If I Had a Song: A Conversation With Pete Seeger

Folk legend Pete Seeger sings out for justice.


| November-December 2001


Like Woody Guthrie before him, Pete Seeger has long been synonymous with social justice and song. With such classic songs as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to his credit, the 82-year-old folksinger has inspired generations of people struggling for social change. Seeger, whose father was a famous musicologist and conscientious objector, developed his political views at an early age and aspired to a career in journalism, inspired by radical writers Lincoln Steffens, Mike Gold, and other contributors to his favorite magazine, New Masses. Mountain music grabbed him when he heard a five-string banjo at a North Carolina folk festival in 1936.

A few years later, he was singing union songs in a group called the Almanac Singers that he’d formed with Woody Guthrie and others. In the ’50s, Seeger enjoyed commercial success with the Weavers, then collided with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which subpoenaed him in 1955 as part of its campaign to rid the country of communists. He refused to cooperate (citing his rights under the First Amendment, not the Fifth), and a federal court in 1961 sentenced him to a year in prison for contempt. His conviction was overturned on appeal the next year.

A veteran of most every major social movement in 20th-century America, Seeger today lives with his wife, Toshi, in the Hudson River valley and devotes most of his time to environmental and peace issues. But he’s still singing, as he proves with the recent release of a new album, If I Had a Song. He’s not sure how much longer he’ll be performing. “My memory isn’t very good anymore,” he says. “I forget the words to the songs.” Nevertheless, he was back on stage two days after the World Trade Center catastrophe trying to lift the spirits of a college crowd. The next morning, he spoke by phone with executive editor Craig Cox from his home near Beacon, New York.

What have you been reading these days?

I read Granny D’s book, Walking Across America in My Ninetieth Year, not once, but twice. It’s a very important book. I’ve also read Seedfolks, a short but very good book by Paul Fleischman about a community garden in downtown Cleveland, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

What magazines and newspapers do you read regularly?