The Fresh Air Interview
1:17 pm
Tue January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger Remembers Guthrie, Hopping Trains And Sharing Songs

Originally published on Tue January 28, 2014 1:48 pm

Pete Seeger believed songs were a way of binding people to a cause. He popularized "This Land is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome" and wrote "If I Had a Hammer." In 1940s, he co-founded The Weavers, who surprised everyone, including themselves, when they became the first group to bring folk music to the pop charts — until they were black listed. Seeger refused to answer questions about his politics when he appeared before House Un-American Activities committee in 1955. His conviction for contempt of congress was eventually overturned on appeal. Seeger kept singing and protesting right through 2011, when he joined a march in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests. He simply did not give up.

The singer, songwriter and activist died Monday at the age of 94. In a Fresh Air interview from 1985, Seeger talked to host Terry Gross about his friendship with fellow folk music icon Woody Guthrie, jumping railroad cars and bringing his message to unlikely audiences.


Interview Highlights

On Woody Guthrie

"We all read about music being a part of people's lives, but I hadn't seen it in action until I met him. The words that came out of his mouth and the music he made all flowed together with the life that he had led and I was greatly attracted to it and kind of tagged along after him for several months. Woody showed me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains, how to sing in saloons."

On jumping railroad cars

"Woody said, 'Wait on the outskirts of town and when the train is picking up speed, it's still not going too fast, you can grab a hold of it and swing on.' Getting off the first time I didn't know how to do it and I fell down and skinned my knees and elbow and broke my banjo. Fortunately, I had a camera with me and I hocked it in a local pawn shop and bought a very cheap guitar, didn't have a banjo then. I knew a few chords and I got through the rest of the summer playing the guitar."

On traveling and learning songs from different people

"I got a chance to appreciate the different ways of singing the same song. Somebody will sing a song, it's a good song, here's somebody else singing it — they've got different verses, [a] different tune.

"My father used to say, 'A folk song printed in a folksong book is a little like a picture of a bird in flight in a bird book.' You knew the bird was flying, flapping its wings before that picture was taken and it kept on flapping its wings. Similarly, the song in the book was changing before it was written down and kept on changing after it was written down."

On the 1949 Peekskill Riots at the Paul Robeson concert, where Seeger performed

"We had stones thrown at us. It was a pretty horrifying day. A lot of people thought that this was the beginning of American fascism; this is how Hitler got started. I was just one of ten thousand people there, twenty thousand. It was a huge crowd [that] came to hear Paul Robeson, but the Ku Klux Klan had infiltrated the police force of the county and maybe the state for all I know.

"It was the Ku Klux Klan that initiated the attack and they had the concert surrounded with walkie-talkies like a battlefield and after the concert was over everyone who attended it was directed down one road. There were three roads you could've gone, left, straight ahead, or the right. I wanted to go left, my home was up there, but the police said, 'No, all the cars down here,' and they directed us as though they were going to run the gauntlet and some fifteen piles of stones about the size of a baseball, waist high, these stones, and every car that came by got a stone. Wham! at close range. There was a policeman standing about 80 feet away and I said, 'Officer, aren't you going to do something?' And he said, 'Move on, move on!' And I look around the guy in back of me was getting stone after stone because he couldn't get past me. I was stopped."

On beginning to play nightclubs with his band The Weavers

"That was a-soul searching. In one sense I felt like I was going into enemy territory. Why should I want to contribute to the nightclub scene, which I thought was anathema? I come from old New England Puritans who thought nightclubs were the dens of inequity and [I've] never been much of a drinker myself. But I wanted to reach people. I remember Woody telling me, 'Pete, it's good experience to sing in a bar, you ought to do it occasionally.' So I did. But to take a job at a nightclub and work there six nights a week? But we took it, and it was a very valuable experience. We learned a hell of a lot, and in six months The Weavers were ready to make some records."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Singer, songwriter and activist Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger was one of the most important figures in the history of American folk music. In the notes to the box set "Washington Square Memoirs," Gary Janelle(ph) wrote that the image of Seeger - with his homemade, longneck, five-string banjo - is synonymous with folk music.

Seeger was known for popularizing the songs "This Land is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome," and wrote "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn Turn Turn." Seeger dropped out of Harvard in 1938 to ride a bicycle across the country. In the 1940s, he sang union songs with the Almanac Singers. A few years later, he cofounded the Weavers, who surprised everyone, including themselves, when they became the first group to bring folk music to the pop charts, until they were blacklisted.

Seeger refused to answer questions about his politics when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. His conviction for contempt of Congress was eventually overturned. As a young man, Seeger believed songs were a way of binding people to a cause. Many of his songs were anthems of protest or odes to the working man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COTTON MILL COLIC")

PETE SEEGER: (Singing) When you go to work, well, you work like the devil. At the end of the week, you're not on the level. Payday comes, you ain't got a penny, 'cuz when you pay your bills, you got so many. I'm a-gonna starve and everybody will 'cuz you can't make a livin' in a cotton mill.

DAVIES: Seeger kept singing and protesting right through 2011, when he joined a march in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests. He also spent many years championing environmental causes. Terry spoke to Pete Seeger in 1985, and he told her one of his most important influences was Woody Guthrie.

SEEGER: Woody showed me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains, how to sing in the saloons. I said: What kind of songs do you sing? Well, he said, this year, there's five or six tunes that are nearly always worth a nickel or a quarter. (Singing) Makes no difference now what kind of life fate hands me. I'll get along without you now. That's plain to see. It's a Gene Autry hit, was, in 1940.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Was it hard to learn how to jump a railroad car?

SEEGER: No, for men. It's - of course for a woman, it would be much more difficult, the danger of being assaulted by men, who assume that any woman who would travel that way is open to his advances. But Woody said you wait in the outskirts of town, and when the train is picking up speed, it's still not going too fast, you can grab ahold of it and swing on.

Getting off the first time, I didn't know how to do it, and I fell down and skinned my knees and elbow and broke my banjo. Fortunately, I had a camera with me, and I hocked it in a local pawn shop and bought a very cheap guitar. I knew a few chords, and I got through the rest of the summer playing the guitar.

Woody was a direct actionist. When he was singing once for - to raise money for war bonds during World War II. He and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were in Baltimore, and they said, Mr. Guthrie, we have a seat for you at the table, and your friends, we have some food for them in the kitchen. He said what do you mean? He tipped the whole table up in a big, crowded dining hall, just dumped a whole table full of plates and everything on the floor, and tipped another table up.

And finally, he was restrained. And Brownie says Woody, you're going to get us all in trouble. I'm lame, and Sonny's blind. And they led him out. He was absolutely furious. Now, part of his education, here's what happened. Before he met a lot of radicals, he was singing country songs on a little station in California, and he sang a song with a lot of dialect. It was probably an old minstrel song, (unintelligible).

And he got a letter. Dear Mr. Guthrie: I think you mean well, or I would not bother to write. But don't you know that kind of dialect is deeply offensive to people like me? We like your music, but that dialect is unnecessary. It's a relic of slavery. Woody, next day on his program, read the man's letter on the air. He said folks, I just read you this guy's letter. I want to - I now am picking up a copy of that song.

Now, you listen, I got the copy of this song right near the microphone. And he took up this song, and held it near the microphone...

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER TEARING)

SEEGER: He tore it into strips right in front of the microphone. That was Woody Guthrie.

GROSS: You started doing a lot of performing for unions, in union halls and even on picket lines. How did you all come up with the songs that you thought would really speak for the people who were there?

SEEGER: Well, long discussion, when I met Lee Hays, I met one of the few geniuses I've met in my life. We were always talking and thinking what kind of songs were needed. We'd be trying out this and trying out that. Sometimes, one person would start a song, and another person would finish it. That's how it was with the song "Talking Union." We'd heard Woody singing, you know, the old "Talking Blues."

(Chanting) If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you what to do. Got to grease your feet in a little mutton stew, slide out of the devil's hand, ooze over in the Promised Land. Take it easy. Go greasy.

And so on. And I don't know whether it was Lee or Mill or me who thought of (Chanting) You want higher wages, let me tell you what to do, got to talk to the workers in the shop with you. Got to build you a union, got to make it strong, but if you all stick together, boys, it won't be long. You get shorter hours, better working conditions, vacations with pay, take your kids to the seashore.

They made up most of the first part of the song, and they had one problem after another. Suddenly, it came to a dead stop. How were you going to win? The song was unfinished for a couple weeks. And up on the roof one day, I found myself thinking, well, the only way any of these struggles are won is by the unity of people.

I wrote three more verses, didn't have much rhyme in them, as I remember. But I got the idea across that, in spite of all the things that could go wrong, all the attacks that would be made on a group of working people, that you could win if you stuck together.

GROSS: In 1949, you were one of the people who were supposed to perform at the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill.

SEEGER: I did. I sang "If I Had a Hammer" and "T for Texas." I forgot what else, "We Shall Not Be Moved," maybe.

GROSS: You and many other people that were...

SEEGER: And we had stones thrown at us. It was a pretty horrifying day. A lot of people thought this is the beginning of American fascism. This is how Hitler got started. I was just one of 10,000 people there, or 20,000. It was a huge crowd, came to hear Paul Robeson. But the Ku Klux Klan had infiltrated the police force of the county, and maybe the state, for all I know, and the city. I don't know the details.

But it was the Ku Klux Klan that initiated the attack, and they had the concert surrounded with walkie-talkies, like a battlefield. And after the concert was over, everybody who attended it was directed down one road. There were three roads you could have gone, to the left or straight ahead or to the right. And I wanted to go to the left, because my home was up there.

But the police said no, all cars down here, and they directed us as though we were going to run the gauntlet. And there were some 15 piles of stones about the size of a baseball, which had been waste-high, these stones, thousands of stones, and every car that came by got a stone, wham, at close range.

There was a policeman standing about 80 feet away, and I said officer, aren't you going to do something? And he said move on, move on. Then I look around, the guy in back of me was getting stone after stone because he couldn't get past me. I was stopped. So I moved on.

Funny, last - about a year and a half ago, I was out West. A man says Pete, you were at Peekskill, weren't you? Yup, I said. He says, do you remember the time you stopped and spoke to a policeman? And I said, yeah. And there was a car in back of me, getting it. And he says, I was in that car.

GROSS: Had he been hurt?

SEEGER: Well, he would've been killed if I hadn't moved on.

GROSS: When you look back, I don't know about how many times before that you had been confronted with that kind of direct violence. How did you behave during it, and are you satisfied with the way you behaved, when you look back?

SEEGER: Well, I'm sure that, in retrospect, you can just think how - the things we did wrong. But knowing what I knew then, why, I think we did the right thing. And I was of the opinion then that the average American wouldn't go in for that kind of fascist approach. You see, there were signs went up in Peekskill. Somebody printed them up. They were put on bumpers, bumper stickers. They were put in windows of apartments and houses. I saw them in bars.

They said wake up, America. Peekskill did. Now, there was all America to do the same thing, you find these commie so-and-so traitors, whatever you think they are, and you show them what's going to happen to them. They either get out of this country, because the whole idea of America, love it or leave it. Yet, within about a month, those signs were taken down.

Now, nobody knows exactly why those signs came down, but I'm convinced that within Peekskill, there were many arguments within families. It might have been a grandparent that would say: You mean you threw stones at women and children? Well, well, we don't like these people, either, but still, you don't throw stones at women and children. I mean, is that what Abe Lincoln would've done? Is that what Thomas Jefferson would've done, or anybody you admire? Is that what Jesus would've done?

And it's significant that those signs did not stay up in Peekskill, and you'll be interested, as of last month, Peekskill has a black mayor.

DAVIES: Pete Seeger, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1985. Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. We'll hear more of their conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SEEGER: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 1985 interview with Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94.

GROSS: During the 1950s, when you were performing with The Weavers, I think that initially you performed at a lot of demonstrations and union halls and outside, and then you made a decision to start trying nightclubs. Was that a big crisis, to actually decide to move into the clubs?

SEEGER: We - that was a soul searching. In one sense I felt like I was going into enemy territory. Why should I want to contribute to the nightclub scene, which I thought was anathema? I come from old New England Puritans who thought nightclubs were the dens of inequity and never been much of a drinker myself. But I wanted to reach people.

And I remember Woody telling me Pete, it's good experience to sing in a bar, you ought to do it occasionally. So I did. But to take a job at a nightclub and work there six nights a week. But we took it, and it was a very valuable experience. We learned a hell of a lot. In six months The Weavers had had six months of rehearsals and we were ready to make some records.

GROSS: Were you really surprised when your records started getting played on the radio and became big hits?

SEEGER: Yes, we never expected to get on the hit parade. I'd always looked upon Tin Pan Alley as one more snare in a delusion, and if you wanted to make good music, stay away from it. But we met a really charming and wonderful man, Gordon Jenkins, who had a big, slick, band. And he said I'd love to have you record with me. So we took him up on it.

And to everybody's surprise, including the head of Decca Records, "Good Night Irene" sold two million copies in the summer of 1950. It was the biggest seller since World War II, along with one of Bing Crosby's song, "Sam's Song" was the big seller. But "Good Night Irene" was on every jukebox in the USA in the year 1950. You couldn't escape that song.

Some people have said if I hear that song once again, I'm going to kick in the - that phonograph so it never plays another record. It was - it floated out from every filling station, from every diner.

GROSS: That might have made it even more difficult, then, when you were blacklisted.

SEEGER: Well, it made it difficult for the blacklisters, but I didn't expect to last 10 minutes. I think the blacklisters would be after us a lot sooner. It took them a couple years to chop us down. And it was a full five years before they got around to calling me up before the Committee on Un-American Activities. I was surprised it took so long.

GROSS: You wanted to sing a song to the committee, right?

SEEGER: I think I did. They questioned me about a song. I said, well, that's a good song, I'll sing it to you. No, they didn't want me to sing it. They wanted to know where I had sung it, at the following place. I said well, I have a right to sing a song anywhere I want to, whether I agree with the people or don't agree with them. I'm not interested in telling you that.

They said we direct you to tell us. They said you are liable to be under contempt of Congress. Do you use the Fifth Amendment as your defense? No, I said, I just don't think these are questions any American should be asked, especially under threat of reprisal if they give the wrong answer.

So in effect I was defending myself on the basis of the First Amendment. The Fifth Amendment in effect says you have no right to ask me this question. But the First Amendment in effect says you have no right to ask any American such questions.

GROSS: I'm speaking with Pete Seeger, if you're just joining us. Have the wounds ever healed among the folk musicians who were friendly witnesses and those who weren't before UAC?

SEEGER: I think it's been harder for the friendly witnesses. History has not been kind to the Un-American Activities Committee. It feels, as I felt, that these people didn't love America so much as their own particular version of America, which was somewhat limited, shall we say. And so those who cooperated with the committee wish they could forget it all. Those who stood up to the committee, as Lee says, if it wasn't for the honor, he'd just as soon not been blacklisted. It was an honor.

GROSS: Well, that honor kept you off of television for many years afterwards. How did you feel around the early '60s when the folk music boom started taking off, when finally folk music had become commercially viable, and you were, in a way, prevented from participating in it because you weren't allowed on radio or TV?

SEEGER: Well, I was mad. I wrote some articles in Sing Out magazine, warning people that this ABC television show called "Hootenanny" would be kind of a travesty on what a real hootenanny would be. A real hootenanny was a bunch of people who hoped that music could bring people together to bring a peaceful world, a world without racism, a world where you had a right to join a union, a world without sexism.

And instead, it was a second-rate vaudeville show. Some good folk music got played on the air, but there was an awful lot which was kept off the air. Why? Because it wasn't cheerful, happy music. And yet, to my mind, some of the greatest tragic music in the world are the tragic songs that I've heard sung by American working people.

GROSS: Well, take a song like "If I Had a Hammer." That is I think one of the most recorded songs in the world. I mean, hundreds of people have recorded it, right? But when you had first written it, it was considered a very dangerous song.

SEEGER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: What was considered dangerous about it?

SEEGER: I - hard to say. It talked about freedom and justice, maybe. It's hard to say, hard to say. And if you tried to pin people down, they'd just say that's one of these commie songs. I'm sure in the Southern states the segregationist leaders would have said, oh, this talk about all my brothers and sisters, only the commies talk that way, only the nigger-lovers, only the race-mixers talk like that.

My gosh, people today can't realize, though, how much America has changed as a result of the civil rights movement and one thing after another, the women's movement. We didn't win all the victories we hoped we would win, but we won some victories, and maybe that's the way the world moves forward. One of my favorite songs these days is, oh, gosh, I love it, but I don't have a guitar with me. Arlo and I sing it all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JACOB'S LADDER")

SEEGER: (Singing) We are climbing Jacob's ladder. We are climbing Jacob's ladder. We are climbing Jacob's ladder, brothers, sisters, all.

I sang it way down low, the way you might sing it if you were singing a child to sleep. That's a great song. It was made up by people in slavery, but it's I think one of the most scientific songs in the world. Revolutionists, as well as religionists, often forget that heaven doesn't come in one big bang. It comes in many steps.

GROSS: Your work has inspired thousands and thousands of Americans of different generations. And you could have, if you wanted to, really, like, played that role to the hilt of, you know, like the father of the modern American folk music movement.

SEEGER: No, I would've known it was a lie. My main purpose as a musician has been to get people singing and get people to make music by themselves. And it's the only reason I keep singing is because I'm a skilled song leader now. My voice is 50 percent shot. I can still shout in the high notes, but my low notes are very wobbly.

But I can still get a crowd singing. And so when they're singing, they don't bother listening to me. They're having a lot of fun. And that's my main purpose. I want to show people what a lot of fun it is to sing together.

DAVIES: Pete Seeger, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1985. Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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