When Will They Ever Learn? An Interview with Pete Seeger
By John W. Whitehead
January 4, 2006
“Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.”—Pete Seeger
Before the Byrds or Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary, there was Pete Seeger. With his five-string banjo in hand, Seeger helped to lay the foundation for American protest music, singing out about the plight of everyday working folks and urging listeners to political and social activism.
Born in New York City on May 3, 1919, Seeger, whose father was a pacifist musicologist, was plunged into the world of music and politics from an early age. He studied sociology at Harvard University until 1938, when he dropped out and spent the summer bicycling through New England and New York, painting watercolors of farmers’ houses in return for food. Looking for but failing to get a job as a newspaper reporter in New York City, he then worked at the Archives of American Folk Music at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a Grapes of Wrath migrant-worker benefit concert. Seeger, Guthrie, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell joined together to form the Almanac Singers, which became known for its political radicalism and support of communism.
In 1942, Seeger was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Saipan in the Western Pacific. After the war, he helped start the People’s Songs Bulletin, later Sing Out! magazine, which combined information on folk music with social criticism. In 1950, Seeger formed The Weavers with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. Targeted for the political messages behind some of their songs, the group was blacklisted and banned from television and radio.
In 1955, the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Seeger to appear before them (read his testimony here). During the hearings, Seeger refused to disclose his political views and the names of his political associates. When asked by the committee to name for whom he had sung, Seeger replied, “I am saying voluntarily that I have sung for almost every religious group in the country, from Jewish and Catholic, and Presbyterian and Holy Rollers and Revival Churches, and I do this voluntarily. I have sung for many, many different groups—and it is hard for perhaps one person to believe, I was looking back over the twenty years or so that I have sung around these forty-eight states, that I have sung in so many different places.” He was sentenced to one year in jail but, quoting the First Amendment, successfully appealed the decision after spending four hours behind bars. However, he has been blacklisted most of his life from normal radio and television work.
During the 1960s, Seeger traveled around the country, continuing to play his folk songs for the peace and civil rights movements. Deeply offended by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Seeger, along with other folk singers such as Joan Baez, led many protests. “Wherever he was asked, when the need was the greatest, he, like Kilroy, was there. And still is,” said his long-time friend, Studs Terkel. “Though his voice is somewhat shot, he holds forth on that stage. Whether it be a concert hall, a gathering in the park, a street demonstration, any area is a battleground for human rights.”
In 1963, Seeger recorded the now-famous gospel song “We Shall Overcome.” In 1965, he sang it on the 50-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Martin Luther King, Jr. and 1,000 other marchers. That song would go on to become the anthem for the civil rights movement and be translated into many languages. Seeger also turned his attention to cleaning up the Hudson River that ran past his home. In 1966, he helped form the Clearwater, an organization dedicated to educating the public on environmental concerns such as pollution and protecting the river. The group offers educational programs for children on a 76-foot replica of a traditional Hudson cargo sloop and holds a two-day festival on the banks of the Hudson River every June.
Seeger was awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts and the prestigious Kennedy Center Award in 1994. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his contribution to music and to the development of rock and folk music. In April of that year, he received the Harvard Arts Medal, and after decades of creating songs, in 1997, Seeger won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for his album, Pete.
Seeger, however, has not always been so lavishly praised. Often chastised for his “communist beliefs,” Seeger has dealt with criticism and misunderstanding. “I say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other,” he says.
In May 2005, countless tributes were held across the country to celebrate Seeger’s 86th birthday. While many of the legendary men and women Seeger associated with are gone, he continues his political and environmental endeavors. He still seems to subscribe to the same philosophy he held to four decades ago, when he advised young people to follow their hearts and take initiative: “Well, here’s hoping all the foregoing will help you avoid a few dead-end streets (we all hit some), and here’s hoping enough of your dreams come true to keep you optimistic about the rest. We’ve got a big world to learn how to tie together. We’ve all got a lot to learn. And don’t let your studies interfere with your education.”
In this OldSpeak interview with John Whitehead, Pete Seeger—described by Studs Terkel as “the boy with that touch of hope in the midst of bleakness”—speaks out, and even sings out, about his life’s work and his concerns for America’s future.
John Whitehead: In February 1940, you met Woody Guthrie. How did that change your life?
Pete Seeger: Woody showed me the old folk songs, which I loved so much. They were made up by real people about real things, and he was a live ballad-maker. I was working for Alan Lomax at the time and had always wanted to meet the kind of person who wrote “The Ballad of Jesse James.” And here he was in the flesh. A thoughtful guy making up new songs about real events—that was Woody Guthrie.
JW: You were doing the same thing, weren’t you?
PS: I had not yet started. As a kid, I tried to write poetry occasionally. My father used to tell me stories as a small child. I had an uncle who was a poet, but I didn’t really get into songwriting until I met Woody. And then only hesitantly because I didn’t dream that I would be able to actually write songs. But Woody showed me that it is not as difficult as you think. You find an old tune that you like, and you change it around a little bit—put new words to the old melody. I did that with a song called “C for Conscription.” At that time, I didn’t want to be conscripted into the Army. I took Jimmie Rodgers’ song “It’s T for Texas, T for Tennessee” and I decided “C for Conscription, C for Capitol Hill and so on.
JW: Then you started collecting songs. I seem to recall that the 1947 collection People’s Songs included “We Shall Overcome.” That song became the big ballad and hymn for the Civil Rights Movement.
PS: All I did was add a couple of verses. The song was actually an old gospel song, “I’ll Overcome,” usually sung fast. Then about 100 years ago, Union folks made a Union song out of it—“We Will Overcome.” The original was simply a verse, “I’ll Overcome Some Day.” Lord knows who wrote it. It might have been a slave back in the 19th century. It had other verses like “I’ll be like him, I’ll wear the crown, I’ll be alright.” As a matter of fact, that is the way most gospel singers know the song—fast, “I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright some day...” In 1946, 300 tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina were on strike and one of the women, Lucille Simmons, liked to sing this song very slowly. In gospel churches, sometimes you can sing a song extremely slowly, which gives time for the basses and other voices to harmonize. A white woman, Zilphia Horton, who taught at a little labor school in the South, learned the song from the strikers. She taught the song to me, and I printed it and started singing it. But it wasn’t until 1960 that a fellow named Guy Carawan added some interesting rhythm to it. It’s still slow, but it has a very steady, strong beat. In 1960, Carawan taught it to the founding convention of the SNNC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee). A month later, it was all around the South and eventually all around the world.
JW: What did you think when people like Martin Luther King started singing the song?
PS: I was very proud to have helped introduce the song. Actually, I think I was the first person that sang it to him in 1957. I was at that little labor school—it was called the Highlander Folk School—in the mountains of Tennessee. Very small little place. They had their 25th anniversary reunion, and Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy and Rosa Parks all drove up from Montgomery, Alabama. It must have been a four or five hour drive. I sang the song, and a friend of mine drove Dr. King to a speaking engagement the following day in Kentucky. She remembers him sitting in the back seat saying “We shall overcome. That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?” However, it wasn’t until Guy Carawan added the rhythm in 1960 that it really took off.
JW: The song had an amazing impact. In fact, people still sing it today. Then you got into some trouble for your alleged activities with Communists or singing for Communist groups and so on.
PS: My father first got me marching in a May Day parade in 1933, and I found him up to his ears in the Communist movement. He was writing articles for the Daily Worker. When I was 14, I remember asking him, “What are the bad things about Communism? Aren’t there good and bad things about everything in the world? He took all of 10 to15 seconds away from his work and said, “No, it’s all good.” Then he went back to his desk. About 1937, I was in college and people were wondering what to do about Hitler. I was impressed by the fact that Litvinov, the Soviet Representative to the League of Nations, said that “any aggressor should be quarantined”—that is, boycotted. He was talking about Japan, Manchuria, Italy, Ethiopia and Hitler helping Franco take over Spain. So when I was 18, I became a member of the Young Communist League. After the war, I was actually a card-carrying member for about four years. However, I drifted out when I moved up to the country, although I still have friends who are Communists and I still read the Communist newspaper from time to time. Occasionally, there are some very good articles in it. But I also read Fortune magazine and the New York Times. I am a magazineaholic.
JW: So, would you say that you are still a Communist?
PS: Only in the broadest sense of the word. When I was 7, I loved the books of Ernest Thompson Seton. Born in Scotland and raised in Canada, he became a well-known author in the first two or three decades of the 20th century. Seton held up Native American Indians as a role model. In his writings, he said, “Don’t go back to Greece or to the age of chivalry.” He said there were people on this continent who were brave and strong and completely honest. For the Indians, to tell a lie was a terrible crime that could mean being exiled from your tribe. I remember Seton’s book, Rolf in the Woods, where an older Indian teaches a 13-year-old white boy. The Indian said, “You know your books, but I can teach you the book of nature.”
I built myself a teepee and started tracking animals. Seton was my guru. Years later, I found that what I admired was the fact that the Indians shared everything they had. If there was food, everybody in the tribe ate. Since there were no ice boxes, where would you put the food if you shot a deer? If there was hunger, everybody in the tribe was hungry, including the Chief’s wife and children. There was no such thing as one member of the tribe being well-fed and the others being hungry. Anthropologists call this tribal communism. All of us are descended from tribal communists, if you go back enough thousands of years. In a sense, it was a form of Communism. It was Communism for their tribe.
But I would say, John, that the Communists I knew were the bravest, the least selfish people I ever knew. They fought against racism—put it at the top of their agenda. But lest there be misunderstanding, I must explicitly say that I drifted out of the Communist Party around 1950. And after visits to several Communist countries (USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, East Germany, Vietnam, China, Cuba), I feel strongly that most “revolutionary” types around the world don’t realize the importance of freedom of the press and the air, a right to peaceably assemble and discuss anything, including the dangers of such discussions. I often quote Rosa Luxembourg, the German Communist who, in 1919, wrote: “Comrade Lenin, I read that you have censorship of the press, and you restrict the right of people to assemble to express their opinions. Don’t you realize that in a few years all the decisions in your country will be made by a few elite, and the masses will only be called in to dutifully applaud your decisions?”
JW: You found yourself in trouble and were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954.
PS: That foolish Committee was started way back in the ‘30s by a man named Martin Dies of Texas who didn’t like Roosevelt. Dies felt there were a lot of Communists in the New Deal. My father worked for the New Deal. However, he got out of the Communist movement when he read the transcripts of the Moscow trials in 1938. He said these are obviously tortured confessions. Stalin is just trying to take over the country. I think if it hadn’t been Stalin doing this, it would have been somebody else. I am very strongly against one party rule of any sort. As a matter of fact, in my home town, in the election a couple of weeks ago, they elected a fully Democratic slate to the City Council. I am now arguing with some of my Democratic friends. I said, “If you have any sense, you will realize the danger you are in. If things go wrong, you can’t blame anybody else. It’s your fault. And furthermore, now is a good time to discuss proportional representation.” I attended a high school where we elected the student council by proportional representation. There are several different systems, but I think the idea of “winner take all” elections is foolish.
JW: You have indicated that your politics have changed. You once said that you were more conservative than Goldwater. What did you mean by that?
PS: Most conservatives just want to turn back the clock to a time before the income tax—100 years or so. I would like to turn the clock back thousands of years to a time when people lived in small communities and took care of each other. It may sound romantic, but I am not optimistic about the future of the world unless we realize the very real danger we are in.
JW: What is that danger?
PS: Well, scientists have invented things they never should have invented.
JW: Such as?
PS: Einstein is supposed to have said, “Ach, mankind is not ready for it.” Had he known what his E=mc2 would bring about, he might have said, “Well, maybe I should just bury this invention. Who needs world fame?” My father was overly optimistic all his life. I told you he was overly optimistic about Communism in the early ‘30s. But in his eighties, my father said, “Peter, I can’t persuade the scientists that I know they have the most dangerous religious belief in the world. The scientists that I am talking to say, ‘Charlie, I don’t have a religious belief. I base my actions on observations—double-checked around the world as all science should be. Then I draw logical conclusions.’” “Oh no,” replies my father, “haven’t you observed that there are insane, power hungry people all around the world—people like Hitler? Is it logical to put in their hands the ability to destroy the human race?” The scientist replies, “But you are attacking all science! If I didn’t discover these things, somebody else would.” And my father replies, “Yes, I suppose that if you didn’t rape this woman, somebody else would.” And the poor scientist staggers away saying, “You have no right to ask questions like this.” And my father goes after him, and says, “Face it, you think that an infinite increase in empirical information is a good thing. Can you prove it?” My father turned to me with a smile and said, “Of course, Peter, if I am right, maybe the committee that told Galileo to shut up was correct.” All you can do is laugh.
JW: You are involved in environmental work with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater project and the clean-up of the Hudson River. What do you think of global warming and all the environmental crises we see today?
PS: They’re very, very serious. If a chunk of the Greenland ice cap crashes in the ocean a few weeks later, the oceans all around the world could go up by five feet. You never can tell. Nobody knows for sure. It is a real crisis. And one of the most stupid things done by the Bush Administration was to back out of the Kyoto agreement. Kyoto didn’t go far enough, anyway. It’s only the beginning. But there are many things that can go wrong. If you fly over the Midwest, you see big circles down on the ground. These are the results of deep, deep wells going down thousands of feet to get water that was put there back during the ice ages—perhaps hundreds of thousands of years ago. With strong pumps, they can irrigate the fields of Kansas and so on with big circular sprayers. That’s why you see these huge circles on the ground several hundred yards in diameter. This water down there is not going to last forever. Moreover, the pesticides they’re spraying on the crops are filtering down and poisoning those huge aquifers. So all sorts of things are being done, which should not be done. At the moment, they may appear to be very profitable—but not in the long run. About 10 years ago, Oren Lyons, the elected leader of the Onondaga Longhouse near Syracuse, gave a speech to Clearwater’s annual gathering. Lyons said he found himself at a world economic conference in Switzerland. In the same room were CEO’s of billion dollar corporations. Lyons asked them if they realized that they were all headed for a brick wall because of the way they were using up the world’s resources. They said, “Of course, we know that. But you should realize that we have been put in our jobs to make as much money as we can for our stockholders. If we don’t do that, we are out of a job.” Lyons then said, “Are any of you grandfathers?” Several said, “Oh, yes” and pulled out photographs of their grandchildren. Lyons said, “When do you stop being a CEO and start being a grandfather?” They were silent.
JW: How do you feel about the Iraq war? You opposed FDR during the buildup to World War II.
PS: I was going right along with the Communist Party line back in the late 30s. I went along with a number of acquaintances I knew and was making up peace songs. In 1940, we even put out a record called “Songs for John Doe” with such lyrics as: “Remember when the AAA killed a million hogs a day, instead of hogs it’s men today, plow the fourth one under, plow under, plow under, plow under every fourth American boy.” I was working with Lee Hays, who was a wonderful songwriter. Lee was the son of a Baptist preacher in Arkansas. He knew gospel songs in white churches and in black churches. Lee came to New York wanting to put out a book of Union songs, and I got together with him. He made up the words of “If I Had a Hammer” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” He wrote an extraordinary poem that I tried to make a tune for but decided that it was a better poem. I have to recite it to you: “If I should 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 love and joy 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.”
JW: You have generally opposed war, including the war in Iraq.
PS: For the past 20 to 30 years. I feel that when a dictator starts abolishing freedom of speech and freedom of the press in his own country, it should be perfectly legal for the United Nations or some other country to drop satirical leaflets on that country. Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, mainly because the Communists and Socialists couldn’t work with each other. They had 55 percent of the vote, and Hitler had 33 percent of the vote. But the moment Hitler abolished freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the League of Nations should have dropped leaflets exposing Hitler and the Nazis. The first country conquered by any dictator is his own country.
JW: Are you saying the United Nations should fly over America and drop leaflets?
PS: We have more freedom of the press than any other country in a similar position. Even way back in the frightened ‘50s, Communists, for example, could publish their magazine. The KKK published their own books. But face it, the mass media is controlled by money.
JW: In the ‘60s, there were many people, such as Bob Dylan, yourself and others, who sang out against the war. We don’t see that with the young people today.
PS: There is more than you think, but it is kept off the air.
JW: Maybe it is kept off the air now, but in the ‘60s it was broadcast. Do we really have that much freedom of the media if the media doesn’t report what is going on?
PS: You’re right. Town after town has but one newspaper or one radio station. It is often owned by Murdoch. Yes, we don’t have as much freedom of the press as we think we have—although the traditional freedom of speech is strongly rooted in American culture.
JW: I noticed in your book Where Have All the Flowers Gone that you mention God. You indicate that you once thought religion was the opiate of the people. But you now indicate that you have changed your belief of God. How do you view God?
PS: I don’t think of God as an old white man with no belly button, nor even an old black woman with no belly button. But I agree that God is something eternal. Something cannot come out of nothing. I believe God is Everything. And I believe in infinity. In Alfred North Whitehead’s essay called “The Aims of Education,” near the end is a beautiful sentence. He writes that education must be religious. Whitehead was a scientist, but he goes on to say that a religious education inculcates both duty and reverence. “Duty arises because of our 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, that great amplitude of time which is eternity.”
When I am chopping trees out in the woods because I heat my house with wood, I feel myself right in the middle of God. Mahalia Jackson said “I have seen God. I have seen the sun rise.” So, in a sense, when anyone looks in the mirror, they look at an infinitesimally small part of God.
JW: There are some people who say they see God in earthquakes and when people are killed. In other words, God is punishing people. Do you see God in that sense?
PS: I don’t think of it in that personal sense. That’s a poetic way of looking at it, and personalizing God may not be the best kind of poetic way of looking at infinity. However, I sometimes use the word God. So I have religious friends who raise their eyebrows when I sing about the tides in the Hudson. I sing “the gods of moving waters.”
JW: Your slogan is “think globally, act locally.” What do you mean by that?
PS: I got that phrase from the great biologist, Rene Dubos, who taught at the Rockefeller Institute about 20 years ago. He gave that to me, and it is a very important part of my religious belief. When it comes to action, people are always saying, “What is the most important thing to do?” Dubos said, “Right where you are, there are important things to do.” You don’t need to look for some glamorous, far-away place. On the other hand, I have to admit that some of my greatest heroes and heroines are people who have gone to far-away places like Barbara Lubin who started the Middle East Children’s Alliance three or four decades ago. She raises money to help children get education in Arab countries. She is Jewish, but she has this wonderful movement raising money for children in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and other Muslim countries.
JW: Are you an optimist?
PS: I used to think I was an optimist, but I have to laugh. Let me quote a Malvina Reynolds poem: “If this world survives, and every other day I think it might.” She was one of my heroes. But if anybody asks what the chances are that the human race makes it, I’d have to give it a 50-50 chance. But that’s because this implies that any one of us might be the grain of sand to make the scales go the right way, instead of the wrong way. I am not the only person who feels like this.
JW: In your song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” you ask repeatedly, “When will they ever learn?” Have you found an answer to your question? When will they ever learn?
PS: We will never know everything. But I think if we can learn within the next few decades to face the danger we all are in, I believe there will be tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of human beings working wherever they are to do something good. I tell everybody a little parable about the “teaspoon brigades.” Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.” Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years—who knows—that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we answer, “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.” But I don’t think we have forever. I now believe that all technological societies tend to self-destruct. The reason is that the very things that make us a successful technological society, such as our curiosity, our ambition and determination, will also cause us to fall.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson corresponded for 13 years before they died on the same day. They asked, “How can one have prosperity without commerce? How can one have commerce without luxury? How can one have luxury without corruption? How can you have corruption without the end of the Republic?” And they really didn’t know the answer. Today I would ask, “How can one have a technological society without research? How can one have research without researching dangerous areas? How can one research dangerous areas without uncovering dangerous information? How can you uncover dangerous information without it falling into the hands of insane people who will sooner or later destroy the human race, if not the whole of life on earth?” Who knows? God only knows!
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.