Mar 4, 2008
Jim Capaldi

Pete Seeger: “I Feel Optimistic”

The 88-year-old spiritual godfather of American folk music discusses Dylan, Springsteen, Bush and Obama

ANDY GREENEPosted Feb 27, 2008 7:42 AM

This week PBS will debut Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, which traces the eighty-eight year-old folk legend’s life from his time with the Weavers through the Joe McCarthy witch hunts to his days as elder statesmen of the folk community. It’s loaded with archival footage of Seeger singing such classics as “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “If I Had A Hammer” and interviews with fans such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks. Seeger called into Rolling Stone recently to chat about the documentary, his memories of Bob Dylan and Lead Belly — as well his thoughts on the presidential election.

What do you think of the new documentary?
Well, it’s too much a eulogy if you ask me. It didn’t tell all the stupid things I’ve done. I’ve done hundreds of stupid things.

Tell me one.
Not realizing that I had an extraordinarily talented wife, and there were things that she wanted to do sometimes. But she put them aside to help me do the things that I wanted to do. She was an artist and projects that she undertook ended up having to put aside because my projects took precedent.

The film also has the nice things that I’ve done. I’ve had some good songs if I say so myself. The best songwriting I did was to think of three new words for an old gospel song, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The old song used to end “Soldiers of the cross,” and I wanted to sing it for all sorts of people, whether they were Christians or Jews or Atheists or what. And now I simply sing ‘Brothers, sisters, all,’ and then after a couple of verses, I say, ‘Sisters, brothers, all.’ It sings well, and they have a nice shot in the movie of the whole crowd joining in with me on it.

Were you opposed to the idea of a documentary when they first approached you?
Well, it’s created problems that I never foresaw. I usually joke that I was protected all my life by my left wing reputation. Now, the telephone rings every five minutes and the mail comes in by a half bushel a day. “Mr. Seeger, will you please sign autographs for these pictures? Will you come to our school and speak to the children? Will you accept this award?” Just answering the mail takes up most of the free time I used to have.

What did you think of Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions album?
Oh, it was a great honor. He’s an extraordinary person, as well as an extraordinary singer. He told me that he got one of my records and was playing it at his house, and his 10-year-old daughter said, “Hey, that sounds like fun.” And all of a sudden, he says, “I pricked up my ears.”

You met Bob Dylan right at the beginning of his career. Were you surprised just how far he went?
He’s an absolute fantastic songwriter and thinker. He put out that John Wesley Harding record, and I used to put it on the outdoor speaker and play it over and over while I was skating in the backyard.

What’s your first memory of Dylan?
It was down in Greenwich Village. I knew a lot of people down there and they said you got to hear this guy. I heard him once, and I asked him to be on a Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall. I remember sitting down at a long table with a batch of other people who were going to be on and said, “Folks, we only have time to sing three short songs because we all have about ten minutes a piece.” I had asked too many people to be on the program. And this skinny guy raises his hand with a wry smile, I said, “What is it?” He says, “Well, one of my songs takes ten minutes.” It was, “Where have you been my blue-eyed son? Where have you been my darling young one? And it’s hard, hard. Hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” What a song!

What comes to mind when you think about your time with Lead Belly?
Extraordinary physical strength, yet he spoke very softly. I was nineteen and I was visiting Alan Lomax in New York where he was briefly studying anthropology at Columbia. This man of a little more than medium height came in wearing a suit, and Alan said, “Oh, Lead Belly, you should meet Charlie Seeger’s son, Pete.” I shook hands with him. And I got the impression of a very strong man, but keeping himself politely in reserve. He walked light on his feet, like a prizefighter. When he sang out, it came out in this extraordinary strength, a very strong tenor. He sang “Irene, Good Night” way up in the key of A. And people had to reach to make those notes, but it was right in the center of his range.

What do you think of Obama?
I guess if I had my choice, he’d be the one. I would’ve liked Kucinich. However, what I am for is I.R.V. Most people don’t even know what it is: Instant Recount Voting. When you vote, you vote for your first choice, your second choice and your third choice. I went to a school where we had proportional voting and that’s the way we voted for the student council. If your favorite already made it onto the council, then your second choice counted.

So you’d vote first for someone like Dennis Kucinich first?
That’s right. And if he didn’t make it, I’d vote for Obama and if he didn’t make it, I’d vote for Hillary. If she didn’t make it, I’d vote for Huckabee. Huckabee is a good speaker! He’s the most radical speaker of any of them.

Do you think America is on the verge of leaving these dark times with the impending election?
I’m absolutely convinced that the extraordinary tradition in America of speaking your mind has saved us decade after decade after decade. Right now I’m more optimistic than I was after Hiroshima. I felt then that surely it would only be 20 or 30 years until another of those bombs would be dropped and if we weren’t killed, we’d be poisoned by the fallout.

So you think the pendulum is going to shift back after eight years of Bush?
Well, I describe it this way. You know, if you bounce a ball on the sidewalk, the harder you throw it down, the higher it bounces. So, we may have some very good things happening. But who knows? There could be dirty tricks still tried.

17 Comments

  • Hm, I didn’t know that Dylan song took ten minutes. That’s a great memory that Pete shared!

  • Thank you, Mr. Seeger. Thank you SO very much. Having grown up, older and hopefully wiser to your music it warms my heart that you are still “optimistic”. I hope you have occasion to see Ben Stein’s commentary on campaign ’08 from the Mar 2 edition of CBS Sunday Morning; he speaks quite eloquently on how the coming election is a step like no other in recent memory (I think it’s available on their website). It is truly amazing how far we have come in our lifetimes. And while we still have so far to go, I too am optimistic and looking forward to the next presidency with enthusiasm I have not felt in many years.

    Your sound and spirit still enhances my life every day…. you’re on this old broad’s iPod! Good health and great spirit continue to be with you….
    Melissa
    Newalla OK

  • Thanks to Pete for all he has contributed to our country – musically, spiritually and politically. One of the greatest in history. AND thank you to his wife for her wonderful energy. It would be interesting to hear more from her.

  • I wanted to get this message to Pete – I watched the PBS show last week, and heard an NPR interview this past year in which you talked about not having as strong a voice now, at your age. I just saw Willie Nelson on the Jay Leno show. Not sure how old Nelson is, but his voice is as strong as ever. This is what strikes me, musicians do not lose their voice as they age, quite often. And, it also struck me how much Willie’s voice reminds me of your voice, Pete Seeger. You are still strong to us who love you, have loved you for years.
    For both you and Willie, when we hear you sing, it stirs something in the heart. It is like love conveyed through the voice. So powerful.
    Thanks for all you have done for all the important causes over the years. I was too young to experience McCarthyism or much of the Civil Rights, (I was born in 1957) but you helped our nation thru the Viet Nam war years, then environmental awareness and for that I am deeply appreciative.
    Sorry if I am being too wordy, just want to add one more thing. My husband, a Republican and conservative, went to bed when your PBS show came on. I sat there, listened again to the song, This Land Is Your Land, and wondered how anyone could not love what this song means to the USA. It crosses all party lines. Thank you for the sacrifices you made during your life for what you believed in. I hope to meet you in heaven. ~ SERW
    p.s. it’s cute that you like Huckabee. I am a lefty liberal, but it’s nice to be open to others who have good hearts.

  • Mr. Seeger:

    I just want to echo the sentiments expressed by these other fans. You have inspired me since I was very young and I have enjoyed your songs since I can remember.

    Please continue in good health and the happiness you deserve.

    Brett Ray, San Antonio, TX

  • Mr. Seeger,
    I watched part of the documentary in the evening while at a work-related training in Seattle last week. The sound kept fading in and out. I noticed that some of the speakers would talk about you like: Pete was this, and Pete was… So, I got pretty upset about it, because you have been my folk hero for decades, and I worried that it was a post tribute. I saw you perform at UC Berkeley, probably in ’70, and love your music dearly. I play old-time fiddle and bluegrass music,and love sharing music with others.
    Thank you for all that you have done, and for your tenacity and courage to follow your heart and beliefs in the face of opposition!
    Diane

  • Pete – I have spoken to my daughters for years about living thier lives and how one person can make a difference … and when they leave this earth, maybe it will be a better place than when they got here. You have lived your entire life true to this same credo … and I’ll tell you, you got it right. You said what you believed, you followed your beliefs, you made a difference and you never sold out for money. Thank you for all you have done for America, its people and our land.

  • Hello!

    After watching the show last night I was inspired to write a few lyrics:

    The Ballad of Pete Seeger

    (To the air “John Hardy”)

    Pete Seeger is a string bean of a man
    He strums his ol’ five string
    And plays guitar like nobody can
    With his head up he really can sing
    With his head up he really can sing

    His family they were musical
    He grew up with notes in his ears
    He went down south and heard them there
    Them mountain folk had plenty to share
    Repeat

    He went to school and played his “uke”
    And found that people wanted change
    He did commit to the workin’ folk
    And sang for the union age
    Repeat

    The war did come and he served right well
    For he loved his country true
    He sang for workers for he could tell
    They needed a leg up too
    Repeat

    A singing with the Weavers on the air
    He really made a hit
    But it was the beginning of the Commie scare
    In front of the House he had to sit
    Repeat

    Now Ole Pete he stuck to his guns
    “My opinions are my affair”
    But the paranoia of those bums
    Soon made him blacklisted from the air
    Repeat

    He jined up with the civil rights
    Fightin for equality
    He put Vietnam right into his sights
    Knowing it was insanity
    Repeat
    Where have all the flowers gone?
    While the seasons they do turn?
    Still they push us into the muddy Mekong
    When will they ever learn?
    Repeat

    His work it may now be local
    He made the Hudson clear
    But the time that he is most vocal:
    When hammerin’ them strings in the air!
    Repeat

    Myself I have an old five string
    It ain’t worth much I said
    But to me it is a priceless thing
    Since Pete, he signed on the head
    Repeat

    Now Pete he’s got a family fine
    They’ve helped him and they’re proud
    But it’s bigger than anyone can mind
    For he’s touched a far larger crowd
    Repeat

    Now I am a man that gets teary eyed
    When I hear the “Spangled Banner” play
    But I know a star in Freedom’s Sky
    Will bear Pete Seeger’s name some day!
    Repeat

    Pete Seeger is a string bean of a man
    He knows the power of song
    He is a true American
    He’s been fighting for us all along!
    Repeat

    Brian Kennedy
    Cranford NJ
    March 7, 2008

  • I just watched the wonderous doc on PBS and cried all the way through…and laughed and sang, of course!

    Pete, you are right! It DID sound like a eulogy…I had to go online and find out you are still here with us, breathing in and out, heart still singing loud! Whoo-hoo!!

    Thank you thank you, thank you! For a lifetime of cheers and tears and thoughts put to song…I rememer hearing “I Come and Stand” the very first time…eight years old, mom brushing my hair and crying, me standing there and crying as she told me what the song was about, wondering for the first, but not the last time “how could such a thing be?”. The despair that could have enshrouded me dispelled by your lovely voice, your healing songs, the knowlege that the world is sprinkled with folks like you who work every day to lift the despair and right the wrongs and also filled to the brim with folks who can hear the songs, hear the message, work for change and pass it all along till the sky becomes blue again as we get one step, one person farther away from such things ever happening again.

    You are our national treasure!

  • Mr. Seeger– In the 1960s in high school I used to pick strawberries and pole beans in the fields here in Oregon. We, mostly the girls would sing your songs, “Where have all the flowers gone” and “Michael row the boat ashore” coming back on the farmer’s old school buses from the 15-mile ride every day, in the hot and dry summer. I cannot thank you enough for those wonderful, peaceful times. Great memories. What a wonderful way to end that part of the day. God bless.

  • Dear Sweet Pete,

    I have just finished watching the PBS Special, and I was Blown Away!!
    I just attended the Minn Caucus yesterday, where the spirit you’ve been behind was definitely alive and well. Much Like our beloved Paul Wellstone!
    I was never aware that One Man was reponsible for much of the way that I formed my beliefs until I saw the PBS Special.
    I grew up in the 60′s and went to Hootenany parties at friend’s homes, where we sang Your songs. I never realized that YOU wrote so many of the songs that framed my Life!! I didn’t know that You were responsible for songs by the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and songs that I associated with Martin Luther King Jr!
    I Cried the day that Martin Luther King Jr died, and didn’t realize that Your songs had helped him achieve his Dream.
    I remember being 9 years old and feeling so sorry for our neighbors, who had been denounced as “Communists”. I thought it was so unfair to discriminate against someone without any proof that they were “UnAmerican”!
    I remember being 18 years old, and not having any 18 year old men in town because they were all gone to War, or Canada or to College. And, realizing that our government was Lying to us about what was happening over there!
    I have watched the last 7 years of the Bush Administration, and the disastrous events that our children will have to live with for so many years.
    I have never missed our beloved Paul Wellstone more than I have in the last 6 years! BUT, I can tell you that there is a resurgence of the Spirit that You have inspired, and I am SO grateful that it STILL LIVES!!
    There was a swelling of emotions and purpose that I haven’t seen since the 60′s, and I’m positive that Your presence and that of so many other people who grew up with Your Music in their ears will not fail us again!
    Thank You so Much for all you have given to the American People, and to all the People everywhere!
    Not only are You a National Treasure, But a Treasure for all Mankind!!

    I Applaud You, and Your Family for their support of your efforts!
    Thank You!!
    Susan

  • I am on the other side of the political yard stick than is Pete Seeger. Having said that, Pete Seeger is an American icon, idol and the best folk singer song writer of the 20th century. God Bless him.

    Norm

  • Thanks Pete. I have survived Vietnam and my son has survived Iraq. Your music will endure. Thanks for your music over the years. I have seen you over the years, and will never forget.

  • Dear mr Seeger,
    I’m from Belgium and I started to listen to your songs in the early seventies. It was my aunt, who was a teacher at that time, who showed me your album ‘We shall overcome’. She said she bought a good record from a great folksinger. By that time I was about 12 years old. After hearing your songs I started singing along with your album. This gave me so much joy. Now I ‘m 45 years old and I still listen and sing along with these beautiful songs. Last Christmas I was looking for a nice present to give to my aunt. I bought her the same record ‘We shall overcome’ she showed me in the seventies. She told she was pleasantly surprised with this present.
    It’s a pity, I never could come to one of your concerts. That’s why I write you this small letter to thank you for all the lovely songs you sang for us.
    Diederich Thibaut

  • Pete Seeger, your records were some of the first I ever heard. I sang “If you miss me at the back of the bus” from age 4 all the way through my youth. When I majored in History I understood a lot of what I had sung off your albums much better. Thanks for bringing international music into our household, as well as songs social struggle and spiritual realism.

    I think that you’ve done for the Hudson and her species is the most important thing: we’ve got a lot of work to do in these times to defend our mother and pay our rent on earth.

    But preserving true history is also an important. I know I’m only one of thousands of children to whom your music made a difference.

    Gracias a Pete. The documentary was fanatastic and I’m still humming through my days in my mind.

  • I love the PBS Special, and loved seeing you again Pete !
    Your as strong and visible as ever…. we still here you !

    My Daddy sang me “If I had a hammer” when I was a girl sitting on his knee….. he still sings it at 83 ! You have touched many lives…….. you voice will echo through the mountains and trees for ever!

    Keep on singing
    Carolyn

  • Mr. Seeger, you and I share the same birthday, along with James Brown, which I have always considered an honor. My May birthday was in 1954, instead of 1919. I clearly remember hearing Pete Seeger sing “Neck Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers show; which, if I recall correctly, occurred in 1968 – a seminal year in our nation’s history. I believe that the years 1968 – 1972 were the LAST great time of social awareness in our country, such that people were moved to confront their Government, make personal sacrifices, and force change. We could use that same sense of urgency and outrage today, but the troubadors are all owned by the machine. Who will be the voice of the disenfranchised? Who will speak for the youth of today? Pete, God Bless you for carrying the torch these many years. Peace, out. Ted Turner, Hollywood, MD

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