(Remembering folk icon, activist Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in his own words and songs AMY GOODMAN, DEMOCRACY NOW! INTERVIEW PETE SEEGER- text of the interview is published here)
The legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died Monday at the age of 94. For nearly seven decades, Seeger was a musical and political icon who helped create the modern American folk music movement. We air highlights of two appearances by Seeger on Democracy Now!, including one of his last television interviews recorded just four months ago.
Interspersed in the interviews, Seeger sings some of his classic songs, “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” He also talks about what has been described as his “defiant optimism.”
“Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what [the album] ‘Seeds’ is all about,” Seeger said. “And there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.”
Seeger led an illustrious musical career. In the 1940s, he performed in The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Then he formed The Weavers. In the 1950s, he was blacklisted after he opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Seeger became a prominent civil rights activist and helped popularize the anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
In the 1960s, he was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired generations of protest singers. He was later at the centre of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements.
With his wife Toshi, Pete helped found Clearwater, a group to clean up the Hudson River. Toshi died last year just weeks before their 70th wedding anniversary. In 2009, he and Bruce Springsteen performed Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.
Pete Seeger: [singing] If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.
If I had a bell,
If I had a bell,
Ring it in the morning,
I’d ring it in the morning
Ring it in the evening!
Ring it in the evening,
All over this land,
Ring out danger
Ring out danger,
Ring out a warning,
Ring out a warning,
Ring out love, ring out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.
Amy Goodman: Pete Seeger last joined us on Democracy Now! just four months ago. We’ll play highlights from that interview later, but first I want to turn to Pete Seeger in 2004, when he joined us in our firehouse studio. I asked him about his parents and their philosophy of raising him.
Pete Seeger: Well, my father said, “Let Peter enjoy himself. We’ll see what happens.” And I think he was curious, because he knew I liked music. My mother just left instruments all around the house. So I could bang on a piano or an organ or a marimba, on a squeezebox or a penny whistle or an auto-harp. And at age seven I was given a ukulele, and I’ve been into fretted instruments ever since then. In prep school I joined the jazz band. And then a few years later, my father took me to a square dance festival in the Southern Mountains, and I suddenly realized there was a wealth of music in my country that you never heard on the radio: old-time music, my brother called it—I think a better name than folk music—all over the place. Depending where you are, you hear different kinds of old-time music. And I still feel that I’d like to see people not forget the old songs at the same time they’re making up new songs.
Amy Goodman: Do you remember any of the songs that you heard then?
Pete Seeger: Oh, good gosh, yes.
Amy Goodman: That you’d like to play now?
Pete Seeger: I can’t play them. My fingers are froze up, and my voice, you hear, I can’t really sing anymore. What I do these days, I get the audience singing with me. If I’m singing for children, needless to say, I say, “Kids, you all know this song. If you don’t, you will in a minute. She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes. Toot! Toot!” I’d say, “Can’t you get the toot? Toot! Toot!” Well, pretty soon they’re all doing it. “She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes. Toot! Toot!” And the last verse, it’s cumulative, so you repeat all the previous things. “She’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! She’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! Wearing red pajamas, she’ll be wearing red pajamas, she’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! Hoink-shoo! Yum! Yum! Hi, Babe! Woe, back! Toot! Toot!” And even if the kids never heard the song before, they’re doing it with me.
Amy Goodman: Pete, you travelled the South with Alan Lomax, and to a lot of people that may not be a familiar name.
Pete Seeger: Alan Lomax was the son of a Texas fella who collected cowboy songs a hundred years ago. And that’s how we know “Home on the Range” and other songs like it, “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo.” And in 1908, he got President Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, to write a short forward for his book of cowboy songs.
Thirty years later, he had a son, and Alan was only 22 years old. His father got him installed as the curator of the Archive of American Folksong in the Library of Congress. And Alan in a few years did what most people would take a lifetime to do. With utmost self-confidence, he calls up the head of Columbia Radio and says, “You have a school of the air. Why don’t you spend one year learning about American folk music? And the Columbia symphony can play the music, after you’ve heard some old person croak out the old ballad.” And if he couldn’t find an old person to do it, he got young me, age 19 and 20. And I still sing some of the songs I learned then.
’Tis advertised in Boston, New York and Buffalo,
five hundred brave Americans, a waggling for to go,
singing, blow ye winds of the morning, blow ye winds, high ho!
Clear away your running gear, and blow, blow, blow.
He interviewed the woman who collected that song when she was a teenager sailing on her father’s whaling ship in the 19th century. Now, as an old woman, she came out with a beautiful book, Songs of American Sailormen. Joanna Colcord was her name, so he interviews her, has me sing a song, and then the symphony orchestra plays it.
Well, Alan got me started, and many others. He’s the man who told Woody Guthrie, he says, “Woody Guthrie, your mission in life is to write songs. Don’t let anything distract you. You’re like the people who wrote the ballads of Robin Hood and the ballad of Jesse James. You keep writing ballads as long as you can.” And Woody took it to heart. He wasn’t a good husband. He was always running off. But he wrote songs, as you know.
Amy Goodman: Do you remember when you first met Woody Guthrie?
Pete Seeger: Oh, yeah, I’ll never forget it. It was a benefit concert for California agricultural workers on Broadway at midnight. Burl Ives was there, the Golden Gate Quartet, Josh White, Leadbelly, Margo Mayo Square Dance Group, with my wife dancing in it. I sang one song very amateurishly and retired in confusion to a smattering of polite applause.
But Woody took over and for 20 minutes entranced everybody, not just with singing, but storytelling. “I come from Oklahoma, you know? It’s a rich state. You want some oil? Go down on the ground. Get you some hole. Get you more oil. If you want lead, we got lead in Oklahoma. Go down a hole and get you some lead. You want coal? We got coal in Oklahoma. Go down a hole, get you some coal. If you want food, clothes or groceries, just go in the hole and stay there.” Then he’d sing a song.
Amy Goodman: When did you form The Weavers?
Pete Seeger: That was after World War II. Lee Hays from Arkansas, and his roommate Millard Lampell and I had started a group called The Almanacs. And I wrote to Woody, I said, “Woody, we’re singing for unions all around. Come out and join us. We’re in Madison Square Garden singing for striking transport workers.” And so Woody, once again, deserted his wife, came and joined us. But Woody used to say, “The Almanacs are the only group I know that rehearse on stage.” We were very badly organized. And after World War II, Lee says, “Pete, do you think we could start a group that would actually rehearse?”
And we were fortunate to run into one of the world’s greatest singers, Ronnie Gilbert. She was in her early twenties, beautiful alto voice, and a strong alto voice. I’d have to be two inches from the microphone. She could be two feet from the microphone, and she’d drown me out. She stood up to three strong-voiced men, and the four of us, however, were about to break up, when we did the unthinkable: We got a job at a nightclub.
Well, a little Greenwich Village place, it’s still down there, the Village Vanguard. And the owner paid us—he didn’t want me first. He said, “I can’t pay for a quartet. I’ll pay for you. I’ll pay you $200, like I did two years ago.” I said, “Well, what if the all four of us were willing to come for $200?” That was low pay, even then. And he had laughed. He said, “Well, if you’re willing.” And we got $200 and free hamburgers, until a month later he came and saw the size of the hamburgers I was making. He said, “Let’s make that $250, but no more free hamburgers.”
And we stayed there six months. Near the end of it, we met an extraordinary band leader, Gordon Jenkins, who loved our music and got us signed up with Decca, and we had a record called, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” and on the other side, the B-side—it was a record—”_Irene_,” good night, which sprang to number one, and for three months stayed up there on top of the hit parade. It was the biggest seller since World War II, and—
Amy Goodman: Can you talk more about “Irene”?
Pete Seeger: Well, it was the song, the theme song of the great black singer, Leadbelly. He died in ’49, and if he’d only lived another six months, he would have seen his song all over America. It was an old, old song. He’d simply changed and adapted it, added some verses and changed the melody, what my father called the “folk process,” but which happens all through all kinds of music—in fact, all culture, you might say. Lawyers adapt old laws to suit new citizens. Cooks adapt old recipes to fit new stomachs.
Anyway, I learned this 12-string guitar from Leadbelly. A high string and a low string together, but played together to give a new tone. And the song I really would like to sing to you is—always have to do with it—I don’t sing it anymore. I give the words to the audience, and they sing it. I says, “You know this song. To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season. Sing it.” And the whole audience sings, “Turn, turn, turn. There is a season. And a time. And a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. Sing it. A time to be born, a time to plant, to reap. A time to plant, a time to kill, to heal. A time to kill, a time to laugh, to weep. A time to laugh, a time to”—
You know, those words are 2,256 years old. I didn’t know that at the time, but Julius Lester, an old friend of mine, he’s a—I don’t know if you know him—he’s a black man who’s officially a Jew. He became fascinated with the Bible. I asked him, “When was these words written?” He says, “Well, the man’s name was Kohelet, meaning ‘convoker,'” somebody who calls people together to speak to them. In the Greek translation, they called him Ecclesiastes, and he’s still in the King James Version as this. And it’s a type of poetry, which is Greek. The Greeks have a word for it, anaphora, A-N-A-P-H-O-R-A, and it means you start off a line with a word or a phrase. You don’t have rhyme at the end of the line, but you do have—it becomes poetry by the way it’s organized.
Well, I didn’t realize I liked the words, but I realize now. Those are maybe some of the most fundamentally important words that anybody could learn. You see, you and I, we’re all descended from killers, good killers. The ones who were not good killers didn’t have descendants. But we’re descended from good killers. For millions of years our ancestors were good killers. They say if they hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be here today. Now is a new period. In other words, it’s a time, you might say, the human race needed to have good killers. Now, if we don’t change our way of thinking, there will be no human race here, because science acts very irresponsibly—oh, any information is good. Ha, ha, ha. They don’t realize that some information is very important, some, frankly, forget about until we solve some other problems. Einstein was the first person who said it: Everything has changed now, except our way of thinking. And we’ve got to find ways to change our way of thinking.
Sports can do it. Arts can do it. Cooking can do it. All sorts of good works can do it. Smiles can do it. And I’m of the opinion now that if the human race makes it—I say we’ve got a 50-50 chance—if the human race makes it, it’ll be women working with children, these two very large oppressed classes in the human race. Children, doing what the grown-ups say they’re supposed to do, and yet they’re going to have to pay for our mistakes. They’re going to have to clean up the environment, which had been filled with chemicals, the air being filled with chemicals, the water being filled with chemicals, the ocean being filled with chemicals. And they’re going to have to clean it up. And I think it will be women working with kids that’ll do this job. In millions of little ways, maybe done in your hometown. In my hometown, we’re starting a project to put in a floating swimming pool in the Hudson, because now the Hudson is clean enough to swim in. Let’s swim in it. And if it works in our little town, maybe other towns will do it. In fact, if this swimming pool idea—it’s like a big netting in the water.
So, I confess I’m more optimistic now than I was 58 years ago, 59 years ago, when the atom bomb was dropped.
Amy Goodman: That’s Pete Seeger in our firehouse studio with our tell-tale radio headphones in 2004. The legendary folk singer and activist died Monday at the age of 94.
Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen and Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, Pete’s grandson, singing “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial ahead of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Today, aDemocracy Now! special, remembering the life of Pete Seeger.
We now return to our interview in 2004 in our firehouse studio. I asked Pete to talk about his time serving in the military during World War II.
Pete Seeger: I first wanted to be a mechanic in the Air Force. I thought that would be an interesting thing. But then military intelligence got interested in my politics. My outfit went on to glory and death, and I stayed there in Kiesler Field, Mississippi, picking up cigarette butts for six months. Finally, they let me know, yes, they’d been investigating me, opening all my mail.
Amy Goodman: Pete Seeger, when you came back, they continued to investigate you.
Pete Seeger: Well, I have assumed most of my life that if there wasn’t a microphone under the bed, they were tapping the phone from time to time and opening my mail from time to time. Who knows?
Amy Goodman: But it was more than that, wasn’t it?
Pete Seeger: Well, sometimes they’d have picket lines out, but, you know, in a crazy way all it did was sell tickets. I remember one concert did not sell out. My manager said, “Pete, we should have gotten the Birches to picket you. Then it would have sold out.”
Amy Goodman: I’m looking at a transcript of the House Un-American Activities Committee, August 18th, 1955, when they started off by saying—Mr. Taverner said, “When and where were you born, Mr. Seeger?” You actually answered that question.
Pete Seeger: Well, I wish I had been more—spoken up more. I just did what my lawyer, a very nice guy—he says, “Don’t try to antagonize them. Just don’t answer these questions, because if you answer this kind of question, you’re going to have to answer more questions. Just say you don’t think it’s legal.” Well, I said, “I think I’ve got a right to my opinion, and you have the right to your opinion. Period.”
And so, eventually I was sentenced to a year in jail, but my lawyer got me off on bail. I was only in jail for four hours, and I learned a folk song. They served us lunch, a slice of bread and a slice of bologna and an apple, and the man next to me was singing, “If that judge believes what I say, I’ll be leaving for home today.” The man next to him says, “Not if he sees your record, you won’t.” But that’s an old African melody, you know. It’s in many, many African-American folk songs.
Amy Goodman: Now, you were sentenced to a year in jail?
Pete Seeger: And a year later the appeals court acquitted me. Ironically—the contradictions of life still amaze me—the judge who acquitted me, the head judge—there were three judges—head one was Irving Kaufman, the man who sentenced the Rosenbergs to the chair 10 years earlier. But he acquitted me. He said, “We are not inclined to lightly disregard charges of unconstitutionality, even though they may be made by those unworthy of our respect.”
However, I feel that—both my wife and I feel we’re lucky to be alive and lucky to be on good terms with our neighbors, and in the little town where we live, people shout out, “Hi, Pete! Hi, Toshi!” And I’d like to—I wish I could live another 20 years just to see things that are happening, because I believe that women working with children will get men to wake up to what a foolish thing it is to seek power and glory and money in your life. What a foolish thing. Here we are—
There’s a politician in my hometown, a very nice guy. He used to be a shop steward for the union in the local factory, but for 20 years he represented our town in the county legislature. And he said, “Pete, if you don’t grow, you die.” One o’clock in the morning, I sat up in bed and thought of the next question. If that’s true, if you don’t grow, you die, doesn’t it follow the quicker you grow, the sooner you die? Nobody is facing up to that question, but it’s very definitely true. Now the first step in solving a problem is to admit there’s a problem. Then we can argue about ways it could be solved.
I suppose one person will say, “Well, let a few people have trillions of dollars and the rest of the people obediently do the work, and the people in charge will see that everything is done right.” On other hand, I think what was in the Declaration of Independence is true now just as it was then. Those great lines, they’re written by Ben Franklin, you know, not Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that when any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”
Amy Goodman: Pete Seeger, can you tell us about “We Shall Overcome”?
Pete Seeger: I thought, in 1946, when I learned it from a white woman who taught in a union labor school, the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, that the song had been made up in 1946 by tobacco workers, because they sang it there to strike through the winter of 1946 in Charleston, South Carolina, and they taught the song to Zilphia Horton, the teacher at the labor school. And she said, “Oh, it was my favorite song.” And I printed it in our little magazine in New York, People’s Songs, as “We Will Overcome” in 1947.
It was a friend of mine, Guy Carawan, who made it famous. He picked up my way of singing it, “We Shall Overcome,” although Septima—there was another teacher there, Septima Clark, a black woman. She felt that “shall”—like me, she felt it opened up the mouth better than “will,” so that’s the way she sang it. Anyway, Guy Carawan in 1960 taught it to the young people at the founding convention of SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC for short. And a month later, it wasn’t a song, it was the song, throughout the South.
Only two years ago, I get a letter from a professor in Pennsylvania, who uncovered an issue of the United Mine Workers Journal of February 1909, and a letter there on front page says, “Last year at our strike, we opened every meeting with a prayer, and singing that good old song, ‘We Will Overcome.'” So it’s probably a late 19th century union version of what was a well-known gospel song. I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome some day.
Amy Goodman: You sang it for Martin Luther King?
Pete Seeger: In 1957, I went down to Highlander. Zilphia was dead, and Myles Horton, her husband, said, “We can’t have a celebration of 25 years with this school without music. Won’t you come down and help lead some songs?” So I went down, and Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy came up from Alabama to say a few words, and I sang a few songs, and that was one of them. Ann Braden drove King to a speaking engagement in Kentucky the next day; and she remembers him sitting in the back seat, saying, “‘We Shall Overcome.’ That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?” But he wasn’t the song leader. It wasn’t until another three years that Guy Carawan made it famous.
Amy Goodman: Even as you’re singing songs like that, it has also often been seen as a tremendous threat to the establishment. In 1963, the Fire & Police Research Association of Los Angeles warned before one of your appearances, Pete Seeger, that folk music in youth gatherings were being used to brainwash and subvert vast segments of young people’s groups.
Pete Seeger: Oh, poor—I hope they’ve learned a little different now. That’s 40 years ago, 41 years ago, but the establishment has always been concerned about music. I’ve quoted Plato for years, who wrote, “It’s very important that the wrong kind of music not be allowed in the Republic.” And I’ve also heard there’s an old Arab proverb, “When the king puts the poet on his payroll, he cuts off the tongue of the poet.”
During the 1930s, I was very conscious that radio stations played nice love songs and funny songs, but only by accident did a song like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” get through. The other songs tended to be more like Bing Crosby’s hit of 1933, I think. “Wrap your troubles in dreams. Dream your troubles away.” That’s how we’re going to lick the Depression?
Amy Goodman: We’re talking to Pete Seeger, and on this allmusic.com bio of you, it says, “Pete Seeger’s adherence to the sanctity of folk music came to a boiling point with the advent of folk rock, and it’s long been rumored that he tried to pull the plug on Bob Dylan’s very electrified set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1965.” Is that true?
Pete Seeger: No. It’s true that I don’t play electrified instruments. I don’t know how to. On the other hand, I’ve played with people who play them beautifully, and I admire some of them. Howling Wolf was using electrified instruments at Newport just the day before Bob did. But I was furious that the sound was so distorted you could not understand a word that he was singing. He was singing a great song, “Maggie’s Farm,” a great song, but you couldn’t understand it. And I ran over to the soundman, said, “Fix the sound so you can understand him.” And they hollered back, “No, this is the way they want it!” I don’t know who they was, but I was so mad I said, “Damn, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable right now.” I really was that mad. But I wasn’t against Bob going electric.
As a matter of fact, some of Bob’s songs are still my favorites. What an artist he is. What a great—I would say maybe he and Woody and Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell and Malvina Reynolds are the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, even though Irving Berlin made the most money. They wrote songs that were trying to help us understand where we are, what we’ve got to do. Still are writing them.
Amy Goodman: In 1967, you made your stand against the Vietnam War clear on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Can you talk about that?
Pete Seeger: Well, the Smothers Brothers were a big, big success on CBS television. And way back the year before, I think in the spring of ’67, they said—CBS says, “Anything we can do for you? You’re right at the top. What can we do to make you happier?” And they said, “Let us have Seeger on.” And CBS said, “Well, we’ll think about it.” Finally, in October, they said, “OK, you can have him on.” And I sang this song “Waste deep in the big muddy, the big fool says to push on.”
The tape was made in California, flown to New York. And in New York they scissored the song out. And now, the Smothers Brothers took to the print media and said, “CBS is censoring our best jokes. They censored Seeger’s best song.” And they got some publicity. And during November, December and January, the arguments went on. Finally, in February—no, pardon me, late January, late January of ’68, CBS said, “OK, OK, he can sing the song.” On six hours’ notice, I flew out to California.
I remember singing a batch of songs from American history, songs from the Revolution, like “Come ye hither, redcoats, you mind what madness fills. In our forest there is danger, there’s danger in our hills. Fall the rifles, the rifles in our hands shall prove no trifle.” I think I mentioned the hit song of 1814. It was the hit song: “Oh, say can you see.” And the song of the Mexican War, “Green grow the lilacs all sparking with dew.” A love song. That’s why Yankees are called “gringos” in Mexico, from that song. And, of course, the Civil War, several good songs, not just “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but a batch of them. The Spanish-American War, Oscar Brown taught me this song. American soldiers in the Philippines, they were singing, “Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos. Cross-eyed kakiack ladrones. And beneath the starry flag, civilize them with a crag, and go back to our own beloved home.” I didn’t sing that. But along come modern times. I sang “Waste Deep in the Big Muddy,” and this time only a station in Detroit cut it out. But the rest of the country heard it, so seven million people heard it.
Who knows? Later that month, in late February, Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election. The song would be probably just one more thing. I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, “Ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.” But we’re saying, “We’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.” And we think, “One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction.” And people will say, “Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons. Now granted, we’ve got to keep putting it in, because if we don’t keep putting teaspoons in, it will leak out, and the rocks will go back down again. Who knows?
Amy Goodman: Do you see those cracks, those places, today in mass media? I know you don’t watch TV and all that, but, for example, you going on Smothers Brothers. Do you think that it is as constricted today?
Pete Seeger: Not as constricted, no. There’s all sorts of little things going on. I understand this program may be on some TV stations. I’ve got to find out where, when, so I can see it. You’re right, I don’t look at TV much, except to check on the weather for my skating rink. I’m a read-aholic and a magazine-aholic, I get 40 or 50 magazines a month. And I read music magazines, environmental magazines, union magazines, civil rights magazines. Who knows?
Amy Goodman: That’s Pete Seeger in our firehouse studio in 2004. The legendary folk singer and activist died Monday at the age of 94. We continue remembering Pete in his own words and song.
We return to our interview in 2004 in our firehouse studio. I asked Pete Seeger to talk about one of his most famous songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Pete Seeger: Well, I was sitting in an airplane on my way to sing at Oberlin College. I was over Ohio, and—
Amy Goodman: What year?
Pete Seeger: —half-dozing. Year, 1955. And all of a sudden, three lines, which I had read in a book, took form. In the book, it simply said, “Where are the flowers? The girls have plucked them. Where are the girls? They’re all married. Where are the men? They’re all in the army.” It’s an old Russian folk song. And the Don Cossacks—maybe it’s a Ukrainian folk song. “Koloda Duda” is the original name, but I didn’t know that. All I knew is I had read these three lines in the book And Quiet Flows the Don by a Soviet novelist. And all of a sudden, I had three verses. I didn’t realize it at the time, I had swiped part of the verse from an old Irish song. I had been recording a lumberjack song from the Adirondacks: “Johnson says he’ll load more hay, says he’ll load 10 times a day.” You can really see, I slowed it down, and I pinned the words to the microphone that night and sang them.
And a few weeks later, I was walking down 48th Street, Manhattan, stopped in at Folkways Records, said, “I made up a new song.” And then, Moe Asch propped a mic up in front of me and recorded it. And a few months later it was out on another LP. An Oberlin College student got the LP at a job at a summer camp, and the kids were fooling around with the verses: “Where have all the counselors gone, broken curfew everyone.” But by the end of the summer, he had made up the two extra verses we know. “Where have the soldiers gone, gone to graveyards. Where have the graveyards gone, covered with flowers.”
And the kids took the song back to New York. Peter, Paul and Mary were singing in the Village, in Greenwich Village, and picked it up, started singing it. The Kingston Trio learned it from them. And about three years later, my manager says, “Pete, didn’t you write a song called ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’?” I said, “Yeah, about three years ago.” He said, “Did you copyright it?” “No, I guess I never did.” He said, “Well, you ought to. The Kingston Trio have recorded it.”
Well, I got on the phone to Dave Guard. He was an old friend. He had started playing the banjo because he got my book, my bestseller. I mimeographed it first, but later printed it. It’s printed 100,000 copies. How to Play the Five-String Banjo. He wrote me a year later. He says, “I’ve been putting that book to hard use. I and two others have a group we call The Kingston Trio.” So I called him up. “Oh, Pete, we didn’t know it was your song. We’ll take our name off it.” It was very nice of him, because technically, legally, I had, as they say, quote, “abandoned copyright.” But they took their name off, and my manager copyrighted it. It pays my taxes these days, that song. It’s been translated into dozens of other languages.
Amy Goodman: Pete, could you play “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Pete Seeger: Where — ah, maybe I’ll just sing the very, very last verse, because the contradictions of life still amaze me. You have to laugh, if you don’t cry.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one.
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?
Amy Goodman: You still have your voice.
Pete Seeger: It’s in the cellar.
Amy Goodman: Can you talk about getting older?
Pete Seeger: Oh, it’s no fun to lose your memory or your hearing or your eyesight, but from my shoulders on down I’m in better condition than most men my age. I can go skiing with the family, although I stick to the intermediate slopes. I don’t try the double diamond.
Amy Goodman: Pete, you sit here listening with headphones on. You’re a singer. Sound is very important. It’s not as easy for you to hear things so clearly anymore. How has that affected you?
Pete Seeger: Well, I’m singing to myself all the time, just humming or just in my brain. I’m not making any sound. But admittedly, I can’t—unless I have earphones on, I can’t really—even with what they call hearing aids, I can’t really hear music. I don’t listen to CDs. I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t listen to TV. And occasionally, when friends come around, I’ll join in with them, but my fingers are slowing down. I hear records that I made years ago and say, “How did I ever play that so fast?”
On the other hand, these are exciting times. There’s never been such as exciting times. And win, lose or draw, it’s going to be very, very exciting. And I applaud what you are doing. I think what Democracy Now! is doing is just fantastic. This couldn’t have been done half a century ago, could not have been done.
Amy Goodman: Why?
Pete Seeger: Well, they didn’t have the technology for it, I guess. So as I say, technology will save us if it doesn’t wipe us out first.
Amy Goodman: Well, final words, Pete Seeger, as we wrap up this conversation—the role of music, culture and politics.
Pete Seeger: They’re all tangled up. Hooray for tangling!
Amy Goodman: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. And for someone who isn’t so hopeful who is listening to this right now, trying to find their way, what would you say?
Pete Seeger: Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what Seeds is all about. And there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.
Amy Goodman: Pete Seeger speaking in 2004 on Democracy Now!. The legendary folk singer and activist died Monday at the age of 94. He last appeared on Democracy Now! in August. He talked about one of his most famous songs.
Pete Seeger: The song, “If I Had a Hammer,” went all sorts of places that I could never go, and I’m very glad.
[singing] If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
Hammer out a warning,
Hammer out love between,
All of my brothers,
Oh, a woman said, “Make that ‘My brothers and my sisters.'” Lee says, “It doesn’t roll off the tongue so well. But she insisted. He said, “How about ‘All of my siblings’?” She didn’t think that was funny.
[singing] All over this land.
If I had a song,
Don’t need to sing the whole song. You can sing it to yourself, whether you’re driving a car or washing the dishes or just singing to your kids. We haven’t mentioned children much on this program, but it may be children realizing that you can’t live without love, you can’t live without fun and laughter, you can’t live without friends—and I say, “Long live teachers of children,” because they can show children how they can save the world.
Amy Goodman: And we end with more Pete Seeger just four months ago.
Pete Seeger: We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I know that I do believe,
We shall overcome…
(For a copy of this show, you can also visit to the website at democracynow.org, and go there to watch all of Pete Seeger shows, including his 90th birthday celebration featuring Bruce Springsteen, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Joan Baez.)