My conversation with folk singer Pete Seeger

My conversation with folk singer Pete Seeger started on rocky ground as he moaned about the recent uptick in his fame.

It was about five years ago and Bruce Springsteen had recently released an album called "We Shall Overcome," which featured songs made famous by Seeger. Springsteen followed the album with "The Seeger Sessions Band Tour," which was monumentalized with the release of a DVD.

The DVD was the last straw as far as Seeger was concerned. Now he needed to hire an assistant to help him handle the spike in his fame.

“I get way too much mail since that damn movie came out,” he sneered.

He didn’t want this interview. But I worked hard to set it up.

“I can assure you I was into your music way before the movie came out,” I said.

“Oh really? When did you get into my music?” Seeger asked.

“In college,” I said. I could hear him shifting. Then came a barrage of questions. How did I discover his music? What albums did I have? What did I like about them?

I found his albums in my college library. I especially liked the albums that featured minimal accompaniment, just Seeger's voice and banjo or guitar. They were the ones where he came across as a bard sharing messages from another time and place. I loved his early recordings of “Red River Valley” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” That did it. I got past his internal gatekeeper.

“Hold on,” he said. “I’ll go get my guitar.”

After winning him over, we talked for hours. He strummed as we talked, occasionally asking me to sing with him. If I didn’t know a song, he taught it to me. He couldn’t help himself. It was second nature to him. The interview was more than I could have hoped for. He was 89 at the time.

Music was his way of interacting with the world, but he meant it when he said he’d rather be a hermit.
“It’s the only way to be an honest person in this world,” he said. “Once you start participating in the world, you start being hypocritical.”

And yet he felt compelled to reach others through music. Not only did he decide to be part of the world, he tried to improve it. Sometimes he had an impact and sometimes he had doubts, but he always had ideas about the world and man’s responsibility to it. All of this was evident in our conversation.
The world lost Seeger last week. He made it to 94.

Gene: Can you tell me about your earliest memory of music?

Pete: I don’t remember anything under 3 years old, but my mother played a very good violin and my father accompanied her on a folding pump organ. When I was only 2 years old – I have pictures of this in my book – my father would hold me on his lap while he was playing the little organ and my mother was playing her fiddle. I must have been conscious of it. I did like to hear my father play Chopin etudes on the piano. But what I really liked was when he’d let me play with one finger, some melody while he improvised. I’d play on the upper half of the piano and he’d play all around the lower half of the piano.

Gene: The next epiphany also came with help from your father…

Pete: At 17, I got out of high school. That summer my father took me to the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. And I suddenly found people making music who didn’t have the faintest idea of what it was to read music. They just played by ear. Members of their family played music and they picked it up from them. I remember Mrs. Samantha Bumgarner in her 50s in a rocking chair with a banjo. She covered the head of her banjo with flowers and butterflies. It was very colorful.
She was singing about adventurous things in old times.

Gene: When you started out on your musical journey, where did you hope it would take you?

Pete: I was looking for a job as a newspaperman and failing utterly to get one. A school teacher said, “Pete, come sing some of your songs for my class. I can get $5 for you.” A lot of people had to work all day to get $5 then. There I got $5 just for having fun for an hour. I went and took the money and quit looking for an honest job [laughing]. Pretty soon, I was singing at another school and then another school. I got jobs singing at summer camps, and then 10 years later, the kids were in college. And after World War II, I went from college to college.

Gene: Why did you want to be a journalist?

Pete: [I was] thinking it was a way to save the world from probable end. Einstein was supposed to have said this: “Two infinite things: one is the universe and the other is human stupidity.” Then he adds, “I am not sure about the universe.”

Gene: When did you get a sense that music was taking you much further than college to college?

Pete: I didn’t. I could have kicked the bucket in 1959 because along came a lot of young people who picked up on what I was doing, great songwriters like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Saint Marie and so on, a lot of them. I really could have kicked the bucket and 90 percent of my life’s work was done.

Gene: What was the 90 percent?

Pete: I showed you didn’t need to make a living by singing in nightclubs, or singing on television or radio. You could sing songs that really meant something.

Gene: That’s what you gave to music. What did music give to you?

Pete: Oh, it’s fun and a really great melody gives you hope for the future of the world. For 60 years I’ve said we have a 50/50 chance of there being a human race here in 200 years. But I said that largely because that implies that any one of us might be the grain of sand to tip the scales the right way.

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