Questions for: Pete Seeger

September 21st, 2010 by Alex Halberstadt

At 91, the legendary singer/activist remains a devoted citizen.

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Pete Seeger recently turned 91. When his rendition of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene,” recorded with the Weavers, reached the top of the charts and remained there for 13 weeks in 1950, he was already a veteran performer. In the coming decades, the songs he wrote— “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song),” Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn!”—proved as influential as the ones he popularized; “We Shall Overcome,” a spiritual revived largely by Seeger, became an anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement. Throughout, he remained convinced that the songs, many of which called for social and economic equality as well as an end to racial discrimination and unjust wars, could help bring about changes both in listeners’ attitudes and government policy. As a member of the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s, Seeger sang out against Franklin Roosevelt’s arms embargo to Loyalist Spain; during the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee; his “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” which took aim at the Vietnam War, was banned from television in 1967.

Today, Seeger is known as much for his activism as his music. In addition to social and political causes, he advocates on behalf of the environment; Clearwater, a sloop he and a group of friends launched on the Hudson in 1969, has grown into an organization that highlights the effects of pollution and cleans the river that runs beside Seeger’s home in Beacon, NY. His music making also continues unabated. In 2008, Seeger won a third Grammy for his most recent studio album, At 89, just one in a string of tributes that include a National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Does a popular singer have a responsibility to others?

Everyone has a responsibility to others. The whole world has to face up to this fact. If we don’t, my fear is that in a hundred years we won’t exist as a people. With global warming, the ruination of the seas and the soil and the aquifers under it, I think we have about a 50-50 chance. Though I’m more optimistic today than I was 40 years ago.

What makes you optimistic?

The information revolution. Right now, thanks to the Internet, we have an opportunity to disseminate information more quickly and effectively than ever before.

Certain protest songs written during the ‘60s folk revival sound dated today. Is an overt political message compatible with great songwriting?

Sometimes that’s true—a song can come off sounding too preachy. But there are also instances of enduring songs with a political message; Joni Mitchell’s “Paved Paradise” is one of my favorites. And it’s been true throughout history—think of the 18th-century lyrics of Robert Burns. Or Taras Shevchenko, who was born a serf in Ukraine a few decades later; after his patrons held a lottery to buy his freedom, he wrote a poem comparing the tsar to a pig. Recently, I heard a choir in Canada sing his songs; they are still relevant today. A great political song is like a basketball backboard—it offers new meanings as life bounces more and more experiences against it.

Is there something unique about music, and singing in particular, that can galvanize people?

All the arts can do that. Even cooking. For a long time we’ve been hosting meetings here at our home to help clean up the Hudson River. One day my wife said, “Don’t call it a meeting, call it a potluck supper.” After that, we went from having maybe a dozen people show up to 70 and more.

Political and social change can be frustratingly incremental. Where do you find the motivation to keep working for it?

The happiest people I’ve met were people who were struggling. They were happy because they were doing something. It makes me think of a great book by Paul Hawken called Blessed Unrest. He named it after a piece of advice that Martha Graham gave Agnes de Mille in 1926. Graham said, “All us artists are filled with a blessed unrest, trying to reach the infinite and never of course making it, but never giving up trying.”

Are there issues you have advocated for that you later came to reconsider?

Well, I was a member of the Communist Party. I first became interested in politics when I was a student at Harvard and joined the Young Communist League. Of course before Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s atrocities in 1956, the Party in the U.S. had maybe 100,000 members, and after news of the speech spread, that number was probably 10,000. But then the meaning of the term “communist” depends entirely on how you define it. I happen to wish that there were no millionaires, and to some folks this makes me a communist.

Are there issues that you haven’t addressed in your music and would like to?

Campaign finance reform. It’s a tough one, but my hope is that there will be millions of little things that will help. Have you heard of Granny D? Her real name was Doris Haddock. As an 88-year-old, she walked from California to Washington D.C. to call attention to campaign finance reform. When she reached the Capitol she read from the Declaration of Independence. I’ve tried to write a song about the issue, but haven’t succeeded yet.

What are some accomplishments of which you are most proud?

Opening up the college concert circuit is one. I did my first college concert in 1953, at Oberlin, and it paved the way for a lot of performers. I could have kicked the bucket in 1960 [laughs]. Also, singing to 500,000 people in front of the Washington Monument was a thrill. I believe it was November 13, 1969. For seven or eight minutes I kept repeating the words “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” At first 1,000 people sang along, then 10,000, then 100,000 and soon the entire crowd was singing.

What is an average day like for you?

Mostly I answer letters and talk on the phone. I sweep the floor and wash the dishes. I don’t perform as much as I used to, but I still sing with the kids in my hometown of Beacon, NY. Sometimes we sing in the schools, and sometimes on the street.

Are you a religious person?

Well, every Martin Luther King Day I go down to our local Baptist church and sing my song about Dr. King. The mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, “A religious education is an education which inculcates duty and reverence.” I think that’s a pretty good definition of religion—duty and reverence.

Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon, and other publications.