?
I tell people I don’t think God is an old white man with a long white beard and no navel; nor do I think God is an old black woman with white hair and no navel. But I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe that something can come out of nothing. And so there’s always been something. This would be my argument with most religious people. They think of God as being mainly concerned with what goes on in our Earth. God has got many things to think about.
I’m urging all religions to at least tolerate talking with each other, even though it’s hard to speak without getting angry because they feel that some beliefs are so bad, others’ beliefs. But I think one of the saving things of the world would be getting people to be willing to talk to each other, even though they think they are representing the devil incarnate.
And I talk to religious people whenever I can, I say, “When you come to a curb at the edge of a street and do you look up in the sky and say, ‘God please save me. It’s dangerous crossing the street, I trust that you’ll save me.’ No, you don’t do that, you look to the left, you look to the right, you use the brains God gave you, and if there’s no car coming, you cross.
What music influenced you most?
I was deeply, deeply changed by the civil rights movement. I’d always liked what they called Negro spirituals and I sang ‘em for the fun of it, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” or “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” or “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.”
I’ve often felt that some of these songs may have gotten European melodies, but all of them have African treatment. For example, it might have been a slave looking through the window oat a dance in the big white house, and the fiddler is playing “The Irish Washerwoman” on the fiddle [sings tune]. Out in the cotton fields the next day the slave is in the field is singing “Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham, rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham.” Obviously just a slowed down different rhythm, but it was basically “The Irish Washerwoman” tune.
However, other tunes are African. Allan Lomax [the folk music ethnologist] taught me some work songs sung by black prisoners in Southern chain gangs, and I heard on a tape recording when they invented tape, around 1950, a professor come back from West Africa with the exact same tune for a song which I’d learned with English words. The song I knew [sings], “He’s long John, he’s long John, he’s long gone, he’s long gone, like a turkey through the corn, like a turkey through the corn, with his long clothes on, with his long clothes on. He’s long John, long gone.” And so on. And that exact same melody was being sung with African words. So there’s a lot more African in American music than most Americans realize.
What’s the origin of “We Shall Overcome,” the hymn of the civil rights movement, which you popularized?
Nobody knows exactly who wrote the original. The original was faster. [Sings] “I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright, someday….deep in my heart I do not weep, I’ll be alright someday.” Or “deep in my heart I do believe.” And other verses are “I’ll wear the crown, I’ll wear the crown,” and “I’ll be like Him, I’ll be like Him” or “I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome.”
In 1909, some coalminers were on strike and one of them writes a letter in the United Mine Workers Journal of February 1909, “We started every meeting with a prayer and singing that good old song, ‘We Will Overcome’.” So it could have been in the late 19th century sometime that some union people put union words to the gospel song. It was in 1946 that Lucille Simmons, a tobacco worker, liked to sing it very slowly. “We’ll overcome…” it’s called long-meter style. And basses and other voices have time to feel out all sorts of harmonies, so you get a group of people who can harmonize and you just get extraordinary complex harmonies.
Two friends of mine, Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan, started singing, “We shall overcome” in this way, and they liked to so much that Guy taught it to some 70 young people in 1960, at a workshop called “Songs in the Movement.” It was the hit song of the weekend. I was there, in Tennessee at the Highlander Folk School.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, was the founding convention of SNCC, and somebody shouted, “Guy, teach us all ‘We Shall Overcome’!” Within a month this song was all across the South, Texas to Florida to Virginia, there was not a song, it was the song. Three years later I got the audience singing it at Carnegie Hall, it was my best-selling record I ever had. And the song went around the world.
I confess I’m a little leery of any one song becoming official, because then the powers that be adopt it. And it becomes more of a straitjacket than a regular ballad.
Like “This Land Is Your Land” becoming a car commercial?
Someone wanted to make “This Land Is Your Land” the national anthem. I said, “Please no—can’t you see the marines marching into the next little country singing ‘This land is your land, this land is my land?’”
Do you still believe that the power of music can change the world?
Well, it’s one of the things that will. Words are good, and words help us become the leading species on earth to the point where we are now ready to wipe ourselves off the earth. But I think that all the arts are needed, and sports too, and cooking, food, and all these different ways of communication. Smiles, looking into eyes directly, all these different means of communication are needed to save this world. But certainly a great melody…
Do you have any favorite songs?
At one time I have a favorite song, the one I’m singing. But I find myself as an old man singing “Turn, Turn, Turn” more than I ever did because it does have so many meanings for me.
You’ve been married to your wife Toshi for 60 years now…
It’s 63 years.
What’s the secret of your long marriage?
Well, a sense of humor helps, and I think perhaps the fact that even though I was away for long periods of time, I did come home. Her lifelong joke has been, “If Peter would only chase women instead of chasing causes, I’d have an excuse to leave him.” But my big failing is starting this and starting that, and I’m unable to finish. Some of the things worked out well like the Clearwater project. But there’s more than I would like to admit starting that did not turn out. Spent an awful lot of money…we brought an early tape-recording machine that cost $7000, that was a lot of money then. [Toshi speaks in the background.] Oh, Toshi says it cost $15,000. It was a waste of time. Several times I’d dash into things before they really worked out. You might say dashing into communism before it worked out.
Do you think there’s an afterlife?
Well, you might consider this. When Toshi and I had our first child who died when it was only six months old, I was in the army, my father wrote me and said, “I don’t think I could cheer you up in the usual way. But remember this, that something good that has happened can never be made to unhappen.” That’s a nice way of putting it, don’t you think? Something that has happened can never be made to unhappen.
To hear audio of this interview, click here.