A Legend Still Looking for a Hopeful Story
JG–How many words are synonymous with folk music? Traditional music? Ballads? Hymns? Pete Seeger. If there was ever one person who defined contemporary folk music, and helped solidify it's place in the 20th century, it's Pete Seeger. I had a rare opportunity to talk with Pete at his New York home last week, and I started by asking him about a definition of folk music.
PETE SEEGER–The word "folk" means people, in German and also Scandinavian. About 150 years ago, scholars said 'this national music' - that's what it's called over in Russia - 'should be written down'. Some people may think it's trash, but it's part of history. And some people said, "it's not trash, it's beautiful". Folk music was the music of the peasant class, ancient and anonymous, which was different from the music of the cities, which changed with the fashion of the day, and was different from the music of the castle, which was formalistic and elegant, and sometimes very expert. My father was a musicologist. He pointed out that folk music came along when the cities came along. Before that, everybody lived in little villages, all the men knew the same hunting songs and all the women knew the same lullabies. Then along comes class society, when 'agricultural class' was invented, and now there was a class of rich people that owned things, and a class of poor people who did the work - slaves, or serfs or whatever - and in the cities, some of the poor people found they could pick up coins in the marketplace, and this was the first "pop" music. And pop music for thousands of years occupied a space between the fine arts music of the castle and the folk music of the countryside.
JG–After thousands of years of passing folk music from generation to generation, technology was becoming available that would aid the process of collecting the music.
PS–John Lomax started collecting cowboy songs a hundred years ago, and his son Alan persuaded Burl Ives, Josh White and Leadbelly, that there were people up north who'd like their southern blues. He persuaded Woody Guthrie likewise. He said, "Woody, you are a great ballad maker. Don't let anything stop you from writin' ballads". And now a whole lotta people come up from the cities and imitate them, and were all called folk musicians...
JG–In the 1950's, Pete Seeger started recording for Folkways Records, a label that also recorded Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. The company was founded by a young Moses Asch.
PS–Well, that's an interesting story. He was installing public address systems in hotels, making a small living. But he bought an early, big, heavy recording machine, it recorded on acetate discs. In 1938, his father who was a famous writer, Sholom Asch, said, "Moe, can you fit that recording machine of yours in the trunk of a car? We got to go down to Princeton, New Jersey and record 'Dr. Einstein' with a message that can be played on the radio, urging American Jews to give more assistance to their relatives and help them get out of Germany."
So they drove to Princeton, recorded the short message, and then over supper says, "Well young Mr. Asch, what do you do for a living?". And r 2000 titles.
JG–And these records are still available.
PS–Sure, and some of these titles literally only do sell five copies a year, and then they make five more copies and Xerox five more copies of the brochure.
(MUSIC: One Grain of Sand (Odetta))
JG–The song, "One Grain of Sand", you've said that if there's a song that you would still like sung with you in mind one hundred years from now, it's that one. You used to sing that song to your children.
PS–Yes to my youngest child. The two older ones were 7 and 8 and were too old for lullabies at that time. I put her to sleep with this, and I just made it up one night, and added verses to it over the following months, and she knew it was her song, I sang it for her. She was actually rather insulted, when years later she heard it on a record. "You sang my song for other people!" (laughs)...
JG–Kumbaya became the lullaby that put my daughter to sleep.
PS–Did you know the man who wrote it really believed that he wrote that song? He did not know that he heard a fast gospel song, 'Come by here my lord, come by here, oh Lordy come by here...'. I've heard recordings of it from the 1920's, down in the Library of Congress. But in the 1930's, he was still a teenager I think, or early 20's, ... he was a member of Amy Semple McPherson's Four Square Gospel Church. In Portland, Oregon, he dreamed up this song - he thought. Somewhere he must have heard the original, and he dreamed it as slow song-'a processional', he called it.. (sings) And a family that was going off to be missionaries in Africa had a twelve year old boy, and he heard that song, and he went around all weekend singing it. And about ten years later, someone comes back from Africa, "Oh a beautiful song they sing there..Kumbaya, my Lord...".
JG–That must happen a lot in the tradition of folk music
PS–Oh it happens all the time.
JG–Someone hears a melody twenty or thirty years ago, and you think it's new when it just comes back to you.
PS–Oh it's happened to me, when I thought that I had made up a good tune for an old children's rhyme, I'd read it in a book. "Crawlin' creepy little mousy, from the barney to the housey", I even wrote a letter to the editor of the book, and I can't remember her name now, and I would like to give her credit. And she said there was no melody to it, so I made up a melody-ha ha, I thought I made it up. Thirty years later I'm remembering a song, taught me by Frank Warner, which was a marching song. "Doodle doodle doodle dandy, corn struck rum and home made brandy". It was sung by Washington's troops two hundred years ago, and I had slowed it down.Ha ha, I put it in my book. I have a whole book of stories like this. It's really a "how to" book encouraging people to write songs. You don't have to make up a song completely. Take an old melody and write new words to it, take old words, put a melody to it. Take a song you know and add a verse to it. Did you know I've added a good verse to Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now"?
"Daughter Daughter don't you know
you're not the first to feel just so.
But let me say before I go,
It's worth it anyway.
Someday we may all be surprised,
we'll wake and open up our eyes,
and then we all will realize
the whole world feels this way.
We've all been living upside down
and turned around with love unfound.
Until we turn and face the sun,
Yes all of us, everyone,"
JG–Pete Seeger has perfomed for audiences all over the world, and still does. I asked him if there was ever a place he wasn't able to perform.
PS–Well, I didn't go to Brooklyn College until President Gideonse died. He said, "As long as I am president, Seeger is not going to sing on the campus of this university".
JG–What's the story there?
PS–Well, he finally resigned or retired in the mid 60's, then Len Chandler and I had a concert there.
JG–What caused all that?
PS–'Cause I was a goddamn communist, (laughs) and I never denied I was a goddamn communist. I tell people I became a communist at age 7. I read about the American Indians; they had no rich and no poor, and I decided then and there, that's the way human beings should live, and I still believe it.
MUSIC: (The Weavers)
JG–In 1948, Pete got together with some musical friends, Lee Hayes, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. "The Weavers" became folk sensations.
PS–We were as surprised as the blacklisters were. We never expected to have a hit record. We just expected to be singing for little left- wing gatherings here and there. We we're about to split up, Lee wanted to write short stories for a living, Fred wanted to go back to college and get a masters degree, and Ronnie wanted to raise a family, she'd just married. I wanted to sing with a group. You get a good song like, "Saints Go Marchin' In", one person cannot sing it anymore than you can play a game of tennis with yourself, you have to have the call and response. And one person singing that is like one person bouncing a tennis ball against a barn wall, which I used to do as a kid. Anyway, we did the unthinkable. We got a job at a nightclub. I hate 'em. I don't smoke, I don't drink, and I don't like to stay up late. (laughs) We stayed at the Village Vanguard for six months, and at the end of it, we had a Decca recording contract and a hit record.
MUSIC: (Weavers-'Irene Goodnight')
JG–Had you not gone through that experience, with the House on un-American Activities, and the whole McCarthy thing, what would Pete Seeger be like today? Would you be a different person?
PS–Oh, I learned from it. I learned a lot of things. I was surprised by the wide variety of people that came in to this little Greenwich Village nightclub. I met Hillel and Aviva, two young singers from Israel who taught me to play a beautiful bamboo flute called a Chaleel. And the man called 'Hillel' at the time, played it so beautifully and so soft, he could be playing it eight feet away and you could barely hear it. And of course that's where we met Gordon Jenkins, the bandleader who brought us to Decca. And we met all sorts of weird people - poets, writers. Alan Lomax brought Carl Sandburg down to hear us. That's where a newspaper reporter bustled up, "Oh Mr. Sandburg, what are you working on now?". Sandburg says, "Well, I've just finished a novel called "The Story of an Abitchuay", ...and the reporter writes it down. Then he says, "What are you going to work on next?". He said, "Oh, I'm going to be working on the sequel, "The Story of the Son of an Abitchuay". The reporter started writing it down before he realized Sandburg was pulling his leg.
JG–Did the whole situation define modern American folk music, from the fifties on up?
PS–Yes. Since the Weavers called themselves "folk singers" , if you sang songs the Weavers sang, you were a folk singer (laughs). Well of course the old definitions are broken down now. A millionaire can have a guitar and sing a ballad from 500 years ago, and an illiterate working person can get a recording of Bach and Beethoven, or turn on the radio and hear them. So the old distinctions are broken down, and it's all pop music now, you might say, or all classical music, or all folk music. My father, who was a musicologist said, "Don't bother about getting into arguments about, 'is it folk or not'. What's important is the 'folk process'. And consider this: The folk process exists in the field of classical music, and in the field of pop music, as well as the field of folk music. In other words, you remember old things and incorporate them into something new.
(MUSIC: We Shall Overcome)
JG–In the 1950's, as Pete was waist deep in the human rights movement, he became a civil rights activist, marching with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, and a very young Dr. Martin Luther King. And now almost one half century later, Pete still sings the praises of Dr. King.
PS–It's grown and grown with me. I am now convinced that Dr. King, in his short lifetime, relatively short, it was only thirteen years from when he first hit the headlines to when he was assassinated, where as Ghandi had many more years to talk, but then he didn't have the media that King did till he was assassinated. I am convinced that King had lessons for the entire world. He was so forceful and so eloquent. You know, at the first meeting, December 21st, 1955, he said, "There will be no violence in this campaign". And he said it so forcefully, that even though there might have been some black people who said, 'Well why don't we turn over a bus', he made it absolutely plain. "There is going to be no violence."
JG–Later, Pete Seeger's concern for the environment became a priority, especially his love for his native Hudson River.
PS–Here again, I learned from Dr. King, when you face an opponent from over a broad field, you don't aim for opponents' strong points.The big question in the environmental movement is the changing of climate and the population bomb. You start with something you can win on, and here is a little local struggle of cleaning up a beautiful river. It looks bigger than it is, you know. There are 70 other American rivers that have a bigger watershed than the Hudson has, but it's an arm of the ocean. It's sea level all the way up to Albany, 150 miles from the Verazzano Bridge. Anyway, I didn't know what I was doin' when I said to a friend, "Let's build a replica of one of these old boats. And the project grew just like Topsy, took on a life of it's own, and probably the most important thing I did was resign as chairperson early in the game, and let people tangle and learn how to run an organization. We're still tangling; every few years we have another crisis.
JG–But you have made a difference, this project has been a huge success.
PS–It's not only been a success in the Hudson, but I'm most proud we have at least a dozen other boats around the country trying to do the same thing - and doing it.
JG–Pete Seeger will be the featured performer at this Sunday nights sold out concert at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the official closing of the International Folk Music Alliance World Conference. I asked Pete about the importance these types of gatherings.
PS–I'd say people meeting each other, I'd say that's the most important thing. It's what cities have done for the human race for thousands of years. People from different places meet each other, it's what railroads did for the USA. Until railroads were invented, it took too many months to get together. The convention as we know it developed with the railroads, and there were business conventions and union conventions and doctors and church conventions and political conventions. Of course, now its proliferated, and this is a convention for people who make a living singing what they call folk music, even though nobody can agree on a definition. Either Big Bill Broonzy or Louis Armstrong said it, "I never heard horses sing it, must be a folksong."
JG–So it's all about communication. Whether you're shaking hands, talking, or singing....
PS–..and I might say, writing. I started life wanting to be a journalist. I ran a school newspaper for many years. You DO not just report the disasters, you report the good things too, even though it's hard to write them so they sell papers. But if you write them well, they do sell papers. And I've noticed The New York Times is learning this, and smaller papers are learning it. There are alot of people like me saying, "No, I've heard enough scandal, I'm looking for a hopeful story there." If it's written well, I'll read it, and I'll Xerox it and pass it on. The good and bad are so tangled up in this world, you either have to laugh or weep.
(MUSIC: Oh Mary, Don't You Weep No More)