Can I Keep From Singing?
Pete Seeger looks back at a life of stories and songs—and ahead to
the next verse
by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers 2002
Few individuals have enriched our musical lives in as many ways, and for as many years, as Pete Seeger. As a young Harvard dropout in the late '30s, he collected songs with Alan Lomax; in the '40s, he hardwired folk music and politics with Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers; in the '50s, he helped spark the folk revival with the Weavers; and he's piped up at countless concerts and rallies around the world ever since. Along the way, he's written, adapted, popularized, or otherwise spread an incredible array of songs ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Wimoweh," "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "If I Had a Hammer," "We Shall Overcome," "Guantanamera". . .) and inspired generations of pickers with his high-energy 12-string guitar and banjo work. And he has taught us how it's done, from his pioneering 1943 book How to Play the Five-String Banjo to his lucid explanations of Leadbelly's guitar style, how to make and play steel drums, and much more. Through all this, Seeger's mission has not been to bask in the spotlight but to shine it on us, offering us the tools and encouragement to raise our voices in song and protest. As Seeger strides ahead in his 80s, a rack of recent releases testifies to the vitality of his music and life. To name a few: two volumes of The Songs of Pete Seeger collect tributes by artists from Ani DiFranco to Bruce Springsteen; a reissued/expanded Greatest Hits set brings us his own classic performances from the '60s; and Pete Seeger's Storytelling Book shares some of his favorite yarns, including several that he starts and, in typical fashion, asks us to finish. And the man once indicted by Congress and blacklisted from national television and major concert venues finds himself honored by the Kennedy Center and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recognized as a pillar of American music and society. For all of his activities and activism in so many fields, Seeger truly lives in song, and he seems incapable of talking for more than three minutes without breaking into one. I reached him at his home in Beacon, New York, alongside a Hudson River much cleaner thanks in no small part to his efforts. You are closely associated with the banjo, but you've also made a big contribution to guitar music. How did you learn to play? Seeger : When I was around 21, I jumped off a freight train and broke my banjo, and the only cheap instrument I could get—it was five dollars at a local hock shop—was a small guitar. And I quickly learned the chords so I could play in a few primary keys. I used a flatpick—bass/chord, bass/chord, that's all I knew—and discarded that guitar as soon as I could get a good banjo again. But when I was around 30, Leadbelly died, and I and many people said, "Gee, why didn't we learn how he played the 12-string?" A friend got me started with Travis picking, so I learned a bit about Leadbelly's guitar style and about Travis picking. Leadbelly didn't play fancy chords, but boy, what beautiful bass lines he made up. I also went down to the Bahamas once and looked up Joseph Spence. He was a very cordial man, and he played everything in dropped-D tuning. I'd played in dropped D occasionally, but I found out how nice it was to play all the time. I guess I must play 95 percent of the time now in dropped D. Was it long after Leadbelly died that you began working on the book A Folksinger's Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly? Seeger Oh, yeah, long after he died. You know, my basic philosophy in life is that I'm a teacher trying to teach people to participate, whether it's banjos or guitars or politics or whatever. What initially attracted you to the banjo? Seeger: I love rhythm. It was vigorous, and I was young and full of vigor. I just loved "John Henry" and "Old Joe Clark," nice, sparkling songs like that. As the years go by I find, of course, that I also like other songs. I find myself playing the slow, two-part melody out of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. How did you learn to play? Seeger: Well, old Bascom Lunsford, who was a country lawyer in Asheville, North Carolina, put on one of the first outdoor Appalachian festivals, the Asheville Mountain Song and Dance Festival–this was 1936. That's where I heard Aunt Samantha Bumgarner in her rocking chair, rocking and picking a banjo and singing old ballads and having so much fun, with a big grin on her face. Bascom later found I was playing a tenor banjo; he says, "Oh, you should play a five-string, and here's what you do: you pluck up on that middle string, now you pluck up on that first string, and now you put your thumb on that little fifth string, and you get this pattern: boom pick-a, boom pick-a, boom pick-a, boom." And so in five minutes he taught me the basics. In 1940, I took the whole summer hitchhiking west and south. A teacher in New York had said, "My cousin Rufus in Kentucky can show you a lot about the banjo," so I aimed for his house, and that's where I learned a little clawhammer playing. Did those patterns apply to the guitar? Seeger: They certainly helped my dexterity; however, I had to learn a lot about syncopation and so on before I was able to play "Freight train, freight train, goin' so fast." My brother and sister learned directly from Libba [Elizabeth Cotten, who worked for the Seegers as a maid]. I would go down to visit them in Washington [D.C.] and marvel at what she was doing, but I couldn't figure what it was. Ten years later I got it. However, I once played it to her, and she said, "You're not playing it right at all! You're playing it in D; I always do it in C." I played it in dropped D. I still like it in dropped D—you get a lot of open strings. Your banjo book introduced a new way to teach music, reviving tablature and coining now-standard terms like hammer-on and pull-off. How did you arrive at your approach? Seeger: I was in the army 55 years ago when my father says, "Peter, do you realize that not many people have your knowledge of writing as well as knowledge of the banjo? Have you ever thought of putting out a banjo manual?" I really didn't know a thing about banjo manuals, except that I didn't like the ones I had seen, which were too technical. And they weren't very funny, didn't entice you to read further. So I took some students, and for about ten weeks we had a weekly lesson. One of the students was Eric Weissberg [who recorded the Deliverance theme "Dueling Banjos"], and within a month or two he was playing rings around me. His father was a photographer, took a picture of him with an astronaut's hat on, a space suit, and holding a picture of the Weavers in his hand. Eleven-year-old Eric Weissberg. After teaching them, I was off to try and help Henry Wallace get elected president, a spectacular failure. But in the hotels I had hours to sit around every day while Mr. Wallace was being interviewed, so I typed up mimeograph stencils, and the original banjo book was, I think, 59 pages. I mimeographed 100 copies, and they sold in four years. You used tablature in that book, yet you've taught standard notation elsewhere. Seeger: Yeah, I wrote a book called Henscratches and Flyspecks, persuading people that it's not really that hard to learn how to read music. You don't need to be scared of it. My mother, who was a violin teacher, tried to get me to learn music at an early age, but I rebelled, as did my older brothers. When I came along, my father sensibly said, "Oh, let Peter enjoy himself." What she did was leave musical instruments around the house–not just a piano and an organ but a squeeze box with buttons and a pennywhistle in C and a marimba, a wooden marimba with mallets that I could go plinkety-plunk. By the time I was five, I could pick out a tune on all these instruments, and I knew what made a major chord different from a minor chord, even though I didn't have a name for it. And that if you raised the fifth note of your major chord you got a strange new thing. My mother said, "That's called an augmented chord." I didn't bother calling it that; I just played it. I was eight years old when I learned Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," and that great augmented chord comes in the second bar. So I knew a hell of a lot about music without knowing the names for anything. I could tell you all the pop songs of 1927, '28, '29, '30. My mother gave me a ukulele in '27. [Sings] "He's just a sentimental gentleman from Georgia, Georgia / Gentle to the ladies all the time / And when it comes to lovin'/ He's a real professor, yes sir / Just a Mason Dixon Valentine" [laughs]. I knew the words were silly, but I was intrigued by the cleverness of the harmonies; and then later I realized that cleverness is not enough in this world. I loved these old folk songs that had one or two or, at most, three chords. That's when I met Woody Guthrie, and he was leery of trying a lot of chords. Even songs that demanded that double dominant, he would not do it. Like "Do Re Mi," he used the tune of a country song [sings], "Hang out the front door key, babe / Hang out the front door key," and if you're playing in G, you should hit an A major seven there. Woody refused to. He was rebelling against all that cleverness, and he would hit a plain D7. Did your interest in folk music lead you to songs with political content, or did the two go hand in hand? Seeger: It really went hand in hand. We had an idea that working people were going to be the saviors of the world, and we should learn more about working people's music. And the most honest working people's music was the old country songs, even when they weren't strictly working people's . . . I mean "Greensleeves" is obviously not a working person's song. It was a pop song of the 16th century. What did you, as a musician, learn from Woody? Seeger: I learned the genius of simplicity. He didn't try and get fancy, he didn't try to show how clever he was. He had done a lot of thinking, and he read voraciously. I remember the time he got hold of Rabelais and got through it all in one or two days, and in the following weeks you could see him trying some of the same stylistic tricks of piling on adjective after adjective. However, he once said, "I must steer clear of Walt Whitman's swimmy waters." I think he decided that if he was going to write songs, he wanted the lines to rhyme, and he liked things to be in meter. Woody Guthrie wrote some of the country's most truly great songs. Not just "This Land Is Your Land," but "So Long (It's Been Good to Know You)" and "Do Re Mi" and the one that I think may be widely sung in the coming century in Spanish, "Deportees." A Chicano in California, a Puerto Rican, and now somebody in Ecuador, I understand, have made translations of it. The metaphor comparing throwing food away to throwing people away—get rid of those people, we don't need them. Woody wrote songs at such an incredible rate. How did that affect you? Seeger: I was deeply envious to see how quickly he could write songs. Once we flew to Pittsburgh in '46 to sing for the Westinghouse workers on strike; while Lee [Hays] went to sleep and I read a magazine, Woody made up verse after verse after verse about the towns we were flying over, wondering what life was like in those towns, and then looking at the pretty stewardess and wondering what her life was like, and then he gets up and leaves these pages in the seat. He literally wrote verses everywhere he was every day. When Alan Lomax met him, he said, "Woody, do you realize you are like the person who wrote the ballads of Robin Hood? Your job in life is to write ballads—don't let anything distract you from writing ballads." Had you written songs before meeting Woody? Seeger: Nope. When my mother once asked me to write a song for her father, my grandfather, who died, I was surprised. "Why does she think I know how to write a song?" I wrote poems occasionally for the school magazine, but they weren't worthy of being songs. But I met Woody and got the idea you could write songs. I first tried putting new words to old tunes, which is what he did, and found that I was better at putting new tunes to old words. From your perspective, is songwriting more about borrowing and rearranging than pulling something entirely new out of the air? Seeger: Have you heard the latest song that I sing everywhere called "Arrange and Rearrange"? It has a four-letter word in it, and I am delighted I am able to get huge audiences to sing shit. It's right in the chorus, [sings] "Oh-wee, oh-wye, and only have to shit a little shit." I had 3,000 Quakers singing it a few years ago. You get an idea for a song, and nobody knows where it came from. I guess psychologists have said there are right and left halves of the brain, and sometimes the brain puts things together that you could never have done consciously, whether it's a melody or phrase. On the other hand, I quote Edison's dictum, "Genius is five percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration." I got the idea for the last line of "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" ("and the big fool says to push on") all at once. It came to me in a flash when I was looking at a picture of American troops wading across the Mekong River. It was such a good idea, I couldn't let it go. But I struggled with it for two or three weeks before I got a usable song. As far as instrumentals go, you've said that "Living in the Country" is one guitar piece that stands out for you. Seeger: I am really proud that Leo Kottke did it, and I understand that some piano players made a record of it too. I just improvised it. I was trying to play "Pay Me My Money Down," which my sister Peggy had been singing, and all of a sudden I had a new tune. And, as of last month I have put, of all things, words to it—not to my tune, but to what Frank Hamilton improvised. We made a Folkways record years ago called Nonesuch, and on a steel-string guitar, he played three notes above the melody of "Living in the Country," and it was a melody all on its own. So I am now sending this to my long-suffering publisher and saying melody by Frank Hamilton, words by Pete Seeger. [Sings] "If you would be patient and teach me I think that I could learn to dance." It's the best love song I've ever written. I wrote those words ten years ago, but I couldn't figure what to make of the rest of it until just three weeks ago. Are there things that have happened to songs you wrote or popularized that have particularly surprised you? Seeger: It happens all the time. I was particularly surprised that anybody did anything with "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." I only had three verses, and I sang it as a slow air, with two other very short songs; I called them my "Short Shorts." After a year, I went on to other songs and stopped singing it—it was a nice song, but I didn't think it was that great. What happened was that Joe Hickerson heard my song on a Folkways record and sang it at summer camp to see what the kids thought of it. The kids started kidding around with him, "Where have all the counselors gone? Broken curfew every one," and by the end of the summer, the two verses that Joe added, "Where have all the soldiers gone?" and "Where have all the graveyards gone?" seemed to make a nice circle out of it. That's the way the kids took it back to New York, and that's where Peter, Paul, and Mary started singing it, thinking it was an old folk song, and that's where the Kingston Trio got it, thinking it was an old folk song. I gave Joe 20 percent of the royalties–it was lucky I didn't give him 50 percent, because I now think I should send 20 percent to Russia, because that's where the original idea came from. The three verses were out of the middle of an old Russian song, "Koloda Duda." I am now trying to figure how to send some money to the Archive of Folk Song, whether they are in St. Petersburg or Moscow. All around the world, songs are being written that use old public domain material, and I think it's only fair that some of the money from the songs go to the country or place of origin, even though the composer may be long dead or unknown. That's why 50 percent of the story-song "Abiyoyo" is going to South Africa, because "Abiyoyo" is an old lullaby. And with "Turn! Turn! Turn!" [based on Ecclesiastes in the Bible], I wanted to send 45 percent, because [in addition to the music] I did write six words and one more word repeated three times, so I figured I'd keep five percent of the royalties for the words. I was going to send it to London, where I am sure the committee that oversees the use of the King James version exists, and they probably could use a little cash. But then I realized, why not send it to where the words were originally written? So we're sending some money to help the Israeli Committee for Arab Home Defense, which is trying against all logic to persuade Arabs that not all Israeli Jews are evil, selfish people. Isn't a song's origin often hard to pinpoint? Seeger: Well, yeah, you're quite right. "Abiyoyo" might have been made up by another tribe, not the Xhosa people, a thousand years ago, and who knows? I want to persuade the rest of the Weavers that we should send some money to the Irish folk song archives for the song "Kisses Sweeter than Wine." It's an old Irish song: [sings] "Mush-a sweeter than thou." It was a song about a dead cow. This Irish artist sang it to Leadbelly, and Leadbelly started singing it, but he put an African rhythm to it. And along comes Lee Hays and puts words to it, and it's still being sung after all these decades. I sing it at every wedding I'm at. Do you think that given the way communication and immigration happens these days, music travels around the world in a different way? Seeger: Undoubtedly it is happening faster, and over broader distances than ever before. You can only laugh if you don't cry. The rich are getting richer and the poor are being left behind the eight ball and getting more and more angry. I don't think there will be a human race here in 100 years unless the rich countries realize it's in everybody's interest that everybody in the world have a job and be decently fed and clothed. And when some people have billions, so their only worry is, "How can I make more billions?" or "How am I going to give away all my billions?" that becomes a big problem. It's a very bad situation. In an upside-down way, maybe out of this terrible tragedy in New York–I know two people who were killed there–maybe the better nature of the USA will come to the surface and say, "No, dropping more bombs is not going to solve this problem. It's just going to make people angrier. What will solve it is finding out why they are so angry and finding ways to stop the anger." Do you know Granny D.? At age 88, she told her son, "Drive me to Los Angeles," and she started walking to Washington ten miles a day. Her most recent letter comes out with this statement; I xeroxed it and carry it around in my pocket. Listen: "We cannot kill our way to love and respect, where our only true security resides." Well me, at nine years younger than she is, I say, amen. Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar magazine, July 2002, No. 115.