For Pete’s Sake
Veteran folkie legend gets cool at MJF52.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Pete Seeger is one of the world’s quintessential activists, having played an important role in singing the songs and engaging in the struggles of the civil rights, free speech, human rights, anti-Vietnam War, environmental, peace, anti-nuclear, and social justice movements. He spans musical eras, from those who inspired him (Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly) to those he inspired (Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Bruce Springsteen, and Ani DiFranco). Seeger’s appearance at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival is in some ways a surprising choice, but in other ways consistent with his eclectic resume.
He’s led an epic life, full of amazing contributions to our culture and politics. In person, he conveys a comfortable, homespun way. He’s a modest soul, but it can be safely said that no one else has so successfully combined folk music and progressive politics.
In the late ’60s, Seeger shifted away from typical American folk music, embracing African music, Latin-American folk songs and other world music, and also became active in the environmental movement, drawing attention to pollution of the Hudson River with the activist group Clearwater, which teaches schoolchildren about water pollution. He and friends built the Clearwater Sloop, a reproduction of a 19th century cargo sloop, and sailed it up and down the river, spreading the word about pollution and raising public support to clean up the river. Because of these efforts and the efforts of many others, the Hudson River is now open for swimming in many places.
Seeger embodies the spirit of this nation. At 90, he’s quite humble, straight-backed and clear-eyed, as straightforward, sincere, and real as any living folk music icon might be. He remains opinionated, articulate, keenly aware of his place in history and, thankfully, has maintained his inimitable sense of hope and optimism.
I rang Pete at his home to get his very current views on the state of hope in his world, as we had not spoken since the election.
How is it you came out to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival?
One of our granddaughters is getting married in San Francisco, and after [his wife] Toshi flies home, I’m staying out for a few days for several performances with my grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who has been key to my getting out and performing at several big festivals lately, like the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and the Newport Folk Festival. I just as soon prefer to keep playing sing-alongs at the local schools for kids in Beacon. I am actually looking for a local school to play at out in California, and thanks to Bread and Roses, a great organization begun by my friend, the late Mimi Farina, I will be performing for some seniors while I am in town.
Do you have any memories of Monterey?
I know they have a very successful Jazz Festival. When my father was teaching music in Berkeley in 1915, he went out to Monterey to go swimming in the ocean. I was conceived in 1918 and born in 1919.
Will playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival be much of a musical stretch for you?
Actually, no. I played in the school jazz band when I was a teenager. It wasn’t until my musicologist father took me on a trip to Asheville, N.C., that I heard a five-string banjo. My life was forever altered!
Do you think jazz is as durable an American institution as folk music?
If we’re around in a hundred years, I suspect that jazz might well be considered the folk music of the 19th century, and the electric guitar the folk instrument of the 20th century. There have been so many genres. As my father said, the folk process has been going on for thousands of years in every field – cooks, farmers, doctors.
What are your views of current politics?
I’m more optimistic about the future of the United States than I’ve been since August 1945, when the truth sunk through my thick skull about the significance of the atom bomb. I tend to agree with Albert Einstein that everything has changed except our way of thinking. Our way of thinking is deep in our chromosomes. Two and a half million years ago, our ancestors started walking on two feet. Ever since then, we’ve loved to swing clubs and throw stones, which probably accounts for the popularity of baseball and cricket. When somebody does something that we think is outrageous, we want to kill them! I often tell audiences, “You realize that you and I, all of us, we are all descendants from good killers! The ones who were not good killers did not have descendants!”
We’re also descended from people who knew how to argue with each other. Most scientists agree that the reason our ancestors survived and there are no more Neanderthals in the world is that the Neanderthals probably didn’t have as good verbal skills. This is the part of the human heritage that we’ve got to develop now, how to cool it when we get angry, and see if there is some way we can reach those people. If words won’t reach those people, maybe we can try pictures. If pictures won’t do, let’s try melodies!
What were the first songs you heard that had a significant role in social protest?
I was only a teenager when I met Aunt Molly Jackson, a Kentucky miner’s wife and an accomplished midwife who delivered hundreds of children in this little mining community. She was outspoken (sings)
“I am a union woman, as brave as I can be, I do not like the bosses and the bosses don’t like me.”
My father was the one who, in a sense, got me thinking about radicals. Way back in 1929, like a lot of people, he thought the crash was the end of the free enterprise system. He started a group called the Composers Collective. Aaron Copland was a member and Marc Blitzstein and others, trying to think of what kind of music this new social situation demanded. However, their efforts were almost laughably failures. They went in for dissident, counterpoint – Schoenberg, Stravinsky and so on. The working people were quite uninterested in learning their songs. My father brought Aunt Molly around to the Composers Collective, and they listened to her, and said, “but Charlie, this is all music from the past, we are supposed to be composing music for the future.” He took Molly back to her apartment on the Lower East Side and he said, “Molly, I am sorry they did not understand you but I know some young people who are going to want to learn your songs.” And I was one of them.
Do you think what’s going on with the U.S. economy will ultimately steer the nation toward more socialistic policies?
When you use words like socialism and communism or for that matter freedom and justice, you have to pause and make sure the person you are talking with agrees with your use of the term. It’s almost a joke, the difference in definitions. The words “folk music” used to mean the music of the peasant class, ancient and anonymous. Now it means someone who plays an acoustic guitar and makes up songs and sings at the coffeehouse and tries to sell records.
What are you looking forward to?
Well, I’d like to live to see what is going to happen in the next 20 years because this is such an exciting period, truly the most exciting period I’ve ever lived through, with all the good and bad all tangled up. All you can do is laugh if you don’t cry.
What’s the most pronounced thing that you have seen that a protest song has been able to accomplish?
The Civil Rights Movement. Songs did a lot for unions, but the Civil Rights Movement would not have succeeded if it hadn’t been for all those songs, sung in jails and in picket lines and parades. People hummed them when they were most beaten.
What sort of advice do you have for young people?
Keep your sense of humor. There is a 50-50 chance that the world can be saved. You – yes, you – might be the grain of sand that tips the scales the right way. It’s a joyful, very exciting time. Live long! There are many people writing songs now. That’s absolutely wonderful. Who knows, there may be some kid in diapers and he or she might succeed in capturing in a few dozen words what great writers have spent years trying to say. Just the right word in the right place with the right melody behind it and the right rhythm.
It might get around the world inch by inch, and people realize that this world is in danger, that we’re in danger. That’s the way “This Land Is Your Land” got to be so well known.