If I Had a Song: A Conversation With Pete Seeger

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?

I look at several dozen. When I’m in an airport, I skim Forbes and Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and many others. The publications I’m not likely to find there are the ones I get at home: Utne Reader, In These Times, UU the Unitarian magazine, and Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation magazine.

You were involved in the launch of the folk music magazine Sing Out!, weren’t you?

Sing Out! started 51 years ago. Paul Robeson showed up to celebrate with us that day. A little magazine that I helped to edit, People’s Songs, had gone bankrupt about a year and a half earlier, and Sing Out! started up with a similar staff. The magazine slowly grew through the ’50s, and in 1964, during what’s known as the Great Folk Scare, they printed all of 20,000 copies for several issues, but I don’t think we sold more than 10,000. In the ’70s the circulation sagged, and in 1982 they too were about to go bankrupt. But this time a batch of volunteers got together and saved it.

Do you look at TV news?

Hardly ever. In the last few days I’ve been looking at it, but I mainly look at television in winter to see what the weather is going to be to see if I can go skating. And in the summer, I’ll see whether it’s going to rain or not. But I really don’t bother looking at TV for the news or for other things.

Does your town have a local newspaper?

Not anymore. There is a weekly free paper, mainly advertisements, church notices, and a few other things, and I do read it every few weeks or so. They have a rather lovely historical column, and the woman who writes it asked me to read the Declaration of Independence two or three years ago to mark the Fourth of July. Every year for 200 years, someone has read the Declaration of Independence on the main street of nearby Fishkill. Four hundred people turned out. One person elbowed his way up to the front and read a statement: “It is outrageous that this man, who is an enemy of the United States, is being allowed to recite this year.” But he was booed. I wrote him a letter and said, “I’m sorry they booed you; you had a right to speak.”

A friend of mine told me he wrote to you years ago after seeing you perform and was astonished to get a reply. Do you correspond with a lot of people?

I write very short letters that I often put on postcards. I write mostly with a pen. I don’t know how to use a typewriter well anymore, and I don’t have a secretary. But if I read something that I’m enthusiastic about–something good or bad–I try to respond.

Your new album, If I Had a Song, brings together some marvelous talent, from Steve Earle and Joan Baez to Billy Bragg and Dar Williams. It must be gratifying to see younger folks committed to carrying on the work you’ve nurtured over the years.

There are some extraordinary young people writing songs–of course, I say anyone under 50 is young–like John McCutcheon, Greg Brown, Stephan Smith, and Pat Humphries. And there’s Holly Near out on the West Coast. After the murder of Harvey Milk in San Francisco about 20 years ago, she wrote an extraordinary song she sang at the funeral, “We Are a Gentle and Angry People and We Are Singing, Singing for Our Lives.” That song will go down in history.

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