Pete Seeger: Where Have All the Protest Songs Gone?

Practitioner: 

Date: 

Apr 1 2012

Location: 

Online

Now 92 years old, the legendary folk singer recalls his
pioneering days touring college campuses and discusses his
favorite songs.

(In March of 1960, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, a
campus radio station recorded a Pete Seeger concert. The
eight reel-to-reel tapes made that night have now been
recast into a 2-CD set, due out April 17 from Smithsonian
Folkways Recordings. In The Complete Bowdoin College
Concert 1960, the first-ever complete release of one of his
community concerts, Seeger performs early versions of songs
that would, in just a few years, captivate the entire
nation, including anti-war ballad "Where Have All the
Flowers Gone?" Pete Seeger reflects on his legacy in a
discussion with the magazine's Aviva Shen.)

Aviva Shen: Tell me about how you got started doing college
concerts?

Pete Seeger: I think it was 1953. I was singing for $25 a
day for a small private school in New York City. And I was
keeping body and soul together with $25 a week; maybe I'd
make another $25 on the weekend. But then some students from
Oberlin asked me to come out. They said, we've got the
basement of the art department and we think if we pass the
hat, we'll make $200, so you'll be able to pay for the bus
trip out. So I took a bus out to Cleveland and they picked
me up, and sure enough we made more than that passing the
hat. The next year I sang in the chapel for 500 people and I
got $500. And the year after that, I sang in the auditorium,
which had 1000 people and I got paid $1000. So that was when
I started going from college to college to college.

Actually, this is probably the most important job I ever did
in my life. I introduced the college concert field. Before
that only John Jacob Niles had tried to sing college
concerts and he'd dress up in a tuxedo, and things were very
formal. I made things as informal as I could and went from
one college to another and made a good living out of it.

AV: How did the students respond?

PS: Oh, they'd sing along with me.

AV: Do you have any favorite memories of the tours?

PS: I remember introducing a young black man, who'd made up
a good song in Chicago's Orchestra Hall. He was only 16
years old, but he got an ovation from the crowd. He was
working for Dr. King, organizing things in Chicago. Then in
Wisconsin, I'll never forget. We were in a big arena, which
holds 5,000 or 6,000 people, and they handed me a letter
from one of the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and said,
"Would you please read this letter? He can't come, but he
wrote us a letter and we think that you could read it." I
read this with all the drama I could. Then I said "SIGNED"
and just after I said it, there was a huge clap of thunder
overhead. There was a rainstorm, and everybody started
laughing. Because it was as though God was signing the
letter.

AV: When did you start using music as a cause?

PS: My father was in the Communist party way back in the
late 1920s, early 30s. He thought music should be part of
the struggle. Although he was a classical musician and wrote
a column for the Daily Worker on the world of music, he also
started with the help of a few friends a group called the
Composer's Collective. They said, "If there's going to be a
new society, there must be a new music." At any rate, the
proletariat was not interested in what they were producing.
But before they disbanded, he thought they might put out a
fun little booklet called "Rounds About the Very Rich." We
all know rounds like Three Blind Mice and Frère Jacques but
he wrote a round: "Joy upon this earth, to live and see the
day/When Rockefeller Senior shall up to me and say/Comrade
can you spare a dime?" I know these well because I went on a
trip to the Adirondacks with my brother and a friend of his
and we sang these rounds of his together as we tromped
through the Adirondacks. So I was very well aware that music
could be part of the whole big struggle.

AV: Do you think there is a lot of protest music happening
now?

PS: It's all over the place. One magazine, Sing Out, is full
of protest songs. It started 30, 40 years ago. It nearly
went bankrupt in New York, but one of the volunteers took
out of the New York office a truckload of paper, and he
started Sing Out all over again. It's never been a big
seller, but it prints. My guess is that they're all around
the world, protest songs. Of course, I usually tell people
if the human race is still here in a hundred years, one of
the main things that will save us is the arts. I include the
visual arts, the dancing arts as well as the musical arts,
you might even include the cooking arts and the sports arts
- Nelson Mandela got Africa together with rugby. And China
used ping-pong.

AV: So what do you think music has had the most impact on?

PS: Plato supposedly said that it's very dangerous to have
the wrong kinds of music in the republic. There's an Arab
proverb that says "when the king puts the poet on his
payroll, he cuts off the tongue of the poet." I think
they're both right. Of course Plato was an extremely
conservative man. He thought that democracy was next to mob
rule. He didn't approve of democracy.

AV: Do you have a favorite song that you've performed or
written?

PS: I keep reminding people that an editorial in rhyme is
not a song. A good song makes you laugh, it makes you cry,
it makes you think. Now, Woody Guthrie will have his 100th
birthday this July 14. He wrote thousands of songs. Every
day of his life he was jotting down verses on a little pad
in his pocket and once his pad was full he'd get a new one.
We were riding in a plane once to sing for some strikers in
a union in Pittsburgh, and I was reading a newspaper or
magazine. Lee Hays, the bass singer, fell asleep, but Woody
was jotting down something on a piece of paper they had
given him and he left the piece of paper in his seat when he
got up to go. I went over to get it. He had verses about,
what are these people below us thinking as they see this
metal bird flying over their head, and what's the pretty
stewardess going to do tonight, where is she going to be. I
said "Woody, you should know how I envy you being able to
write songs like this." He literally wrote verses every day
of his life. And if he couldn't think of a verse, he'd go on
and write a new song. Quite often though, when he got his
verse written, he'd think of some old melody that people
knew which fit his verses.

AV: haven't you done that?

PS: There was an Irish lumberjack song, and I didn't know I
was using it or misusing it. But I was writing in an
airplane, and the verse of this Irish lumberjack song,
"Johnson says he'll load more hay, says he'll load ten times
a day." I was making up a verse: "Where have all the flowers
gone, long time passing." Well, it probably will reach more
people than any other song I've written. Marlene Dietrich
sang it around the world. When her youthful glamour was
gone, she had Burt Bacharach put together a small orchestra
and for several years she sang around the world. If she was
in an English-speaking country like Australia she'd sing it
in English, but if she was in Buenos Aires or Tokyo, she'd
sing the German verse. The German translation sings better
than the English: "Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind." When she
went back to Germany, the old Nazis were out to run her
down, "don't listen to this woman, she sang for the soldiers
fighting us!" But that very month her song was number one on
the German Hit Parade.

AV: How do you feel about your songs getting covered and
interpreted by so many other people?

PS: I'm very proud. It's a great honor to have different
people sing it - even if they sing them differently. Ani
Difranco got a group of young men, I think all 10, 11, 12
years old called Roots of Music, and they have a brass band,
trumpets and clarinets and so on down in New Orleans. They
used a song, which I recorded; I didn't write the song but I
recorded it with my banjo and it became well known: "Which
Side Are You On." By the time they got done rearranging it,
you wouldn't think it had anything to do with my song,
except the title.

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