Thursday, 1 March 2012

Music: Pete Seeger in real time

Seeger: 'We shall overcome...'

I first listened to Peter Seeger on a vinyl record as a teenager in Calcutta/ Kolkata. My Baba's best friend (whom we called Sadhan Kaka) had gone abroad with his family ~ and they left us some wonderful music on 33 1/3 r.p.m. discs until they returned from the UK. I was rivetted by the songs of protest and angst that Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others sang.

So, it was a really major thrill when, in 1996, Pete Seeger came to Bangalore, where I now live ~ and sang for us at the Guru Nanak Bhavan. Almost all of us in that audience sang along with him. It was an electrifying evening.

On the morning of that performance, I got lucky. I had an opportunity to interview Seeger. I'd like to share excerpts from that conversation with you.

Deep in my heart, I do believe…

‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender…’

ONCE Pete Seeger begins to strum on his banjo with this unusual inscription on it, he’s easy to believe. For his commitment is to the small things that make our world tick. And glow. And surrender its baser self. The little men. The unnoticed acts. The unsaid words. And all the tiny grains of sand that mould our shores, all the ripples that stir the ocean deep.

It could be when he’s singing in harmony with Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary American troubadour Woody Guthrie, at the Royal Albert Hall in London over ten years ago in the hard-hitting ‘Presidential Rag’ with which Arlo rocked the Nixon administration over Watergate:

You say that you didn’t know that the cats with the bugs were there
 And you’d never go along with that kind of stuff nowhere
But that just isn’t the point now, that’s the wrong, wrong way to go
If you didn’t know about that one, then what else don’t you know?

Or when Seeger’s freewheeling voice, strongly harmonizing with his grandson Tao Rodriguez onstage at Bangalore’s Guru Nanak Bhavan on November 14, belts out a universal satire on politicians, ‘The Ross Perot Guide to Answering Embarrassing Questions,’ that makes you tap your toes, snap your fingers, and lend your voice in chorus: “I lie, I simply boldly falsify/ I look the other feller in the eye/ And just deny, deny, deny? I lie…”

Yes, the iconoclastic activist of the American 50s and 60s was recently in Bangalore as part of a four-city Indian tour that culminated in Calcutta, where the Rabindra Bharati University conferred a D.Litt. (Honoris Causa) degree on the pacifist folk artist who, in December 1963, captivated a Calcutta audience of nearly 15,000 at the peak of his popularity. That’s when Pete Seeger had reluctantly been granted a passport by the US authorities after being on radio and TV blacklists across the land of milk and honey for 17 years for his championing of the unions, the downtrodden and the leftists. So, he and his wife Toshi Aline took their two children out of school for a year, and showed them the shape their world was in. This time round, at 77, his grassroots wisdom undimmed by age, Pete Seeger looks the world in the eye, whether he’s addressing a press conference at a Bangalore hotel or doing a jig across the stage to a children’s ditty at the sing-along concert.

Pete Seeger, whose reputation as a Sixties songwriter rests on words sung my millions globally, popularized by such voices as Trini Lopez, The Seekers and the Kingston Trio, is still comfortable with his compositions ~ Where have all the flowers gone, If I had a hammer, and Turn Turn Turn, among them. ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ ~ later the title of Seeger’s musical autobiography ~ was originally a Cossack soldier’s song he chanced upon in Mikhail Sholokov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, to which he added two telling phrases: ‘Long time passing’ and ‘When will they ever learn?’ Even today, the words and melodies of his timeless paeans to simplicity, his chants of decency and equality, trip easy off the tongue.

Seeger live: 'If I had a hammer....'

But has the never-say-die high priest of the American protest song ~ tutored by Woody Guthrie and Huddie ‘Leadbelly’ Ledbetter, revered by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez ~ been mellowed by the Clinton administration’s conferring of the National Medal of Arts on him at the Kennedy centre in 1994? He laughs at the very idea. For you can’t expect Pete Seeger to conform at any age, not since he dropped out of Harvard University in 1938 to hit the folk trail in America with a banjo on his shoulder and a dream in his heart. He overcame odds to become a researcher at the archives of American Folk Music at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. But you can’t quite stall a rolling stone, can you? By 1941, his group, The Almanac Singers, were touring America in support of the rights of working people. But World War II and a stint in the US army in the Pacific zone intervened. His vocal quartet, The Weavers, formed in 1949, soon struck recording gold ~ and fuelled the great American folk revival of the Fifties and Sixties.

But in the darker times ahead, in the thick of the McCarthy witch-hunt against the radical left, Seeger was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, defied them in song, and was sentenced to a year in jail. But higher courts granted him a reprieve. He was soon a free man.

Uncowed, Seeger continued to voice his commitment musically to causes that made his world turn, turn, turn. Imagine the Sixties in America. The Vietnam war. The student turmoil on campus. Rev. Martin Luther King’s civil rights rallies. And the powerful strains of Seeger singing for each cause he championed. At one of these massive gatherings, Seeger took an obscure Afro-American hymn written in 1903 and turned it into an international anthem for freedom. All he did was to replace the words “I shall overcome” in the original with “We shall overcome.” The rest is history, sung by voices attuned to the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, and songs about love among all people.

Seeger:; 'Where have all the flowers gone?'

This non-conformist crusader, who brooks no cant and can still hold the high notes, already has 170 albums and 1,700 songs to his credit. “You know,” he chuckles, “every time a radio station plays one of my songs, we get a penny in royalties. We aren’t exactly rich, but we are doing OK.”

Labels sit loosely on him, cubbyholes are an uncomfortable fit. For Seeger never has ploughed a trodden furrow, whether termed a commie, a leftist, an organizer, a guru. Or even a folk singer. “Strictly speaking, I’m not a folk singer,” he reiterates. “People singing the blues are, people singing gospel songs are. There are 4,000 different languages in the world, I believe, and as many different kinds of folk songs. To my mind, real folk music is at home in the kitchen. Or with the mother singing to a child.”

And he sings out his definitions even louder and clearer with a chuckle, “When the Smithsonian Institute brought out the record, The American Folk Song Revival, they found that the same song might have been a pop song at once point in history, or it may have been a folk song. Once everything goes commercial, a folk song handed down from guitar-picker to guitar-picker could become a pop song!... As for me, I sing some old songs, some new ones. Actually, more than singing, my main work has been in writing. In my recent book, I point out that in most of my songs, I borrowed a melody here, I took some words and changed them or added to them. So, I’m proud to have been a part of this folk process.”

In tune with all the answers that are blowing in the wind, does Seeger ~ who was keen to inspect the Ganga project after mobilizing support for a cleaner Hudson River, on whose banks he’s lived for years ~ see room for hope? “I ask you all. Did you expect the Pentagon to leave Vietnam the way it did,” he quips. “And did you expect Nixon to leave the way he did, after Watergate? Did you expect the Berlin Wall to come down as peacefully as it did? Or did you expect to see Mandela as president of South Africa? Well, if you could not predict those with confidence, how can you say there’s no hope?”

In an open pre-tour letter to friends in India, Seeger had written: “With my grandson Tao to help me (he takes the lead on many songs ~ my voice is 50 per cent gone), I am trying to tell a story of how some of us keep hope for the world.”

The prosecution of Pete Seeger: PBS documentary

Yes, every tiny voice, every little mite, every signal of quiet amidst disquiet counts in Seeger’s world. He spontaneously enchants us with a song about the vagaries of the English language, its lyrics packing both a punch and a pun. As you strum along, hum along, sing along with Seeger, you agree with the optimistic balladeer that seeds of peace can sprout amidst weeds of war, nurturing causes he now holds dear, such as universal literacy, population control, and a pollution-free world. Here’s evidence in excerpts from an interview in Bangalore, in which Seeger rejects rhetoric for honesty with a twinkle in his eye, a lilt in his voice and, often enough, a song on his lips:

What made you write your first songs? And what sparks your songs now?

Well, as a kid, I wrote poems…I’ve never really thought of myself as a songwriter. I wish I were. People like Bob Dylan and Phil Oakes write song after song. I’m lucky if I get one song written a year. Two or three maybe. I guess I’m better with tunes than words.

My grandson Tao and I were trying out the idea for a song. I love to eat sweets and, if I don’t watch out, my belt won’t buckle. So, our song’s about “Shrinking is progress”… Well, the whole world’s full of human beings and they’re doubling every 42 years. One of these days (chuckling), we’ll realize that shrinking is progress.

Have you done songs about the population boom?

I’ve tried to do one. It’s not a very good one. (Tapping on his knees to keep the beat). It goes like this:

We’ll all be a-doubling, a-doubling, a-doubling
We’ll all be a-doubling in 42 years
2 and 2 makes 4, 2 times 4 is 8,
2 times 8 is 16,
And the hour is getting late…
Double ten more generations
You could have children more than a million
Double just another 20 generations
You could have children more than a trillion…

Incidentally, have people in India ever heard of Nechai Viravaidyn of Bangkok? If somebody in Bangkok wants to buy a condom, they ask for a Nechai. He’s become the television personality of family planning. He holds balloon contests, he has jokes of all sorts, he hands out prizes to taxi drivers who sell condoms. He’s even persuaded the Thai government to hand out agricultural and family planning information together. So, when a farmer comes to get seeds, he gets the message: To be a prosperous farmer, you don’t neeed a lot of sons… 

What was it like to share special moments with Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly?

Well, (the commanding black troubadour) Leadbelly was older than I. I was 22 when we met, he was in his 50s. I think he was kind of amused to see a young white boy trying to learn his music, the blues. But we did end up giving concerts together. Tragically, he died six months before his song, Goodnight Irene, became the biggest hit of 1950.

To Woody, too, I must have seemed like a strange kid. He once said: “Seeger doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t chase girls…” But he must have liked my banjo playing, so he allowed me to tag along with him. We sang for over two years before World War II. Then we started a little organization called Peoples’ Songs. It eventually became a magazine called Sing Out, which was eight pages then, now it’s nearly 200. Woody would be surprised! We print Jewish and American Indian folk songs. Bob Dylan’s and Phil Oakes’ songs… I’ve had a column in the magazine for 50 years now.

Seeger: 'Waist-deep in the big muddy'

Is your column about the causes you sing about?

I’d say our main cause is to persuade people to turn off the TV and do something themselves. I wish every TV set had a message on it: “Life was meant to be lived, not to watch other people live.’

I’m really interested in the literacy programme in India, especially in Kerala. Not just me. There’s a 16-year-old Brazilian boy I met in New Delhi, Alexander Ferraz Tabor, who’s a computer freak. We came up with a plan. We’re going to try and persuade computer companies to give prizes to any village that can show it is 100 per cent literate. If all the old people, young people, men and women can read 30 words a minute, the village will get a prize. A computer! Then, everybody in the world will learn to read and write. 

Now, I have a question. Do they have to know English to use a computer? Or can they use it in their own language?

That’s possible in a number of Indian languages…

Maybe we should reach Sam Pitroda, who got a telephone to every Indian village… Alexander’s on the Internet. He just might be able to pull together young people in different countries. It could become a world movement (Enthusiastically) If any of your readers pick up the idea, they could get in touch with Alexander…

Do you sense a song brewing about it?

Perhaps someone here should make up a song. There’s a great temptation to say you have to be rich and powerful to do anything. (Fervently) One of my main purposes in life is to persuade people that’s not true.

You know, when Woody wrote his song This land is my land, this land is your land, it wasn’t published until years later. But it went from guitar-picker to guitar-picker until the whole country knows it now. It’s almost one of the best-known songs in America, but it was never promoted by a big company, it never made a lot of money. It did get him into the school songbooks, which helped. It got into summer camps, into little churches, and people like me took it around and got the crowd singing. Woody had the genius of simplicity. While a lot of people writing songs have too many words, he knew how to use few words to hit the nail on the head. That’s not easy.

What was it like to hit the folk music trail in 1938, when you opted out of Harvard?

I could have been killed a couple of times. I was trying to ride the freight trains without knowing how, but I survived and I saw my country without having money. I’d advise young people to travel when they’re young. It’s very hard to travel when you have a family.

My wife Toshi really is a heroine for the family. She kept them together while I was all over the country. One year, I was away 75 per cent of the time, traveling.

Did your experiences while traveling chime in with the ideas you set out with?

Sure, I discovered that working people may speak different languages and have different religions, but their interests are basically the same. Marx was right: “Workers of the world, unite!’

But ‘unite’ is an over-simplification, perhaps like most words are. My father, who was a musicologist, used to say: “Beware the lingocentric predicament!’ Ever hear of that? Well, the ethnocentric predicament is an anthropological term to explain why you never understand another culture because you’re always looking at it through your own value system. People who use words should remember that no two people attach the same exact meaning to a word. Obviously a house is not the same to an Eskimo as to a Hawaiian, or to a rich man and a poor man. And words like freedom, democracy, liberty and folk music all mean different things to different people.

If I was a better songwriter, I’d write a song about over-simplification. It reminds me of my father, who said, ‘Truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch.’ You circle around it, but you can’t actually put your finger on it.

How did your music contribute to the success of the Hudson River project?

I encouraged other musicians, hundreds of them, to come along, including jazz musicians, blue singers, gospel musicians. My grandson Tao is just one of them. He keeps singing on our sailboat, The Clearwater, to up to 15,000 children a year, whom he ferries up and down. (Energetically) About one-third of the money comes from rich people, but two-thirds comes from concerts and festivals.

What about your concert for the Seeds of Peace project for a Middle Eastern children’s summer camp in New York?

It all began some ten years ago when some peace-loving Jews met some peace-loving Arabs. The Arabs went to Syria or Jordan, the Jews went to Tel Aviv, where they met some kids longing to come to this camp. So, they raised the funds and crossed the ocean. Can you imagine the big job these kids (between 11 and 16) have when they get home: “You mean you slept in the same room as an enemy?”

Does it feel strange for an anti-establishment person like you to be recognized by the US government?

Yes, (laughing aloud), hilarious!

Did you ever toy with the idea of declining the award?

Well, I never expected it all to happen. Six years ago a businessman in California, who liked my music, wrote to me: ‘I think you should get a Kennedy award. Would you accept it?’ I wrote back: ‘Yes, I would.’ I never thought it would come to be. I finally met him at the Kennedy Centre banquet hall and asked, “How many letters did you have to write?” He said, “Over 300. My secretary wrote them.” I said, “Then your secretary should be here.” One of his letters reached the movie actor Gregory Peck, who agreed: ‘Seeger may be a radical, but he’s had some influence.’ (Chuckling). And so it went, until finally the committee thought: Yeah, we could get away with it.

Looking around, do you sense breezes of hope?

Yes, there’ve been lots of little victories. The Hudson River was one of them. We’re swimming in it again. About 30 years ago, swimming in the Hudson was like swimming in a toilet bowl. We’re still working on New York City.

I tell people: If there’s a world in a 100 years, it will not be ~ to my belief ~ because of any big organization, any big government, any big church, any big university, any big corporation or anything! It will be there because of tens of millions, for all I know hundreds of millions, of little organizations. Small businesses, small churches, small educational institutions, small publications, small media, small political parties. And we’ll disagree about so many things, (grinning) it’ll be hilarious! But we’ll agree about two main things. It’s better to talk than to shoot, right? And bombs always kill innocent people. Whether it’s bacteriological or chemical warfare, the victims are always innocent women and children.

When words fail, and they will fail from time to time, well… I say: try the arts, pictures, melodies, rhythms, dancing.

You know, there are rather better banjo players in the world than me, but I always claim I make the best strawberry shortcake. (Shares the secret recipe with the rhythmic flurry of an action song, smiling through).

(Originally published in Sunday Herald, December 15, 1996)


  1. Lovely interview. Really like the youtube clips you've chosen as background score to the interview with the great Pete 'growing' from youth to maturity.

    1. Super happy that you enjoyed it, Asha. And smiling now that I was able to find the right music cues, despite being a newbie blogger. Lovely to have your feedback in blog-land. Thanks.