LANGUAGE, EVEN FOR THOSE OF US who make our living working with it, can be a frustratingly inadequate means of expression. When we reach for words to convey deep appreciation or to bestow high praise, inevitably we find ourselves groping for something beyond the same old, tired superlatives; and inevitably we end up feeling cheated by the rigid limitations of the words available to us. How does one introduce an artist of the stature of Pete Seeger and give him all the honor that is his due, without sounding like a toastmaster at some sort of musicians' testimonial banquet? "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the most accomplished, the most respected, the most influential...." I struggle for eloquence, and I feel lost.
But I know I am on solid ground when I recall the many people I know who play music for enjoyment, or who earn their living from music, or the great artists I have interviewed, who have all replied in some way to the question "What influenced you?" with the name "Pete Seeger." And I would guess that anyone who has been involved in traditional acoustic music for any length of time, and particularly anyone who has been involved in folk music, would know who he is and all that he represents. I can certainly guarantee that anyone just developing an interest in music will quickly learn that Pete is one of the strongest roots of the tree of modern American music.
The name of Pete Seeger is often linked with the name of Woody Guthrie, and no wonder; it's been nearly 40 years since the two folksingers began voicing the music of our land, singing the songs of the working man, carrying their message to gatherings in every corner of America. They came up hard against the Establishment of that era, earning admiration in some circles and notoriety in others. In 1942 Woody and Pete sang "The Sinking Of The Reuben James" on a CBS network radio program. The following day, one newspaper headline proclaimed, "Commie Folksingers Try To Infiltrate Radio."
For years Woody and Pete were banned from the air, never yielding to the powers who told them, "If you sign this loyalty oath, you can go on." Instead they searched out audiences who would hear them. They formed the Almanac Singers with Mill Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Arthur Stern, and Sis Cunningham, until Woody shipped out for a tour of duty with the Merchant Marine. Pete then became the focal point of the Weavers, along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, carrying on through the blacklisting days of the McCarthy era. But Pete had to sing on his own; to keep delivering his message.
We would fall short if we tried to paint a word-picture of Pete Seeger, so we can only hope that this issue will serve as a window. This month, Pete, we thank you for looking in our direction; and always, we thank you for lighting the way. . .
-Roger H. Siminoff, Frets Editor
By Marty Gallanter
EARLY ONE MAY MORNING I visited Pete Seeger at his mountaintop home in Beacon, New York. Simple, comfortable, the house was built by the Seegers themselves more than 20 years ago. The great expanse of the magnificent Hudson River Valley was framed by the living room window, and it was easy to appreciate why preserving the beauty of the river and the valley-one of Pete's many causes-should be so important to this man as a first step in preserving the beauty of all that lies beyond the valley.
Pete Seeger celebrated his sixtieth birthday in May. He continues to perform, as he has been doing regularly for more than four decades. He has recorded more albums than most of us wish to count, and he is still recording. He remains actively involved in political and social causes. It seems that vitality is a Seeger tradition; his father, distinguished American musicologist Charles L. Seeger, died in February at the age of 92 after a remarkably long and productive career.
As Seeger children and grandchildren went about their morning routines and Pete's wife, Toshi, prepared a country breakfast for the household, birds chirped in the trees outside on the hilltop and Pete Seeger sat down to share his thoughts on music, performing, and life.
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You have been involved in social causes throughout your career. Do you feel that a performing artist has a certain social responsibility?
An artist, any kind of an artist, is also a citizen and has a citizens responsibilities. This means voting, among other things. You can argue about that I suppose; but citizens' responsibilities go even further. We have a duty to inform ourselves, and when you inform yourself, you want to communicate what you learn. I think it is a mistake to think any music doesn't have a message of some sort. Some music has a message that says, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die"; and many musicians really, sincerely feel that is the sum of an intelligent response to life. I'll admit there's a big grain of truth in it. Some music has a message saying that there's hope to make things better here on earth; your only hope is that after death there will be eternal joy and pleasure, if you say the right words in the right places. I don't argue with people who feel that way. Music has, throughout history, played a very large part in preserving the status quo-good or bad. Plato, the Greek philosopher, was most emphatic. He said that for the good of the state, it was very important that the music which was heard by the people should be of the right kind, because the wrong kind of music could be very destructive. So, I take a very broad view of politics and causes. It is an oversimplification to say that a person like me is involved in causes, and other musicians are not. Just pick your cause.
There was a time when causes and the stands you took on them affected your ability to work. What was life like in those days?
For me, it was not hard at all. I had a small circle of friends who kept me singing. I'd sing for the students in some little college and they'd pass the hat. I'd make my fare and a little extra. The circle gradually grew wider. It's really as simple as that. Some people had their lives ruined by the McCarthy period-the "frightened Fifties," I call them. They had to change their location of residence, their jobs. I feel very grateful to my little home town here. My children were never injured in school, to my knowledge. The principal called in the teachers and said, "Now, you know Mr. Seeger is on trial for contempt of Congress. I just want you to let me know if anybody makes it hard on his children." She wasn't taking a stand as to whether I was guilty of not. She just wasn't going to let it affect some kids that she liked. So, I have nothing to complain about. Although it was a terrible period for many people, my wife and I survived. Occasionally, nasty things happened, but we could shrug them off and it was nowhere near as bad as situations many people face every day of their lives. I think of black people who have their homes burned because they simply bought a house in a neighborhood where it was unusual for black people to live. I think of people who have been denied jobs because of their religion or their national background. This business about freedom of speech or freedom of song is one that everybody faces. It's a worldwide problem. It must be ancient, ancient human tendency that when you meet people who have an opinion that you despise, you don't want them around. To learn to live with people that you don't like is one of the great arts of civilization, and we're slow to learn it. Now, this doesn't mean that I'm in favor of absolute freedom of speech myself. I'd agree you don't shout "Fire!" in a crowd. I also don't like to joke about things that are life-and-death issues to another person. Imagine if you had your shoulder rubbed and rubbed until it was raw, and I came along and just touched it. You would wince in pain and anger, and all I had done was touch you. But because you had already been rubbed raw, my slightest touch would cause that kind of pain. For example, I don't sing a song-a funny song, some say-that I used to sing. It goes, "It's a shame to beat your wife on Sunday, it's a shame to beat your wife on Sunday when you've got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Oh, it's a shame." In this country there are a lot of women being battered by frustrated husbands and it's a big problem. I don't sing the song anymore. In a way, everybody has to be their own censor. I'm not against censorship. I'd just like everybody to be their own censor; and if they're not a good enough censor for themselves, then I think we have to help them. This isn't necessarily done best through a law, which is rather inflexible, and also very expensive to enforce. Justice, as you know, ain't free. The jails are full of people who would not be there if they could afford a good lawyer. But, I'm convinced that this problem of freedom of speech may be the most difficult one for the human race to solve. Sooner or later we will be able to share food, so there's not going to be anyone hungry in centuries to come. But, it is going to be much more difficult to share information. There is not a single nation in the world that has solved this problem. There is even some information that I wouldn't even want to see exist, much less be shared. I don't want to see people experimenting with nuclear reactors that could poison future generations. I don't want to see some curious scientist experimenting with what they call the "recombinant DNA molecule" and maybe inventing some bacteria that could wipe out the human race. Absolute freedom of speech and absolute freedom of information will simply lead to the end of the world within a few hundred years, if not sooner. I don't kid myself that I'm in favor of it.
Recently, you said you'd made some changes in the way you approach your own music. What were those changes?
An awful lot of the best musicians I've ever known didn't play a great many different kinds of music. But what they knew, they sure knew well. Take Sonny Terry, the blind harmonica player. He plays blues mostly. Boy, how he can play 'em. He can play them fast or slow, in one key or another. He just gets better and better. Lately, I seem to keep coming back to tunes that I learned to play years ago. Tom Benton [Thomas Hart Benton], the painter, taught me and my father the song "John Henry" in 1931. Only about five years ago did I realize that I had finally found the way I like to play it best. I kept experimenting. I cut out a lot of chords. I don't play as many chords now. I play a lot of single strings. Just sometimes, the right note, in the right place, is worth ten notes in the almost-right place. So, instead of concentrating on expanding my repertoire a whole lot more, I'm working hard on trying to do better what I've been doing for years.
The Pete Seeger style of banjo picking has a distinctive sound. Can you describe your picking technique?
I picked up a style of strumming, which I called a "basic strum," both from a man named Pete Steele, who still lives in Hamilton, Ohio; and from a guy named Bascom Lunsford, who's dead now, but who was a country lawyer in Nashville, North Carolina. Of course, it's not the only basic strum - there's a hundred of them. This one is basic for me. You pluck up on a melody string - it might be any one of the middle strings of the instrument - with your first finger. Half a beat later, you strum down across one, or two, or three or four, or even five strings with the back of your fingernail. Now, that could be the back of your ring finger, or the hack of your first finger. You get a slightly different effect depending on which finger you pluck up with and which finger you pluck down with. This coming up on the downbeat and brushing down on the offbeat is the essential part of this particular strum. Between these notes, you can get some notes with your left hand; I'm actually quite proud that I'm the one who named that technique: I call it "pulling off" on a string. Violinists call it "left-hand pizzicato"-Paganini did it-but I call it "pulling off." Your left hand pulls off the string with a plucking motion right after you've plucked the string with your right hand. Or, you can "hammer down" on a string. That's also a term I invented 30 or 40 years ago. That is, you've plucked up on the string and you immediately come down it with your left hand, fretting it in a new place. You get a new note with a special quality that is unique. You can't get that kind of note with your right hand. The left hand has to get it. Then, on a 5-string banjo, after you strum down with the back of your fingernail, just before you get your melody note, your thumb hits the short fifth string what they call the thumb string and that keeps digging away through the whole song, the same note. It's the "ring" in, "Ring, ring the banjo." What I've just described can add up to four notes, and if they're done right, it gives a lovely rippling, bubbling tone. If you do it wrong, it sounds sloppy. Sometimes, it can take years until you get it to come out just right on some certain song. You can emphasize any one of those four notes, or you can de-emphasize any one of those four notes, depending on which string and which finger you use. It can sound very different, which is why I've found it to be a very flexible kind of strum. If I were writing my banjo book [How To Play The Five-String Banjo, self-published, 1962] over again, I would now call it simply, "a simple strum that can be used to accompany lots of songs." I will say this - I'm convinced now that my banjo book should not have started off with that strum. I should have started off with single strings, because the banjo is at its best playing single notes. Chords are all right, and when I get a crowd singing, I wham across all the strings and just strum a chord. But, if you want to really hear a banjo, you want to hear single strings. That's why I think Earl Scruggs and people who play bluegrass, and people who frail and play clawhammer banjo, are the best banjo pickers in the country. I really do. I think my favorite type is probably a good clawhammer the way my brother Mike [FRETS, Mar.'79] plays it. He's very good, and I envy him.
Tell us about your banjo, the one you always have with you.
I've had it about 20 years. I made the neck myself out of lignum vitae. It's a South American hardwood so heavy it sinks in water. They make marine equipment out of it because it doesn't rot. The drum is from an old Vega banjo that I had around. I've taken to having a neck longer than on those other banjos because I like to play a few songs, in certain keys, that need a few low notes. All the long neck gives me is a few extra low notes. (don't use them except occasionally - but if I need them I've got them If youre playing with a guitar to accompany you, then you dont really need them. The guitar can play the low notes, or of course, so can any other bass instrument,
What was the story behind Vega's "Pete Seeger Model" banjo?
Oh that! It was years ago. I got a letter saying that Vega had received many requests for a long-neck banjo like mine and that they wanted to sell a "Pete Seeger" model. I said, "Sure, go ahead and use it." They asked me if I wanted a royalty and I said, "No," not thinking many people would want the instrument. A few years later, I found out they were selling hundreds, thousands, of them and I figured I should have asked for a royalty after all. Well, it didn't really matter. The Vega people gave me a nice long-neck banjo that I used to keep as a spare until I gave it away to a nice young newspaper reporter in Florida. We were raising money for Sing Out! Magazine and I said that I would give my spare banjo to anybody who would sell a hundred subscriptions for Sing Out!
After all these years of performing, what is it you think about when you go out on stage alone?
I think about a lot of people out in front who may disagree with each other about a lot of things, but I'm hoping that I can get them to agree, at least for a few minutes, on a few things. This gives me hope to keep on going. I don't think there's much hope for the human race unless we can learn to get together a little more than we have in the past. We have to agree to disagree. It's foolish to think that we are ever going to agree about everything - that's impossible. But you can hope that we'll agree to disagree long enough to get together on accomplishing a few things. Like the song says, "Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow, gonna mulch it deep and low, gonna make it fertile ground." That song is by David Mallett-copyright 1973, 1 think.
What are your techniques for warming up an audience?
In the beginning, I often will do some song that people know already, and it will relax them to a certain extent. But it relaxes me too, so I can do a better job. It doesn't have to be something that they can sing along with, although quite often 1 like to start with the song "John Henry," because the last line in each verse is repeated and anyone who wants to can repeat it with me. Sometimes I'll start an evening with a song that has very few words, and the banjo says more clearly than any words who I am and what kind of music I like. Funny how a musical instrument like the banjo, or the guitar, or the mandolin, each says something slightly different, and can say some things better than others. My 12-string guitar has some rumbly bass notes and can say some things that the sparkling pinpricks of the banjo string cannot say and vice-versa.
Earlier in your career you played with a couple of groups: the Almanac Singers, the Weavers. What is your favorite group setting?
I love a traditional American string band, which for me, in the old days, consisted of a guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo. Now the people add bass, and I guess the bass is nice, but I don't think it is quite as important as the other four. I guess for a big dance you really need it. I'm not sure. Sometimes you can, of course, have a lot of fun with a completely different assortment of instruments. I've played with Latin American maracas and claves. Sometimes I'll find myself playing with accordions, and even with pianos or organs, but I keep coming back to those traditional four instruments. I really love 'em. They each add something special to a string band.
Had you always planned to be a performer?
No, I started out as a journalist and ran the school newspaper for three years. I had a lot of fun doing it. When I dropped out of college, I knocked on the doors of a lot of newspapers and failed to get a job. Even while I was starving to death, I was going to art school, because I thought I might like to be a painter. I spent one summer traveling around and swapping paintings for a night's lodging. Years later, I got letters from people around New York State and New England who were wondering if I was the Pete Seeger who painted the picture they had hanging on their wall. I still do a little sketching, but not much painting anymore.
Who do you consider your strongest musical influence from the early days?
I guess I could say Woody Guthrie; but my father, who was an old musicologist, a scholar, kept making suggestions throughout my life. I think his theories are more responsible for the revival of folk music in this country than most people realize. Back in the 1930s, my father and Alan Lomax, the Texas folklore collector, put their heads together and asked what needed to be done to let America know what wonderful songs existed in the country and had been handed down from generation to generation. They had the example of the mistakes made in Europe. Over there the folklorists picked out the most beautiful songs of the peasants and put them in books and said, "This is the best version of this song. Learn this version and don't change a note." They didn't leave anything for the young people to improvise on. Forty years ago, my father and Alan Lomax thought that was a mistake. Simply throw a lot of songs at young people and say, "You decide which are the best ones. You improvise. Carry on the spirit of improvisation. Don't think of folk music as a dead repertoire. Think of it as a living process. When people like me wanted to learn, they encouraged us not to learn out of books. Someone once told my father, "You must get your son to study voice. He'll ruin his vocal cords." My father said, "If I catch him studying singing, I'll stop it immediately." Instead, he let me listen to recordings of people who were the real thing. The Library of Congress, even in those days, had thousands of recordings of people from the back in the hills, out on the plains, up in the north woods. People who had learned their music by ear and were singing it and playing it by ear. I think that's still the best way to learn music. It's a handy thing to know how to read music, later on maybe, after you know how to make music. Once you know what kind of music you want to make, then it could be handy to know how to read it. But, it could be a real mistake to learn how to read too soon. Can you imagine what it would be like to teach a baby how to read before it learned how to talk? There's a wonderful tradition throughout the world that you learn by watching, listening, trying, and feeling your way. So, I guess my influences, the strongest ones, came from my father, Woody Guthrie, and Alan Lomax. You know, it was out of Alan's collection that songs came that we just take for granted now. "House Of The Rising Sun," "Hush Little Baby," "Streets Of Laredo" - they all came from Alan Lomax. If it hadn't been for him -and his father John, who went around to the cowboy camps at the turn of the century and wrote down the words because they didn't have portable recording machines in those days-we wouldn't have most of these songs.
What about Woody? What was Woody Guthrie's magic?
He was always searching, never satisfied. He always had a sense of humor, and at the same time, he wasn't scared to be serious. Sometimes he would get deadly serious. He also kept his eye on the long, long range view. He said, "We've got to get together all the hard-working people of this world, and when we do, it's going to be a much better world."
You do a lot of concerts with Woody's son today. Do you have special feelings about working with Arlo Guthrie?
Arlo is his own man. He has some of Woody's qualities and a lot of brand new ones. He's one of the most conscientious musicians that I know. He thinks long and hard about the kind of music he wants to make. Then he gets on stage, and by gosh, he does his level best. I'm very proud that he likes to work with me, and I know that I love to perform with him. So every summer we go out and do some concerts, usually in these great big open sheds, which frankly I think are too big. From the back, I don't know how they can see us without a telescope. You can hear because they have good quality sound systems now, but you sure can't see from the back. Otherwise, it's always a lot of fun playing with Arlo [FRETS, July '79] and [his band] Shenandoah.
Do you ever play all by yourself, without an audience?
Oh yes, quite often, especially early in the morning or late at night. I take a guitar or a banjo off the wall and play a tune or so for myself. I usually keep the instruments hung on the wall without a case so they're easy to take down. Sometimes I try to work out a new tune, but more often I'll just play an old one I've played a thousand times before. There's an interesting thing about music and there's a contradiction that I haven't been able to figure out. Music can be a very private thing at times. I know when I was a kid, I was very shy. When the rest of my classmates were starting to shave and go around with girls, I was still very immature. So, I would go off by myself and play a little music and it was a private thing. It didn't bother me that nobody was listening. I just wanted to have fun. Now, here's the contradiction: Music helped put me in touch with other people. The kids would say, "Hey, bring your ukulele into the party." I used to play the ukulele when I was age eight. When I was 13,1 changed to the 4-string banjo, and changed again to the 5-string banjo when I was 19. Bringing the uke or banjo along to a party would have people asking me to sing some song that they all knew, and I'd comply. I'd always figure that I would compromise, and if people wanted me to sing some songs, I'd satisfy their request. Then, I'd sing some songs that I wanted to sing, some that might even surprise them. I still do that. When I give a concert, I want to make sure I meet them halfway. I sing some songs they would like to hear, and I'll sing some songs that may surprise them, some that they might not even want to hear. It doesn't bother me if there is a dead silence after some of my songs. I'm glad that some of my songs give people pause for thought.
What happened to your television show, Rainbow Quest?
Way back, ten or 15 years ago, my wife and I put all the family savings into it, and if just 20 local stations would have carried it, we could have broken even and kept it going. Only 13 stations took it, and finally, we couldn't afford doing it. Toshi kept an eye on things like that. She's the brains in the family. I get some wild ideas, but she stomps down the ones that are too hard to handle. She points out what has to be done to see the worthwhile ones through. The sloop Clearwater [FRETS, June '79] wouldn't be sailing today if it hadn't been for her tremendous hard work and thinking.
Do you have any special plans for the future?
I wish I could learn how to retire gracefully, but I don't know how. Every day a bushel of mail comes in and somebody says, "We are trying to raise some money here and it would help us so much if you came and performed." The next thing I know, I'm going through my calendar with my wife trying to find out if I can spare a few hours. I don't do as much traveling across the country or around the world as I used to, although I get invitations from many places. I really feel that I'd like to concentrate on the Hudson River and trying to bring the people of the Hudson Valley together. It's not easy, but I'd like to work on this. I'd like to live a long time, because it is going to take more than a few years to bring the hard-pressed people of New York City together with the hard-pressed people upstate. There are some who try to split us apart, you know. They say to the people upstate, "Don't have anything to do with those chiselers down in the city, those loafers. They don't care about this river. They just get it dirty." Down in the city they tell them, "Don't trust those people upstate. They're all a bunch of rich people. They don't want to see a dam built in their pretty little valley. They just don't want any powerlines to mar the view from their suburban estates." I suppose there is just enough truth in both those charges that they keep coming back. The real truth of it is that there's a lot of hard-working people upstate and downstate, and until we get together, this river is not going to be cleaned up. And the same thing goes for the whole doggone world.
What advice would you offer someone about to enter a career as a performer artist?
I'd urge them to take the long view. Sometimes, one of the worst things that can happen is to suddenly make a lot of money when you're quite young. It can lead to being very disillusioned with the world, very cynical. It can really ruin your life. But, if you take the long view and stick to playing the kind of music you like, and get better and better at it, you are going to end up much happier. You may not make as much money; but also you just might. You know, Doc Watson was once asked about trying to make a living as a musician and he said, "Well, it's OK as long as you've tried every other way first. Do it only as a last resort." Actually, I'd like to urge any person who likes music not to give up, even if you can't make a living at it. As you get better and better at music, as the years and the decades go by, if you love the music you make, other people are going to love it also. You can meet people and add an extra dimension to your life that is very rewarding, not only for you, but for your community; perhaps even for your family,-but beware, it could also be bad for your family. I think every professional musician has found that traveling is a heck of a lot harder on the family than they first realized. Whatever kind of music you like to make, slow or fast, loud or soft, polite or impolite, keep in mind that while money is necessary for all of us it's like air and water; you need a certain amount of it, but once you get enough - well, who wants to be a dog in the manger? There is a big, beautiful world that could be destroyed by selfishness and foolishness. We musicians have it within our power to help save it. In a small way, every single one of us counts.
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