How Ironic a Conscious Musician Should Die when Mk-Ultra Slaves Reign
Here are two extracts from very informative interviews…
Pete Seeger passed away on Jan. 28 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital at the age of 94. His wife, Toshi Seeger, passed away last July. Pete was known around the world for his performance of the music of ordinary people, and for his passion for their concerns, especially labor struggles, the fight against war, civil rights, and cleaning up the Hudson River.
In New York state’s Hudson Valley, where he lived for most of his life, he was known for showing up unannounced at community events, banjo in hand. And, along with Toshi, he organized the annual Clearwater Sloop Festival, named for the famous sailboat he took up and down the Hudson River, reminding people to care for and protect their iconic river.
Pete believed that change would come, not through big, grand pronouncements, but through the choices we each make. When I interviewed him in 2007, he said: “If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things.”
Sarah: When did you first realize that music, especially the music of ordinary people, would define your life?
Pete: I didn’t know it would define my life. My mother gave me a ukulele at age eight, and I sang the popular tunes of the day.
He’s just a sentimental gentleman from Georgia …
The other songs my family liked to sing were rounds.
Joy and temperance and repose …
I think my mother’s father taught it to her. He was a conservative New Englander. My father’s family were radical New Englanders—Unitarians and abolitionists from way back. But my mother’s father came from Tories.
Sarah: How did you go from pop music to folk music?
Pete: I was 16 when I came to New York. I had graduated to a tenor banjo in the school jazz band, and it was kind of boring—just chords, chords, chords. Then my father took me to a mountain music and dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and there I saw relatively uneducated people playing great music by ear.
I’ll never forget Mrs. Samantha Baumgarner, sitting back in her rocking chair with a banjo—oh, she’d painted the head of her banjo with brightly colored butterflies and flowers, and she was singing funny songs, tragic songs, violent songs, “Pretty Polly,” about murdering your true love.
Sarah: You did some traveling with Woody Guthrie later on, didn’t you?
Pete: He taught me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains. You don’t get on a freight when it’s in the station—the railroad bulls will kick you off. You go about 100 yards or maybe 200 yards outside to where the train is just picking up speed and you can trot alongside it. You throw your banjo in an empty car, and then you throw yourself in. And you then might go 200 or 300 miles before you stop.
Then I would knock on back doors and say, “Can I do a little work for a meal?” Or I’d sing in a saloon for a few quarters.
In six months I saw the country like I never would have seen it otherwise. I was curious to learn how workers were doing. I went out to Butte, Montana, which was a copper mining town then, and went a thousand feet down where it was hot, hot, and they were sweating, down there, working away.
They had a good union, though, and I knocked on the door and said, “I know some union songs, would you like to hear them?” And they paid me all of five dollars, which was a lot of money then, to sing some of the coal miners’ songs I knew from the East.
After World War II, we started a little organization we called People’s Songs. It was a very small organization; our publication had a circulation of about 2,000, and we finally went broke in 1949. The Cold War was too much for us. The ruling class knew just how to split the labor movement.
I dropped out of the communist movement about the same time as I moved up here to Beacon. I was never enthusiastic about being somebody who was supposed to be silent about being a member of something. On the other hand, I was still curious about what was happening to communist countries. I went to the Soviet Union three times, in 1964, and in 1967, I think, and again in 1981. I concentrated on singing songs of the civil rights movement, rather than the labor movement, because that’s what really turned my life around: seeing whatDr. King did, without using force and violence, whereas the communists said the world would not be changed without a great revolution. I think that was the big mistake.
Sarah: Did you witness for yourself what Dr. King was doing?
Pete: Toshi and I were on the march from Selma to Montgomery for three days. And I sang in Selma and Montgomery from time to time, and one time in Birmingham and in Mississippi another time.
It was only through the years that I realized what an absolutely extraordinarily thoughtful person King was. He insisted, from the beginning, in winning the bus boycott without violence.
Some of the middle-class African Americans would say, “Dr. King, accept a compromise. More people are going to be hurt and killed.” These were doctors and lawyers who didn’t want to lose their business. And the young people would say, “They bombed us. Why don’t we bomb them back?” And King would bring them together to talk and listen to each other, and it might take a whole day or sometimes two days or even three days. But finally, they’d say, “Okay, this is what we’ll say and this is what we’ll do. Because we know we have to work together or we’re not going to win.”
Sarah: Besides the labor and civil rights movements, you were also involved in the anti-war movement.
Pete: There are still battles among people who are not quite sure what kind of actions can be effective. I tend to agree with Paul Hawken that it’s going to be many small things.
I think of Tommy Sands, an Irish song leader, who got song leaders from the North and the South singing together for a whole evening. They had people there who’d been killing each other—Protestants and Catholics—and at the end of the evening, they tentatively started talking to each other.
Sarah: When you sing, “Bring Them Home,” you say “one of the great things about America is that we can speak our minds.” And you said that at a time when you had been blacklisted for many, many years. Can you talk about what it means to you to be a patriot?
Pete: Well, Toshi and I are both deeply proud that we were able to be part of the anti-Vietnam War movement. And I say this is one of the great victories for the American people…
By Amy Goodman,
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.