Pete Seeger is far and away the most important American folk-hero of the 20th century, and arguably the preeminent American musician of his time. He’s certainly among the all-time greats of American music.
Seeger is revered not only because he worked with everyone from Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie to Johnny Cash and Ani Difranco, but also because of his role in creating songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” “Turn, Turn, Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” If I Had a Hammer,” “Waste Deep in the Big Muddy,” “Bring ‘Em Home,” and many others.
He was part of the chart-topping ensemble the Weavers in the ‘40s and the ‘50s (which also included his friend Woodrow Wilson Guthrie).
But that certainly ain’t all he’s revered for: An avowed pinko, Seeger famously vehemently refused to “name names” during the communist witch-hunts,* instead telling Congress what to do with their trumped-up indictment.
When Woody passed, the great American folk-mantle fell to Seeger, and he has carried it gracefully since, becoming a hero to successive generations of folk fans, environmentalists, democratic-socialists, protest singers, anti-militarists, and so forth.
In addition to the many anthems he’s authored, Seeger had a prominent role in popularizing songs such as “Which Side Are You On?,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night (In the Pines),” and “Little Boxes.”
In 2006, I had the remarkable opportunity to interview Seeger on the behalf of Express, a Washington area newspaper.
Seeger did the interview to promote a subsequent performance at the Birchmere, an old-style supper club in Alexandria, VA. Still amazingly vital at 87, Seeger did the gig as part of a tribute to his onetime bandmate Woody Guthrie.
Musical icon Pete Seeger: I was just writing some letters, but let me answer whatever questions you have.
Thank you. If you want me to call back later I can.
This is best.
This last time we talked, you talked about Dr. King converting you [to Christianity] and I just was wondering how that came about and what that was like.
I would say it was not a quick conversion. I’m slow to make up my mind about many things, but as the experience of the Civil Rights movement sunk through my skull, I realized that this extraordinary man literally showed us how we can save the world from people who think the solutions are to use violence of one sort or another, whether they are revolutionists of people who think the American army and navy can solve all the problems of the world.
I met King only twice. It was very brief, we just shook hands in 1957, at the Highlander Folk School. Do you know about that place?
No I don’t.
Rose Parks had gone in 1955 to study problems of, “How do we get rid of Jim Crow?” “How do we get more democracy in the south?”
And a year and a half later, the little school ‑ sometime you should read about it.
It was started in 1932 by a man who was born and raised in the Highlands of East-mid Tennessee and somehow was able to start a little school.
Somebody gave him a farmhouse, and on literally a shoestring, he started helping show people that they were not helpless if they could get together and learn.
In the ’30s the school was helping show people how they could start unions. In the ’40s, they were showing people how they could start cooperatives, and in the ’50s, they were discussing with Black people how to get rid of Jim Crow and segregation.
So they had their 25 anniversary in ’57 and King and Ralph Abernathy and Rosa drove up from Montgomery to attend the little gathering, maybe 50 or 60 people in this old farmhouse, which they’d made one big living room. They’d torn down the wall, so they could seat 50 or more people there.
It was not a communist place, although Miles Horton, the head of it, was not anti-Communist, and one of the people there was actually a reporter from the Daily Worker and while I was singing, he took a picture of Dr. King in this crowd of people and that was blown up to 30 feet wide, nine feet high and put on billboards throughout the south, saying, “ML King at communist training school.” (laughs)
Miles Horton used to joke, he’d say, “Why didn’t they give our phone number or address?” (chuckles)
I wanted to ask you another question about the Civil Rights movement. I’ve read that you “arranged” the song “We Shall Overcome.” What does it mean to have arranged it, as opposed to writing it?
Well, nobody knows how it was changed. There’s an old gospel song, “I’ll be alright / I’ll be alright / I’ll be alright some day/ If in my heart / I do not yield / I’ll be alright some day.” Different people sing it differently.
There are other verses, “I’ll wear the crown,” I’ll be like Him,” meaning Jesus, and “I’ll overcome,” and in the late 19th century, black and white union people in Alabama were singing union words to it.
The exact words nobody knows, but in Feb. 1909, on the front page of the United Mine Workers Journal there was a long letter and the writer says, “At our strike last year, we opened every meeting with a prayer and singing that good old song “We Will Overcome.”
Now they probably sang it medium tempo or fast, but in 1946, there was a strike of tobacco farmers in Charleston, South Carolina and one woman named Lucille Simmons like to sing this song like gospel singers like to call “long meter-style,” which means you sing it extremely slowly and that gives people in the church the chance to harmonize.
And Miles Horton’s wife was a good singer and she learned the song from the tobacco workers and it became her favorite song. She had a lovely alto voice.
I tried singing it, but I didn’t have that kind of a voice and just with my banjo accompaniment the song never caught on, although I printed it in our little song magazine called “People’s Songs” in 1947, up in New York.
But I had a friend on the west coast – I thought he’d learned the song from me, but he’d learned it from Sylvia Horton or other people from Highlander who occasionally go to the West Coast or up to New York to raise money to keep it going. They had friends who’d hold a house-party and Sylvia would sing or speak and they’d raise a few hundred dollars every year – this is how they kept Highlander going.
Anyway, in New York I’d met her and she sang it to me, but in California she met a man named Guy Carawan and he and Frank Hamilton had been learning gospel songs in a Los Angeles black church and there they used a kind of rhythm musicians call 12/8 time. You have four beats, but instead of diving each beat into two little beats (Seeger beats and counts at the same time [it’s like 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and …]), 12/8 time divides each beat up into three (demonstrates again [1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a …]) and they tried singing “We Shall Overcome” in this tempo and it worked perfectly.
In 1963, Guy Carawan was now working at Highlander full-time, because Sylvia had died and he got the job of being music director at a minimal salary, barely keep himself alive.
And in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, he holds a weekend workshop on “Singing in the Movement,” and young people were there, mainly young people, from all over the South” and he invited me down and I sang some songs they had not heard, but they sang some songs I had not heard and “We Shall Overcome,” in this new rhythm, was the hit of the weekend.
Five weeks later, the founding convention of SNCC was held in Raleigh, North Carolina, and somebody shouted out, “Guy, teach us all ‘We Shall Overcome.’” Well, it was so popular he had to sing it several times that weekend and they invented the system of crossing their arms in front of them, so your left hand hold the right hand of the person at your right and your left hand holds the left hand of the person at your left and your shoulders tend to touch and you sway from side-to-side.
Well, a month later, this wasn’t a song: It was the song all through the South and three years later I recorded it with this wonderful pounding rhythm on a Carnegie Hall concert and the record was the best-selling record I ever made. It was only half a million.
Usually, my records sold two or three thousand copies and when Columbia signed me up, it was only 20,000. They lost money on me and finally dropped me.
But, this record did get overseas and the song got overseas.
So, that’s about the history of it.
OK, thanks. So you didn’t have that much of a role.
I might tell you I made up two verses which a lot of people sing: “We’ll walk hand-in-hand” and the verse “The whole wide world around.”
I don’t suppose you ever read my book. It talks about this in some detail. It’s called “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” Kind of a musical autobiography. It came out 15 years ago.
Actually, my big job now is trying to rewrite it and add something to it – kind of a revised version, ‘cause that first version has a lot of mistakes.
Oh, here’s the end of the story, or near the end – no story ever ends, I don’t think. My manager says, “Pete, you should be the copyright owner of this.” And I said, “Well, Sylvia’s dead” and at that point I didn’t know where she got it from.
Jack Hamilton and Guy Carawan came up with the rhythm and I added some verses. We all added verses.
My manager says, “Pete, if you don’t copyright it, somebody else will.” The next thing you know, they’ll have a Hollywood version. Come on, you and me, baby. We’ll overcome today.” (chuckles)
So we copyrighted it and we set up the “We Shall Overcome Fund,” and Bernice Regon of the group Sweet Honey and the Rock, is the chairperson of this fund and every year she goes down to Highlander and delivers several thousand dollars.
We don’t take any money, Guy or Frank or me and we mention Sylvia Horton, we put her name on it too, as one of the arrangers and adapters of the song.
Who’s your favorite president?
Well, I have to confess, like most people, I choose Lincoln because of his extraordinary ability to combine immediate necessities for a compromise here and a compromise there, with long-term principles.
I’m a member of the VFW up here and this November I’m going to recite – I like to memorize poems, just like I memorize songs and quite often at night I’ll memorize that 1 minute, 30 second speech, “Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth …” and so on. I can recite you the whole poem (laughs).
On the other hand, I have to admit, some very good presidents were wacky in other ways.