More Optimistic Today Than Ever: A Talk with Pete Seeger
David Kupfer in conversation with Pete Seeger
July 23, 2010, Reality Sandwich
"There is hardly anything bad in the world that doesn't have
something good connected to it."
Pete Seeger is one of the world's quintessential activists,
having played such an important role in singing the songs and
engaging in the struggles of the civil rights, free speech,
human rights, anti-Vietnam War, environmental, peace, anti-
nuclear, and social justice movements. He spans musical eras,
from those who inspired him, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, to
those he inspired, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King,
Jr., Bruce Springsteen, Dave Mathews, and Ani DiFranco.
Seeger has had an epic life, full of amazing contributions to
our culture and politics. In person, he conveys a
comfortable, homespun way about himself that puts you at
ease. He is a modest soul, and in conversation is slow to
credit himself on his lifework's impact, but it can be safely
said that in the 20th century there is no other individual
who has so successfully combined folk music and progressive
In the late 1960s, Seeger shifted away from typical American
folk music, embracing African music, Latin-American folk
songs and other forms of world music. At this time Pete
became active in the nascent environmental movement, drawing
attention to pollution of the Hudson River with the activist
group Clearwater, which teaches schoolchildren about water
pollution. He and friends built the Clearwater Sloop, a
reproduction of a 19th Century cargo sloop, and sailed it up
and down the river, spreading the word about pollution and
raising public support to clean up the river. Because of
these and other's efforts, the Hudson is now open for
swimming in many places.
One thing that's endeared him to audiences all over the world
is that he always gets people to join in. It's almost a
religion with him. "The world will be saved when people
realize we all have to pitch in. You can't just pay your
money and hope that someone else will do the job right." He
continued performing into the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, most
often at charity shows and benefits.
Seeger embodies the spirit of this nation more than anyone I
have met. At 90, he is humble, straight-backed, clear-eyed,
and as straightforward, sincere, and real as any living folk
music icon could be. He remains opinionated, articulate, and
keenly aware of his place in history and, thankfully, has
maintained his inimitable sense of hope and optimism. Pete
once confided to me that he "can go on and on (talking), and
frequently I do." I have found my favorite talkaholic can
always be counted on for bold, provocative, and poignant
I visited him just before his 90th birthday in the spring of
2009 on a warm afternoon. The home he shares with his wife,
Toshi, overlooks the Hudson River and Denny's Point near
Beacon. I helped him bring out an umbrella from the barn that
we set up in the picnic table on the porch next to the log
cabin he hand built some 50 years ago. He began discussing
the local history of the region. Pete is an excellent
historian and a wonderful storyteller. During the course of
our interview, Toshi brought us out a pitcher of water and
contributed to the conversation.
David Kupfer: What is it about the power of a sing along
Pete Seeger: There is something about participating. It is
almost my religion. If the world is still here in 100 years,
people will know the importance of participating, not just
being spectators. That's what this book, Blessed Unrest, by
Paul Hawken is about. Millions of small groups around the
world, that don't necessarily all agree with one another, but
they are made up of people who are not just sitting back
waiting for someone to do things for them. No one can prove
anything, but of course if I didn't believe it had some kind
of power, I wouldn't be trying to do it.
Curiously enough, the people who are suspicious of songs have
put their words down, so they also think there is something
to the power of song. Plato is supposed to have said it is
very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music in the
There is an old Arab story, when the king put the poet on his
payroll; he cuts off the tongue of the poet. I know very well
that the powers that be would like to control the music that
the people listen to.
Herbert Hoover said to Rudy Vallee, who was a top singer in
1929: "Mr. Vallee, if you can sing a song that will make the
American people forget the depression, I will give you a
medal." A lot of musicians would like to get that kind of
medal. Bing Crosby had a hit record, "Wrap your troubles in
dreams, and dream your troubles away." That was how we were
going to solve the depression in 1932.
DK: I never thought of those singers as propagandists.
PS: The exception proves the rule. A lefty named Yip Harburg
got a musician named Jay Gorny to write a tune for him and
wrote, "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" Yip got together in
1938 with Harold Arlen to make songs for the movie version of
The Wizard of Oz. He said "Harold, get me a melody for the
phrase ?over the rainbow'." Arlen said, "there's no rainbow
in the Wizard of Oz. I have read the script."
"I'm putting it in," said Yip. When they got this great
melody, the producer tried to cut it from the movie. It slows
up the opening, he said. The two songwriters said, "This
movie will not be made unless this song is in it." They went
on a two-man strike. They had hundreds of thousands of
dollars going out every day, extras, scenery, cameraman.
Finally Louis B. Mayer said, "Oh let the boys have their way,
let's get rolling." So they won the strike.
DK: There is something magical about people singing together
collectively, isn't there?
PS: I quote John Phillip Sousa frequently. He asked, "what
will happen to the American Voice now that the phonographic
recording has been invented?" Something is irretrievably lost
when we are no longer in the presence of bodies making music.
The nightingale's song is delightful because the nightingale
gives it forth.
DK: What do you think has been lost with the advent of all
this commercially recorded music that has altered the folk
PS: We have a nation of overweight people because our main
exercise is to move from one seat to the other. From a chair
to a car to a desk to a subway seat to a couch in front of
the television, to a chair to eat. The danger with the
Internet is that you don't need to think about it, you just
search for it and you find the answer. Singing used to be
part of everyday life. Women sang while pounding corn. Men
sang while they were paddling canoes.
When I was in Taipan during World War II, there were some
local islanders who had a stick dance - big sticks, almost a
yard long that would go wack wack as they whirled around. I
asked one of the men, "When do you do the stick dance? At
celebrations or birthday parties?"
"Oh no," he said, "before we go into battle!" So singing was
part of fighting!
I am told that it was two or three million years ago that our
ancestors started walking on two feet, and that is when they
started swinging clubs and throwing stones to catch an
animal, to hit an enemy. It is no accident that games like
golf and baseball are popular around the world. It is in our
DNA to like to go whack. I like to split wood, it is fun.
DK: What is the most pronounced thing that you have seen that
a song has been able to accomplish?
PS: The civil rights movement. Songs did a lot for unions,
but the civil rights movement would not have succeeded if it
hadn't been for all those songs. They were sung in jails and
in picket lines and parades. People hummed them when they
were most beaten.
DK: You have been working in local schools here in your
hometown for quite awhile. When did you discover you had a
talent for this?
PS: I was looking for a job as a newspaper man when I was 20,
because I had run a school newspaper for six years, at age 12
in one school, and age 14 to 17 at another school, and 18 to
19 in college. I could have led a very happy life running a
small town newspaper, but I didn't even get a hint of a job.
One editor said to me, "young fellow, you have no experience,
I had to fire somebody last week who had thirty years of
experience! Why should I hire you?"
I had an aunt who taught school - my family is full of
schoolteachers - my two brothers, my aunt - who told me she'd
give me five dollars if I'd come sing songs for some of her
classes. It seemed like stealing. This was back in 1939 when
most people had to work a full day or two days to earn that
Pretty soon I was singing in another school and then another.
Summertime came and I started singing in summer camps. I
never did go back to look for a job working at a newspaper.
You can never tell what effect you have until later on.
I am pleasantly surprised when I meet white haired people and
they tell me they got into my songs when they were in school.
Some people come up to me and say, "my grandma said that you
came to sing for her in nursery school." I've actually been
singing in schools for 70 years.
DK: Was there some ?aha' moment when you realized that
singing folk songs for kids and other audiences was to be
your life's work, feeding the flame of the folk music spirit?
PS: Originally I didn't realize what was going to happen.
Most people would ask me, don't you want to make a hit
record? But I really didn't like the hypocrisy of the music
business. It was almost an accident when a song I wrote
became a hit. I did happen to meet in New York Bob Miller
who'd come up from Memphis, Tennessee and had written a song,
which was widely popular in the South around 1922.
Seven cent cotton and forty cent meat
How in the world can a poor man eat?
Flour up high and cotton down low,
How in the world can we raise the dough?
Clothes worn out, shoes run down,
Old slouch hat with a hole in the crown,
Back nearly broken and fingers all sore,
Cotton gone down to rise no more.
He had a hit song in World War II. (sings)
There's a Star-Spangled Banner waving somewhere
In a distant land so many miles away.
Only Uncle Sam's great heroes get to go there
Where I wish that I could also live some day.
I'd see Lincoln, Custer, Washington and Perry,
And Nathan Hale and Colin Kelly, too.
There's a Star-Spangled Banner waving somewhere,
Waving o'er the land of heroes brave and true.
In this war with its mad schemes of destruction
Of our country fair and our sweet liberty,
By the mad dictators, leaders of corruption,
Can't the U. S. use a mountain boy like me?
God gave me the right to be a free American,
And for that precious right I'd gladly die.
There's a Star-Spangled Banner waving somewhere,
That is where I want to live when I die.
DK: These were the exceptions that proved the rule.
PS: I have to say what a genius Irving Berlin was. I sing his
Blue Skies quite often, get audiences singing it with me. He
could only play the piano in the key of G flat. In 1919 he
happened to meet Mr. Victor Herbert , the composer of
operettas. He said, "Mr. Herbert, you know I don't know a
thing about music. I just play the piano by ear and somebody
else writes down my songs. Do you think I ought to go to
music school?" Mr. Herbert said, "You've got a good ear for
tunes and words. I think it would cramp your style." So he
never did. Berlin did have a special piano built. He turned
a crank and the whole keyboard would move up and down, so it
was a piano capo. He would play G flat but it would come out
DK: How do you think folk music serves to influence and mold
PS: I think it helps reinforce your sense of history. An old
song makes you think of times gone by. Then the idea that you
can make up songs has taken over and I look upon us all as
Woody's children. There's a man in the Bronx - Robert Sherman
- at radio station WFUD. He's got a weekly program called
Woody's Children -- I gave him the phrase! -- and he plays
new songs written by famous and unknown people. That show
has been running out for 30 years.
DK: Folk music has proven to be a useful tool in many social
change movements that have succeeded in the past 60 years.
Does it make you optimistic about the potential of social
PS: I am more optimistic today than I've ever been in my
entire long life. I was so distrustful of the establishment
when I was 16. I argued with some other teenagers from a
Jewish family - the teenagers were studying violin - and my
mother took me along with her when she was visiting them for
a weekend. They asked, "What are you going to do with your
life?" I said, "I'm going to be a hermit. This world is so
full of hypocrisy the only way you can be honest is to be a
hermit. I don't know how I'm going to meet a living but I'm
going to try." I thought I might be a forest ranger or
something like that. Being out in the woods was my church. I
had read every book by Ernest Thompson Seton.
DK: Didn't he have a big influence on you as a young man?
PS: He boosted the idea of learning about the North American
Indians. I learned that they shared everything that they
had. If somebody shot the deer, there were no ice boxes, so
the hunter may have gotten the best cut but everything else
was shared with the rest of the tribe. There was no such
thing as one person in the tribe going hungry and others
having full bellies. If there was hunger, everybody was
hungry. The chief was hungry, and his wife and children were
hungry. That seemed to me to be a sensible way to live.
Now today I know that anthropologists call that tribal
communism. So I say that I was a Communist ever since I was
age seven, when I first started reading about Seton. So these
teenagers, they argued with me and said, "You're going to be
nice and let the rest of the world go to hell? That's your
idea of morality?"
DK: When you were a teenager?
PS: I was about 13. I was going to prep school at the time. I
decided they were right. They posed their Jewish traditional
sense of social consciousness against my more New England,
Thoreau, way of thinking. I decided they were right, so I got
more involved. The following year I joined the Harvard
student union, and I have been more involved in one way or
another ever since.
DK: Was joining the Harvard student union pivotal for you?
PS: I was a sophomore in the second year there. My first year
there I tried to keep my independence, but some friends
criticized me saying, ?you mean you're at Harvard and you're
not a member of the Harvard student union?' So I went back
and joined and pretty soon I was the secretary of the club.
Then we decided to run a monthly magazine - all of four
pages. The Harvard Progressive. I got so interested in
putting it out, I allowed my grades to slip and then I lost
I had a part-time scholarship when it cost all of $1,200 to
go to Harvard in those days for one year. My brothers paid
some money and I worked and raised about $300, and I had a
scholarship for $300. When I lost my scholarship and my
brothers could not give me anymore.... I wasn't sorry to
leave, as I'd found that professors could be as selfish as
DK: What do you recall?
PS: I remember our sociology Professor Pitirim A. Sorokin.
He was a friend of the guy who used to run the Soviet
government just before the revolution, Alexander Kerensky.
Mr. Sorokin said don't think you can change the world. The
world is going to change as it wants to, no matter what your
little individual efforts do what you can do is study the
world. I thought that was very foolish. He was trying to
persuade people not to be activists just to be scholars and
study the world.
(Toshi came outside with a pitcher of water for us)
DK: To what extent has yours been a collaborative effort?
Toshi Seeger: He is very determined and he takes his own time
and does what he wants to do.
Pete Seeger: A whole batch of things wouldn't have happened
were it not for Toshi. We have never found another person to
run the Clearwater Revival like she ran it.
Toshi Seeger: You do what you want to do
Pete Seeger: More or less
Toshi Seeger: He would just like to do more things
DK: Is it seemed like a lot of folk songs have really simple
chord structures. Why is it some of the simplest songs are
the most moving and evocative?
PS: Some very simple melodies have never been forgotten
through history. The tune used for "Twinkle Twinkle Little
Star" is known in every country in Europe in many different
forms (sings five verses in five languages). Those are just a
few examples from five places... Norway, the national anthem
of Israel in Hebrew... ?Come by Here' is a Gospel song. Who
knows? It could have been somebody in a cave dancing around
bud dom bud dom bud dom bud dom bud dom bud dom bud dom bud
dom. Maybe they are just easy to remember, so simple yet so
DK: How do you balance your inspiration to write new songs
with your quest to sing and nurture old traditional folk
PS: Sometimes you find an old tune so good you can use it
several times for different purposes. Richard Farina used an
old English melody that I used for a song against the Vietnam
War. (hums a melody)
DK: What role did your musicologist dad play in your career
PS: A very big influence. At ages eight, nine and ten, we'd
go off on long hikes together and talk as we were walking
along. When I was younger I loved his nutty stories that he
made up off the top of his head. He'd say, "What if that tree
over there had ears, and said ?I heard that man say he would
like to chop me down. Why couldn't I grow smaller?' And the
tree prays to the lord and says, ?please let me grow
smaller.' For some reason that tree doesn't seem to be as
tall as it used to be."
He was a brilliant scholar and writer, though he only put out
one book, a collection of papers that he produced for the
Society of Musicologists. The last chapter in the book was on
the non-folkness of the folk and the folkness of the folk.
The last paragraph: Thus we may see that musically speaking,
the population of the United States may be divided up into
two classes. This was a joke about Marxists. One that does
know it is a folk and the other does not think that it is a
folk. But they are both folk of one sort of another.
I remember at age nine he told me that a rich person could
live cheaper then a poor person. "What do you mean?" I asked
him. "Well, take rent for example. The average person pays
rent all of his life, but if you can get far enough ahead of
the game and can buy a place, taxes will never be as much as
rent is." Which is one of the reasons I found this 17 1/2
acres for $1,750. It was so steep that people would look at
it from below and say it was too steep to build on. But I
climbed up the little cliff and saw it leveled off for a half
an acre and went back and told Toshi I found a place that we
My father was the one who started me thinking about radicals.
In 1929, like a lot of people, he thought the crash was the
end of the free enterprise system. He started a group called
the Composers Collective. Aaron Copeland was a member and
Marc Blitzstein and half a dozen others. They were trying to
think of what kind of music this new social situation
demanded. However, their efforts were almost laughably
failures. They went in for dissident, counterpoint
Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and so on. The working people were
quite uninterested in learning their songs.
My father brought Aunt Molly around to the Composers
Collective, and they listened to her and said, "but Charlie,
this is all music from the past, we are supposed to be
composing music for the future." He took Molly back to her
apartment on the Lower East Side and he said, "Molly I am
sorry they did not understand you but I know some young
people who are going to want to learn your songs." And I was
one of them!
(sings) I am a union woman, as brave as I can be,
I do not like the bosses and the bosses don't like me.
DK: How have you seen the community of Beacon change over the
years having lived here for 60 years?
PS: It was a very conservative little factory town. Then
about 28 years ago, there was a race riot in the high school
and a man came up from New York City to help advise the city
on how to cool it, and he said "you have a nice main street,
have you ever thought of having some kind of a block party
here?" Some women decided to do the job, calling it ?The
Spirit of Beacon Day,' and it is the last Sunday of September
every year. It starts with a parade that at first lasted just
a few minutes. Last year the parade went on for an hour!
Everybody wants to be in the parade. Last year there were
10,000 people in the parade, and there are only 14,000 people
in the town!
DK: If we turned back time, what would your older self advise
your younger self?
PS: Don't join the Communist Party. Be friendly, but advise
them that they are going to be in trouble if they don't talk
about and make decisions as a group. Don't just take the
orders from above. I think it was Lenin's basic mistake.
Lenin said we lost the revolution of 1905 because we are not
disciplined and that if we are disciplined like an army, we
will win the next revolution. It's true, they took power, but
if it hadn't been Stalin, somebody else would have done it.
If you don't have freedom of the press, freedom to meet and
talk and argue, sooner or later you will be in big trouble.
They wouldn't have agreed with me. They'd have said, "You are
either with us or against us. Does that man Woody Guthrie
agree with you?" I would say, "No, he is in the hospital..."
They would have argued with Woody too if they'd had the
chance. I would have argued with them, but then they did some
wonderful things. After all, they saved the lives of the
Scottsboro Boys. They helped Paul Robeson.
If I'd known then what I know now, I would have worked to see
that someone like Dr. King came along. He really turned my
DK: How did Dr. King turn your thinking around?
PS: When you face an opponent over a broad front, you don't
aim at your opponent's strong points. People say, why did he
waste time trying to get a seat on the bus, why didn't he
spend time working for jobs or education or housing or
voting. Those are things worth fighting for.
He took on the view that you don't aim for your opponent's
strong points, you take on something to the side. You win it,
you capture it, and then you go on to something else. They
made some mistakes in Albany, Georgia, and when they went to
Birmingham, they did not repeat them.
He'd get one group to talk and the other to ask questions and
then the others would talk and the first ones would ask
questions, and after two or three days they would finally
reach an agreement on what they were going to do. Because he
said "if we don't work together we are not going to succeed-
but if we do work together, we can win this."
In Albany, they tried to fight the business men as well as
the police. But in Birmingham, they split the police from the
businessmen. A lot of businessmen said, "Hey we are losing a
lot of money here..." Bull Connor ran the city, and he was so
stupid as to sick the dogs on the black kids. When that was
on television news, people said, "We didn't know things like
this would happen in America." They hadn't realized how
brutal Jim Crow could be. When you saw a lynching, you
probably realized how brutal Jim Crow could be.
Did you know there were 6,000 lynchings between 1890 and
1920? Interesting that 1,000 were white people, like the Jew
who was head of a small company in Atlanta. A girl had been
raped and folks said, "oh it was the boss who raped her," and
he was lynched. That was a famous case around WWI.
DK: You once said you were a Communist like the average
Indian would be and your view on Communism involved nothing
that wouldn't fit in the constitution. In today's North
America, what does being a Communist mean to you?
PS: After I dropped out of college in 1938, I joined an
artist group, part of the Youth Communist League making
posters. I drifted out of the Communist Party in the early
1950s. When I was handing out flowers at this past Memorial
Day someone asked me "Seeger are you a Communist?" and I said
"it depends of the description." I became one at age seven
and in a sense I still am one. I would like to see a world
with no millionaires.
Communism means different things to different people. Some
communists hate our government and want our government to be
like what it was under Stalin. On the other hand, an
anthropologist will refer to tribal communism. An ex-
Trotskyist will say Trotsky would have done it right whereas
Stalin did it wrong. I am not sure that he would have been
able to because he was still relying on guns.
DK: He wasn't into non-violence.
PS: Did I ever recite you the poem written by Lee Hayes,
called, "To Know Good Will?" He only had a few months to
live. He had diabetes and died in his 60's. I visited him and
this poem was on his piano. Maybe he was trying to think of a
tune for it. I tried to think of a tune but couldn't. But I
said, "Lee, could I have a copy of this poem?" and he said,
"Oh, take it." Lee had a large sense of self-criticism. He
tore up all books that he had written. He felt they were no
good. Here is his poem:
If I should one day die by violence, please take this as my
written will. And in the name of simple, common sense, treat
my destroyer only as one ill, as one who needed more than I
could give, as one who never really learned to live in peace
and joy and love of life, but was diseased and plagued by
hate and strife. My vanished life might have some meaning
still when my destroyer learns to know good will.
He wrote plays, wrote short stories, novels and even humorous
detective stories for the Ellery Queen magazine.
DK: Do you think protest music has changed since the 60's?
PS: I don't know enough because I don't listen to records,
but my guess is that there are many, many different kinds
now, some slow and serious. Some are loud and shouting, or
It seems key to successful folk songs, it helps when they
bounce in your mind repeatedly.
On the other hand, one of the most famous songs in the world
- written 400 years ago - you don't call it a folk song, but
it is. It was written by a man in Ireland. He was a blind
harper named Rory Dall O'Cahan. In the 17th century, 400
years ago, up in North Ireland a whole batch of his cousins
were slaughtered when Castlecary fell to the English and he
wrote a tune in memory of them. For 300 years it was known
as O'Cahan's Lament - a famous tune that people will
occasionally try to put words to it but it was discouraged.
It has all the meaning you want: Don't forget, don't forget,
don't forget. An English composer in our country, O'Cahan's
Lament... And then in the 1890's, a woman in London put out a
book, Irish Traditional Airs. And now she gave it a name, The
Londonderry Air. And an English lawyer put the words of Oh
Danny Boy to it, which is now known around the world, not
just in Ireland. A very long melody. No repetition in it
except a kind of an echo. The musical phrases relate to each
other. It is called an inner design. (Sings) Oh Danny boy ...
and rhythmic. Sing it quite slowly. It is a minute and 15
seconds long and not many tunes are that long. Most are 15-20
seconds long. Skip to Ma Loo is only 20 seconds.
DK: What was it like playing up on the Lincoln Memorial on
the Washington Mall for the Obama inauguration?
PS: These big things, I tend to be against them, but Bruce
Springsteen is such a very nice guy. He is very honest and he
says we have arranged everything and you don't need to think
about anything except singing one song and they let me sing
the verses which had been cut out of the school song books.
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple,
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wishing,
Is this land made for you and me.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, it said private property.
But on the back side it didn't say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway.
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
DK: Why was singing these verses so important to you?
PS: These were the original verses which Woody had written.
He sang them several different ways. He sang them sometimes,
no trespassing is the sign. That is the way his son Arlo
does it. The way I learned it is how he wrote it, mentioning
private property. He rhymed ?stop me' with ?private
property.' Then the last verse I sang he wrote afterwards,
but he taught this to Arlo.
Arlo was about seven, and Woody had gotten out of the
hospital on the weekend to visit his family. He said, "Arlo,
they are singing my song, but they left out three of the best
verses.'" Woody sang those and taught Arlo, "Nobody living
can ever stop me." Down there in Washington I did not have to
think about food or transportation or anything else, I just
had to memorize those six verses.
DK: What impressed you about that event?
PS: What I recall is the freezing dress rehearsal the day
before. It was January 17th at 7:30 pm at night. My hands
were frozen and we sang that song three times through for
every cameraman to know exactly where and when they were to
aim the cameras and every microphone person to know where to
take the microphone when and where. I was amazed at how well
it was organized.
DK: You mentioned you have reassessed Abraham Lincoln's
PS: I did not realize what a job he had to do. I read this
book about Lincoln and the team of rivals he put together.
The men of his cabinet really disapproved of each other. One
was more against slavery and the other would be quite willing
to go along with slavery. Lincoln tried to keep the whole
coalition together. The Republican party was a coalition of
dissatisfied Democrats and some abolitionists, some people
who were not involved in slavery at all.
Lincoln pulled together this coalition and then three years
into the war they started bringing in the black troops. I
didn't know how horrible the draft riots were, the Irish
didn't want to be drafted. If when you came over here, you
had $300, you pay that and you didn't have to be drafted. In
other words rich people didn't get drafted. The Irish blame
that on the Africans and have a whole batch lynched in New
York City. This went on for several weeks and then finally
Lincoln found a way to cool them down, to end the draft
riots, which was to bring the Republican coalition together.
They were all ambitious people. At least three of them
thought they should be president and if they did not win the
nomination on the first ballot, they would win it on the
second and Lincoln purposely kept himself in the background.
He did not run against it on the first and he did not run
against it on the second ballot. But on the 3rd ballot, he
all of a sudden came forward and all sorts of people said,
"Well this is a good compromise." Chase makes enemies and
Seward made some enemies and Bates had made some enemies but
Lincoln would say a word here and a word there and he was
able to pull together that coalition that would win an
election. Some of them were dissatisfied Democrats and some
of them were former WICs, who became Republicans who were not
really against slavery, but some up in New England, all
against slavery and Chase, out in Ohio, was very much against
segregation. He made some enemies, even in Ohio.
The Emancipation Proclamation had been on his desk for months
and people were wondering, "Is he ever going to sign it?" He
finally figured out the exact wording and the exact right
time, but even he was surprised with the enthusiasm when he
finally signed it. He got much stronger support than anybody
had believed. Even he was surprised how enthusiastic people
were once he had signed it. That is of course when black
troops sang "When John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the
grave." And Harriet Beecher Stowe was leaning out the window
listening to this great melody. Curiously, the melody was
written by a preacher in Georgia. (sings) But John Brown's
Body and Beecher Stowe's got the enthusiasm and it is still
(sings slowly) The beauty of the lily's crushed across the
DK: Do you have any method for plugging into your muse for
PS: No. Sometimes when you most want to write a song, you
can't think of a thing. On the other hand, I wrote that song,
that funny little song about if you can't be reduced, because
I had a cold for four days and I could not speak to anybody.
I had a bad sore throat and my feet were up in the air for
four days and I put the words on the wall. I stuck them with
a thumbtack to the wall - three feet from the right of my
head - and by gosh, at the end of four days, I had a song and
have sung it for a wide variety of audiences now.
(sings) Can't be reduced, reused, repaired...refurbish,
refinish, resold, recycled or composted...
Same chords over and over. From a D chord to a D chord to a D
chord. Then G chord to a C chord to a D chord. Repeated.
DK: You have had a long time love affair and relationship
with this Hudson River. Can you tell me about your first
encounter and what inspired your long time commitment?
PS: I was learning how to sail. A teenager taught me how to
sail when I had a job on Cape Cod at midnight. He took me out
in a little ten foot boat and showed me the aim is not how
fast you go but that you sail at all. It is a game with the
wind and the waves. And the wind can be coming. Well in this
case, it is coming, more or less North now - trying to blow
me south, but if I use the sails right, I can go northwest. I
can go northeast, northwest and the very power of the wind -
I can sail right into it. And that is life too. Dr. King
would zig and zag and land in jail but more contributions
would come in.
DK: You use this as a metaphor for social movements, but what
of your boat ride?
PS: I was trying to learn to sail. We got a little plastic
boat ? went out and bought myself one ? and Toshi says, "You
sure you are safe all by yourself?" I said I would stay out
of the main current so I wouldn't get hit. I will stay near
the shore but I forgot to pull up the centerboard when I
anchored to go to sleep for a while and I woke up because the
centerboard had hit the bottom and it was just hooked on. I
had to swim under the boat and lift the centerboard up and
stick it in the slot again and hook it up.
But when I went to sleep, the sun turned slowly from yellow
to orange to red to purple to midnight black and I wrote a
(sings) Sailing down this golden river...sun and water all my
But then I saw lumps of this and that and toilet paper
floating by and thought of James Gailbraith's great phrase,
"private affluence, public squalor." I had enough money to
buy this boat but I was sailing through shit. That is when a
friend of mine said, "Pete, they used to have sailboat sloops
on the Hudson River 70 feet long." I said, oh don't give me
that. He loaned me a the book written by a man named Beacon a
little more than 100 years ago. I think it was 1907 and in it
were the most beautiful boats we've had and they will never
be seen again. Steam had taken over the river business and
railroads had taken the passengers. That is when I stayed up
until 2 o'clock in the morning writing a seven-page, single
paged letter, saying if we can find those that have that kind
of money and get the government and people together, we can
build a replica of one of these boats. Not a half size
replica, a full size replica. That was the most important
decision, that it be a full size and just the mere size of it
holds 50 kids on board!
DK: You once told me that it is your proudest accomplishment.
PS: Well it is just one. It is the exception. My head, my
life is full of grand ideas which never have worked out.
DK: Rather than dwell on that, let's look at the ones that
did work out for you.
PS: Clearwater worked out.
DK: I liked your idea to construct a swimming structure in
the Hudson River.
PS: I met a woman in New York who had the same idea. She
came up here and designed one and now we have one, what we
call a river pool.
DK: You helped to catalyze that? And the river pool has been
around for several years now?
PS: No, only actually one year. Last year it was in the river
for two months, and worked out. About 1000 kids swam in it.
It has netting underneath it and on the sides, keeping anyone
from escaping and getting drowned, and it goes up and down
with the tide. Our hope now is to build a big river pool so
someone can swim 75 foot laps. It celebrates the fact that
the river is now swimable. It was not very swimable 40 years
DK: Now the Clearwater campaign is 40 years old and the river
is much cleaner.
PS: But the problem is, us land lovers made some mistakes.
Forty years ago, the board of directors told the captain,
"those people are calling us dirty hippies. Wash that deck
ten times a day if necessary. Keep it clean, clean, clean."
And down in New York City, they swabbed it with salt water.
Up north they swabbed it with fresh water. Salt water pickles
wood and fresh water rots it. Some leaked through the deck
and caused rot below.
Five years after the boat was built, we had to spend $80,000
to tear the bow out. We tore the stern out too. Replaced some
beams under the deck. Some rot was started way, way down near
the keel, but it wasn't bad enough 35 years to go to our
tearing the boat apart but now, 35 years later, the boat has
to be torn apart all the way down to the keel and repaired or
the boat will rot away; won't be able to sail anymore. Now
have to raise millions. Everything is going up - how much has
inflation gone up in 40 years?
The thought then was $100,000. It might be a million dollars
DK: It seems like the past 40 years have sort of been, as my
friend John Perry Barlow has said, a war between the 1950's
and the 1960's. Do you think there is some truth there?
PS: I call them the frightened 50's and the scintillating
60's. After the 60's were over, I think one of the mistakes
of the 60's, and I told the young people this, was you think
you can have a revolution with just young people? You need
to have all ages. I failed to get either Jerry Rubin or Abbie
Hoffman to agree with me. They wanted me to come out to
Chicago in 1968. They said "You're the only older person we
want to have out there." I asked, "Why don't you want to have
older people out there?" And they said, "Well we are going to
carry this through ourselves." I think they were wrong.
I think that is one of the lessons. We now use all ages.
Teenagers working with grandparents working with kids ten
years old. There wasn't a lot of publicity, people thought,
"Oh there is nothing happening in the 70's," but the women's
movement took over and this may be, in the long run, the most
important one. I think worldwide, the woman's movement is the
one we should expect saves the world.
Why do they hate those people so. They are our distant
cousins. They love their babies just like we love our babies.
It is true; they got killers among them, just like we have
killers amongst us. They got drunkards among them just like
we got drunkards amongst us. We got insane people as well as
they do. My older brother says at 11 years old, he can cure a
bully. I have to get together with him and find out how you
cure a bully. I think it is by giving them experiences and he
sees how people really like him when he does something nice
and does something generous; they may be scared of him but he
does something powerful. They help me, they make me feel
good. They admire me and I do something generous. Now, could
scientists find out how to identify a bully? And cure them
when they are only 3-4 years old? I think probably, he will
be much more particular about beating kids. If you treat
your kid so that force is the only thing..."you don't listen
to me, so I'll show you! Whack!"
I once lied to my father when I was five years old and he got
down on his knees and said, "Remember Peter, we love you. It
is perfectly okay if you spent that money on candy. We love
you. You don't ever have to lie to us."
DK: Speaking of your father, when he was 90, he said to you
something that really stuck out in your mind about scientists
and their view that....
PS: Scientists think that an infinite increase in empirical
information is a good thing. Can they prove it? Of course
they cannot. It is a religious belief. Something they feel
must be true. They can't prove that it is true.
DK: How do you assess his statement now 50 years later?
PS: Right after that he turned to me with his wry smile and
said, "Of course, if I'm right Pete, perhaps the committee
that told Galileo to shut up is correct." All you can do is
laugh. Hegel says there was always thesis. There was always
anti-thesis and there is always synthesis, and the synthesis
is in the song, "Turn, Turn, Turn."
Now I talk with deeply religious people whenever I have a
chance and say to them, "When you come to a curve, do you
look up into the sky and say, ?God, it is dangerous crossing
the streets, will you please see to it that I don't get
hit?'" No! You look to the left; you look to the right and if
there is no car coming, you cross. Use the brains God gave
you. If we use the brains God gave us, there will still be a
human race here after years, but if all we do is say, God
will you please save the human race? Won't you please send
me to heaven? And this world comes to hell.
DK: Prayers alone are not going to do it.
PS: That is why I quote Alfred North Whitehead, whose famous
essay, "Aims of Education," says all education should be
religious. My father thought he was talking about science.
Religious education in both cases, duty and reverence. That
is a good definition. All religion has duty and reference.
Here is his definition: duty arises because of a potential
control over the course of events and the source of reverence
lies in this perception that the present holds within itself
the complete sum of existence, forwards and backwards and
great amplitude of time, which is eternity. When I clap my
hands that is because of cause and effect for all eternity
and it disturbs molecules which disturbs other molecules and
which disturbs other molecules for all eternity. Human self
is the complete sum of existence.
DK: That is profound Pete.
PS: You can help determine this by a sense of duty. I try to
sing the songs that people will take to heart, maybe want to
sing later on themselves. I am absolutely delighted. You know
the songs by the kids in school. They like this song, which I
felt was just kind of a private personal song: the Darkness
before the Dawn. You know the song? You know it is darkest
before the dawn. (sings) Trying to cheer myself up.
DK: Have you been heartened by this new wave of
PS: Yes! And I heard just today that that Obama has appointed
Van Jones to some job in Washington.
DK: Yes. As of last month. He is now working for the Obama's
Council of Environmental Quality as an advisor for Green
Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. You have become a big fan of
Van Jones and his Green Job's campaign. Do you think his
notions are the best vehicle to get us towards a peace-time
economy beyond war?
PS: Wonderful things. I mistrust the word THE. The answer.
The solution. The Savior. The End. The beginning.
DK: Do you find him pretty inspiring?
PS: I recommend his book to everybody. Especially young
people. I am hoping to get the chance to speak to the high
school kids here and tell them, "You are always being asked
questions by grownups. Why don't you act better? Why don't
you do this and that?" I think that teenagers should think
about questions to ask grownups. Why is it that you do
certain things? Why do grownups think they know all the
answers? And I think they would find out they don't all think
they know that. Many of them are deeply insecure and probably
taking it out on you because you are helpless.
DK: You have really invested a lot of time with young people.
You must get a lot back from seeing all of their positive
reactions. Many of the themes in your songs talk about civic
involvement and activism and because you yourself have been
out being an activist, it comes easy for you to convey that
PS: This is a poem the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney of
When I landed in the republic of conscience. it was so
noiseless when the engines stopped I could hear a curlew high
above the runway At immigration, the clerk was an old man who
produced a wallet from his homespun coat and showed me a
photograph of my grandfather The woman in customs asked me to
declare the words of our traditional cures and charms to heal
dumbness and avert the evil eye No porters. No interpreter.
No taxi. You carried your own burden and very soon your
symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared
Fog is a dreaded omen there, but lightning spells universal
good and parents hang swaddled infants in trees during
thunder storms Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals. The base of
all inks and pigments is seawater Their sacred symbol is a
stylized boat The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen, The
hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye. At their
inauguration, public leaders must swear to uphold unwritten
law and weep to atone for their presumption to hold office
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang from salt in
tears which the sky-god wept after he dreamt his solitude was
endless I came back from that frugal republic with my two
arms the one length, the customs woman having insisted my
allowance was myself The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition that I was now a dual
citizen He therefore desired me when I got home to consider
myself a representative and to speak on their behalf in my
own tongue Their embassies, he said, were everywhere but
operated independently and no ambassador would ever be
It is a great poem, a truly great poem.
DK: How have you seen the content of popular commercials
PS: During the 1930's, the Establishment had music quite
under its control. Hit songs came out of Broadway or
Hollywood. A few people down South listened to what they
called the Hillbilly and the Race catalogues of the record
companies. And the Race catalogues were either gospel or the
blues. Jimmy Rogers and the Singing Brakemen, who yodeled,
that was the Hillbilly catalogue. Bluegrass didn't come in
until the 1950's. Bluegrass and rock and roll and Motown all
came in, and the songs that everybody listens to have really
been out of control since then. Up until then they were
pretty much under control by the Establishment, including the
songs that the kids learned in school.
"This Land is Your Land" became popular after Woody recorded
it for a tiny label called Folkways, maybe 1,000 copies sold,
but music teachers in New York liked it so much they got the
kids in New York singing it, and then a textbook publisher
who was putting out a new book of songs thought, well, kids
like this song, we'll put it in. The song was never sold in
any music store, it was never played on the radio, it was
never played on TV. But 15 or 20 years later, everybody in
America knew it because the kids brought the song home with
I am sure since then the Establishment has been much more
careful about what songs are put in school songbooks. Now I
hear they are trying to get rid of music in schools. But
there are now not dozens but hundreds of people going into
schools with guitars, musicians who just like to sing for
kids. Even though there is no money in it. There is even an
organization called Guitar Pickers in the Schoolroom.
DK: What is your sense of the evolution of Hillbilly music
into Country music?
PS: Country music was called hillbilly music back 80 years
ago. They had what was the Hillbilly catalogue for Victor and
other companies. The race catalogue was for blues and gospel
music. But they found that down South, they weren't buying
the music made in New York, so they put a machine and set it
up in a hotel room and he would advertise, "pay $25 for
anything I accept" and next morning there would be a line of
people in the hotel hallway and maybe nine out of ten -
"sorry, can't use your song" - or one would be good, and
they'd take it and that is how Mississippi John Hurt was
recorded and Doc Bogs and a whole batch of people. Back in
the ?20s, Ralph Peters was one of the people. Not everybody
in America likes to buy records of New York music, but they
had gotten music down there that they liked and that they
will buy. Then the people in Nashville decided they could
record it too and Nashville declared its independence and
then Motown declared its independence. Now of course, there
are independent people everywhere. Such that music stores
are closing down and record stores are closing down all over
the country just like bookstores are closing down all around
DK: What is your take about the future of the music industry?
PS: Nobody knows. I hope that it doesn't become completely
DK: What is the Campaign for Public Domain Reform?
PS: When somebody puts new words to an old tune, it might be
a 1000-year old tune from some little country somewhere in
the world like I did with Abiyoyo. I think some of the
copyrighted money should go to the place and the people where
the original tune came from. In order to see that it works, I
have proposed that every country in the world, all the United
Nations and the other countries have what we call a public
domain committee of people who know music and you wouldn't
bother them with any song that gets written with 10,000 songs
that are written every week, but if a song starts earning
some money, it comes to their attention and they should
distribute some of the money. Might be one percent, might be
50 percent, might be more. That money could go to that
country and people. Even the USA could have a public domain
In the case of Abiyoyo, I rewrote the contract with the
publisher to send 50 percent of the royalties to the part of
South Africa where that melody came from. It is from the
Xhosa people of Port Elizabeth. Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa.
They have several dozen kinds of clicks in their language.
Miriam Makeba just sang one click song, Uqongqothwane. It
means beetle, a dung beetle. Some dung in the road. She could
click so loud you could hear it 100 yards away. Abiyoyo is a
Xhosa lullaby. In New York, a nice little organization
called WooBooToo started. WooBooToo means shares in the Xhosa
language and they raise money for scholarships and libraries
in Port Elizabeth or in the region where Xhosa live all
The Xhosa claim that they originated way in northeast Africa,
but at the same time, people started going around and getting
crowded up there. They went down the eastern coast of Africa
to the very southern corner, oh 1,000 years ago or so. I had
one meeting and we had 70 people discussing the idea for
campaign for public domain reform and some were managers of
performers, some were songwriters, some were publishers and
all they were all interested, but could not find any
agreement on what to do.
I sent a description of the idea to the Whitehall office, the
Geneva Switzerland office for the World Committee for
Intellectual Property and they keep up with the different
copyright rules in different nations. They think copyright
should go on down through the family forever, so this family
is still trying to collect on some Italian composer of 400
In the beginning, when the copyright laws first passed, I
think things passed into public domain in about ten years and
Thomas Jefferson said that is long enough to profit from it,
from writing a book or something and then it should be public
domain. Later, in the 19th century they gradually lengthened
it and when I was young, it used to be 25 years, I think.
Recently, the Disney company got it increased because Mickey
Mouse was going to be public domain and so it is now at 75
DK: To what do your credit your long and successful union
PS: Her patience with me. She is really the secret of the
family. I have had this lifelong problem of starting projects
which I don't find time to finish. Sometimes projects work
out so well that other people carry them on. That's what
happened with Clearwater.
DK: Toshi describes you as stubborn. But of course, she has
her own biased perspective, having lived with you for 64
years. How would you describe Pete Seeger in brief?
PS: A compromiser. I compromised all my life in one way or
DK: In your creative life, how have you compromised?
PS: I borrow here and borrow there, sometimes giving credit
and sometimes forgetting to give it. Woody Guthrie and Lee
Hays were the two geniuses I knew. And Toshi the third.
DK: Are they really golden years?
PS: Right now no, this is the most difficult time either of
us, Toshi or I have ever had. The phone ringing every few
minutes, "Won't you come down and sing to us? Won't you come
and accept an award? Won't you say a few words about my book?
Won't you say a few words about my CD?"
I was protected from this for most of my life by my "left"
reputation, but now I have blown my cover.
DK: You are at a certain crest in your life.
PS: I am worth money.
DK: I think it is the spirit that you've embraced that people
value more than the money. So many of the causes and issues
you have helped champion celebrate their successes in part
because of the efforts of you and your folk singing
PS: I look upon myself as a link in the chain. I learned from
Woody Guthrie just like he learned from others. I have been a
sower of seeds. I have written a lot of songs about that. I
am sure a lot of teachers have seen themselves as sowers of
Jesus says in all the gospels besides John, the story of the
parable of the sower, slightly different words, but it is
basically the same. Some seeds fall on stones, don't even
sprout, but some seeds fall on fallow ground and multiply one
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