The legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died Monday at the age of 94. For nearly seven decades, Seeger was a musical and political icon who helped create the modern American folk music movement. We air highlights of two appearances by Seeger on Democracy Now!, including one of his last television interviews recorded just four months ago. Interspersed in the interviews, Seeger sings some of his classic songs, "We Shall Overcome," "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." He also talks about what has been described as his “defiant optimism.” "Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what [the album] 'Seeds' is all about," Seeger said. "And this wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of."
Seeger led an illustrious musical career. In the 1940s, he performed in The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Then he formed The Weavers. In the 1950s, he was blacklisted after he opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger became a prominent civil rights activist and helped popularize the anthem "We Shall Overcome." In the 1960s, he was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired generations of protest singers. He was later at the center of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. With his wife Toshi, Pete helped found Clearwater, a group to clean up the Hudson River. Toshi died last year just weeks before their 70th wedding anniversary. In 2009, he and Bruce Springsteen performed Guthrie’s "This Land is Your Land" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
PETE SEEGER: [singing] If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.
If I had a bell,
If I had a bell,
Ring it in the morning,
I’d ring it in the morning
Ring it in the evening!
Ring it in the evening,
All over this land,
Ring out danger
Ring out danger,
Ring out a warning,
Ring out a warning,
Ring out love, ring out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.
AMY GOODMAN: The legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died Monday at the age of 94. For nearly seven decades, Pete Seeger was a musical and political icon who helped create the modern American folk music movement. In the 1940s, he performed in The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Then he formed The Weavers. In the '50s, he opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Pete Seeger became a prominent civil rights activist and helped popularize the anthem, "We Shall Overcome." He was also a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired a generation of protest singers. Later in his life, Pete was at the center of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. With his wife Toshi, Pete Seeger helped found Clearwater, a group to clean up the Hudson River. Toshi Seeger died last year, just weeks before their 70th wedding anniversary. In 2009, Pete and Bruce Springsteen performed Woody Guthrie’s "This Land is Your Land" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama, when he first became president.
Pete Seeger last joined us on Democracy Now! just four months ago. We’ll play highlights from that interview later, but first I want to turn to Pete Seeger in 2004, when he joined us in our firehouse studio. I asked him about his parents and their philosophy of raising him.
PETE SEEGER: Well, my father said, "Let Peter enjoy himself. We’ll see what happens." And I think he was curious, because he knew I liked music. My mother just left instruments all around the house. So I could bang on a piano or an organ or a marimba, on a squeezebox or a penny whistle or an auto-harp. And at age seven I was given a ukulele, and I’ve been into fretted instruments ever since then. In prep school I joined the jazz band. And then a few years later, my father took me to a square dance festival in the Southern Mountains, and I suddenly realized there was a wealth of music in my country that you never heard on the radio: old-time music, my brother called it—I think a better name than folk music—all over the place. Depending where you are, you hear different kinds of old-time music. And I still feel that I’d like to see people not forget the old songs at the same time they’re making up new songs.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember any of the songs that you heard then?
PETE SEEGER: Oh, good gosh, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: That you’d like to play now?
PETE SEEGER: I can’t play them. My fingers are froze up, and my voice, you hear, I can’t really sing anymore. What I do these days, I get the audience singing with me. If I’m singing for children, needless to say, I say, "Kids, you all know this song. If you don’t, you will in a minute. She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes. Toot! Toot!" I’d say, "Can’t you get the toot? Toot! Toot!" Well, pretty soon they’re all doing it. "She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes. Toot! Toot!" And the last verse, it’s cumulative, so you repeat all the previous things. "She’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! She’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! Wearing red pajamas, she’ll be wearing red pajamas, she’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! Hoink-shoo! Yum! Yum! Hi, Babe! Woe, back! Toot! Toot!" And even if the kids never heard the song before, they’re doing it with me.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete, you traveled the South with Alan Lomax, and to a lot of people that may not be a familiar name.
PETE SEEGER: Alan Lomax was the son of a Texas fella who collected cowboy songs a hundred years ago. And that’s how we know "Home on the Range" and other songs like it, "Whoopee Ti Yi Yo." And in 1908, he got President Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, to write a short forward for his book of cowboy songs.
Thirty years later, he had a son, and Alan was only 22 years old. His father got him installed as the curator of the Archive of American Folksong in the Library of Congress. And Alan in a few years did what most people would take a lifetime to do. With utmost self-confidence, he calls up the head of Columbia Radio and says, "You have a school of the air. Why don’t you spend one year learning about American folk music? And the Columbia symphony can play the music, after you’ve heard some old person croak out the old ballad." And if he couldn’t find an old person to do it, he got young me, age 19 and 20. And I still sing some of the songs I learned then.
’Tis advertised in Boston, New York and Buffalo,
five hundred brave Americans, a waggling for to go,
singing, blow ye winds of the morning, blow ye winds, high ho!
Clear away your running gear, and blow, blow, blow.
He interviewed the woman who collected that song when she was a teenager sailing on her father’s whaling ship in the 19th century. Now, as an old woman, she came out with a beautiful book, Songs of American Sailormen. Joanna Colcord was her name, so he interviews her, has me sing a song, and then the symphony orchestra plays it.
Well, Alan got me started, and many others. He’s the man who told Woody Guthrie, he says, "Woody Guthrie, your mission in life is to write songs. Don’t let anything distract you. You’re like the people who wrote the ballads of Robin Hood and the ballad of Jesse James. You keep writing ballads as long as you can." And Woody took it to heart. He wasn’t a good husband. He was always running off. But he wrote songs, as you know.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember when you first met Woody Guthrie?
PETE SEEGER: Oh, yeah, I’ll never forget it. It was a benefit concert for California agricultural workers on Broadway at midnight. Burl Ives was there, the Golden Gate Quartet, Josh White, Leadbelly, Margo Mayo Square Dance Group, with my wife dancing in it. I sang one song very amateurishly and retired in confusion to a smattering of polite applause.
But Woody took over and for 20 minutes entranced everybody, not just with singing, but storytelling. "I come from Oklahoma, you know? It’s a rich state. You want some oil? Go down on the ground. Get you some hole. Get you more oil. If you want lead, we got lead in Oklahoma. Go down a hole and get you some lead. You want coal? We got coal in Oklahoma. Go down a hole, get you some coal. If you want food, clothes or groceries, just go in the hole and stay there." Then he’d sing a song.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you form The Weavers?
PETE SEEGER: That was after World War II. Lee Hays from Arkansas, and his roommate Millard Lampell and I had started a group called The Almanacs. And I wrote to Woody, I said, "Woody, we’re singing for unions all around. Come out and join us. We’re in Madison Square Garden singing for striking transport workers." And so Woody, once again, deserted his wife, came and joined us. But Woody used to say, "The Almanacs are the only group I know that rehearse on stage." We were very badly organized. And after World War II, Lee says, "Pete, do you think we could start a group that would actually rehearse?"
And we were fortunate to run into one of the world’s greatest singers, Ronnie Gilbert. She was in her early twenties, beautiful alto voice, and a strong alto voice. I’d have to be two inches from the microphone. She could be two feet from the microphone, and she’d drown me out. She stood up to three strong-voiced men, and the four of us, however, were about to break up, when we did the unthinkable: We got a job at a nightclub.
Well, a little Greenwich Village place, it’s still down there, the Village Vanguard. And the owner paid us—he didn’t want me first. He said, "I can’t pay for a quartet. I’ll pay for you. I’ll pay you $200, like I did two years ago." I said, "Well, what if the all four of us were willing to come for $200?" That was low pay, even then. And he had laughed. He said, "Well, if you’re willing." And we got $200 and free hamburgers, until a month later he came and saw the size of the hamburgers I was making. He said, "Let’s make that $250, but no more free hamburgers."
And we stayed there six months. Near the end of it, we met an extraordinary band leader, Gordon Jenkins, who loved our music and got us signed up with Decca, and we had a record called, "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena," and on the other side, the B-side—it was a record—"_Irene_," good night, which sprang to number one, and for three months stayed up there on top of the hit parade. It was the biggest seller since World War II, and—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about "Irene"?
PETE SEEGER: Well, it was the song, the theme song of the great black singer, Leadbelly. He died in '49, and if he'd only lived another six months, he would have seen his song all over America. It was an old, old song. He’d simply changed and adapted it, added some verses and changed the melody, what my father called the "folk process," but which happens all through all kinds of music—in fact, all culture, you might say. Lawyers adapt old laws to suit new citizens. Cooks adapt old recipes to fit new stomachs.
Anyway, I learned this 12-string guitar from Leadbelly. A high string and a low string together, but played together to give a new tone. And the song I really would like to sing to you is—always have to do with it—I don’t sing it anymore. I give the words to the audience, and they sing it. I says, "You know this song. To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season. Sing it." And the whole audience sings, "Turn, turn, turn. There is a season. And a time. And a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. Sing it. A time to be born, a time to plant, to reap. A time to plant, a time to kill, to heal. A time to kill, a time to laugh, to weep. A time to laugh, a time to"—
You know, those words are 2,256 years old. I didn’t know that at the time, but Julius Lester, an old friend of mine, he’s a—I don’t know if you know him—he’s a black man who’s officially a Jew. He became fascinated with the Bible. I asked him, "When was these words written?" He says, "Well, the man’s name was Kohelet, meaning 'convoker,'" somebody who calls people together to speak to them. In the Greek translation, they called him Ecclesiastes, and he’s still in the King James Version as this. And it’s a type of poetry, which is Greek. The Greeks have a word for it, anaphora, A-N-A-P-H-O-R-A, and it means you start off a line with a word or a phrase. You don’t have rhyme at the end of the line, but you do have—it becomes poetry by the way it’s organized.
Well, I didn’t realize I liked the words, but I realize now. Those are maybe some of the most fundamentally important words that anybody could learn. You see, you and I, we’re all descended from killers, good killers. The ones who were not good killers didn’t have descendants. But we’re descended from good killers. For millions of years our ancestors were good killers. They say if they hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be here today. Now is a new period. In other words, it’s a time, you might say, the human race needed to have good killers. Now, if we don’t change our way of thinking, there will be no human race here, because science acts very irresponsibly—oh, any information is good. Ha, ha, ha. They don’t realize that some information is very important, some, frankly, forget about until we solve some other problems. Einstein was the first person who said it: Everything has changed now, except our way of thinking. And we’ve got to find ways to change our way of thinking.
Sports can do it. Arts can do it. Cooking can do it. All sorts of good works can do it. Smiles can do it. And I’m of the opinion now that if the human race makes it—I say we’ve got a 50-50 chance—if the human race makes it, it’ll be women working with children, these two very large oppressed classes in the human race. Children, doing what the grown-ups say they’re supposed to do, and yet they’re going to have to pay for our mistakes. They’re going to have to clean up the environment, which had been filled with chemicals, the air being filled with chemicals, the water being filled with chemicals, the ocean being filled with chemicals. And they’re going to have to clean it up. And I think it will be women working with kids that’ll do this job. In millions of little ways, maybe done in your hometown. In my hometown, we’re starting a project to put in a floating swimming pool in the Hudson, because now the Hudson is clean enough to swim in. Let’s swim in it. And if it works in our little town, maybe other towns will do it. In fact, if this swimming pool idea—it’s like a big netting in the water.
So, I confess I’m more optimistic now than I was 58 years ago, 59 years ago, when the atom bomb was dropped.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pete Seeger in our firehouse studio with our tell-tale radio headphones in 2004. The legendary folk singer and activist died Monday at the age of 94. We’ll go back to our interview with him in a minute.