Pass It On!

Pass It On!

The Journal of the Children's Music Network

The Most Important Work:
Interview with Pete Seeger

conducted by Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey

Pete Seeger's fondness for the CMN is clearly evidenced by the fact that he graciously granted a couple of lengthy interviews to this novice PIO! editor despite the fact that he answers most requests nowadays with the following handwritten form letter: "Until the last few years, when that good movie The Power Of Song came out, my lefty reputation kept me out of the spotlight, but now I've blown my cover. Mail comes in by the bushel. Phone rings every five minutes. I have to say no to all sorts of good people who want me to listen to their CD, read their book, look at their DVD, come and accept an award or who want to know when they can come and interview me. Now this form letter is sent to you. I apologize, but I urge you to stay well, keep involved, don't give up. The agricultural revolution took thousands of years, the industrial revolution took hundreds of years, the information revolution is taking only decades. If we use the brains God gave us, who knows what miracles may now take place? Some of them have already. I'm mainly busy in my own home town singing with kids. But I also sing in New York City or up river occasionally. I take the opportunity to talk to people I disagree with also. That's a skill we should all learn." In preparation for our interview, I watched The Power of Song and read Pete's truly wonderful book, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? (see New Sounds). So the references in our discussion to the movie and to book chapters, refer to these publications.

Pete performs with The Kids from
Room 12 during 2009 benefit concert
at Beacon High School.

PIO!: I'm glad that you suggested reading Where Have All the Flowers Gone? as background, there was a lot of good stuff in it.

Pete: Well the third chapter on kids is one that would concern you. I've also been working with the nine and ten year olds in a local school here, and they take on some songs that I would have thought were only for high school students or grownups. They make up the words. They've also taken over some of my tunes and put new words to them (see "So Their Voices Can Be Heard").

PIO!: In chapter three of the book you mention that children make life worth living and that you originally got into children's music through playing for your own kids and learned a lot from them.

Pete: Well, I started singing and getting people singing with me when I was only a kid myself. My mother gave me a ukulele at age eight, and I went away to boarding to school. I can remember buying sheet music at the local music stores, puzzling it out and getting the other kids singing clever rhymes: (singing) He's just a sentimental gentleman, Georgia, Georgia/ Gentle to the ladies all the time… (talking) And so on. So there I am at age eight, nine or ten singing these plump songs. As I remember I was about ten, visiting my grandmother. She had some elderly friends visiting her. And she said, "Oh Peter, you've got your ukulele, sing us one of your songs." So I sang a Cole Porter hit from a Broadway musical, (singing) Love for sale/ Anyone for love?/ True love/ Any kind of true love/ Love for sale…

PIO!: (laughter) What did she say to that?

Pete: Well, I think she smiled.

PIO!: In chapter 10, you talked about Otto Preminger contacting you and asking, "Can you write me a song about the will to live?" to which you responded, "That's my business." That struck me as more than just a passing comment. It seems like that's what you've done, particularly in working with kids ranging from the really young up through college students. Could you say a bit more about that?

Pete: Anybody who reads the newspaper to know what's going on in the world realizes there is a slim chance that there will be a human race here in a couple hundred years. That's what the last story in my book is about, my father arguing with the scientists. They think that an infinite increase in empirical information is a good thing. Can they prove it? Of course not. There are insane, power-hungry people in the world. Is it logical to put in their hands things that will destroy the world? We're lucky, really just lucky, that Hitler said no, when they said, "Do you want our scientists to see if they can make a bomb out of uranium?" He said, "No, there are more important things to do." If he'd gotten the bomb, he would have had the world at his mercy….

Pete prepares musical notation for opening song at New York Metro regional gathering.

PIO! : But you still find room for hope despite the ongoing rush for scientific progress?

Pete: Yes, I do. I think I told you about my mantra: The agricultural revolution took thousands of years; the industrial revolution took hundreds of years; but the information revolution is only taking decades. Now it's true that Murphy's Law says that if an accident can happen, sooner or later it will. It could be two thousand years from now, some insane person finds his hand on the right button, and the next thing you know is the world is blown up, or the human race has put an end to itself in some way. On the other hand, some teen-age girl may work out the problem of how to cure an insane person of their insanity and then find out there's another girl her same age in India working on the same problem. She might say, "Look, let's work together. We'll find a solution quicker than either one of us alone."

PIO!: The singing, the music, getting people to sing together is hopeful also?

Pete: This is what the arts can do. The same words mean different things to different people. People can get furiously angry with each other if they only use words, but the arts can leap over barriers of politics, barriers of race, barriers of religion. And I think of the arts not just as music but as painting, dancing, food preparation and in a sense sports also. Joe DiMaggio leaping in the air for a fly ball was a work of art. So I look upon the arts as something that may save the human race. And the time to learn them is right when you're young.

PIO!: Last time we talked you mentioned that the CMN had grown out of the People's Music Network.

Pete: CMN was originally one of the committees in the PMN, but the PMN was purposely rather anarchistic and unorganized and this committee wanted to be a little more organized. So the CMN committee eventually decided it would be simpler if they met separately: one year on the East Coast, next year on the West Coast. The CMN did what the PMN never did. They'd invite some most unusual singer who might come from a thousand miles away or more but would add something extra to the weekend. I remember when they had Nona Beamer come from Hawaii. She had received college awards for carrying on ancient Hawaiian traditions even though the men in her family were all white. Her great grandmother, or her great great grandmother was told by her missionary husband, "Now here's how you set the table and we will speak English at the table." But once he came home and found her singing with the neighbor women. He said "This is beautiful, hope you get together more often." "Oh," she said, "we get together every week but I was scared to tell you." He said, "Well, please keep it up." Her daughter learnt these old things, married another missionary and, also very week, got together with women and danced the ancient dances and sang the ancient songs. That daughter in turn taught one of her daughters. So now the fifth generation person, looks more like a white person but their mothers have all carried on this tradition of "Here's how you do it, don't do it different." So Nona flew from Hawaii about 15 years ago to spend the weekend with people at the CMN annual meeting on the West Coast, teaching what would have been lost forever if the women in her family had not kept meeting with neighbor women and carrying on the ancient dances and songs. Phil Hoose interviewed her on the telephone from Massachusetts. He used to write extraordinary interviews and I was big fan his.

PIO!: That story reminds me of the words in your book about the importance of women in possibly getting the world to survive for the next couple hundred years.

Pete: Yes, this is going to be very important, and it's going to happen even in the Arab countries as women will get their children together [and say]: "I know your father doesn't agree with me but we have a desperate situation and you children can help solve it." It's going to be fascinating.

PIO!: We're also talking about the information revolution, where music is digitized and commercialized. People listen to it everywhere and it's much less participatory. What do you see as the positive and negative aspects of that?

Pete: The good and bad are really all tangled up in this world. I often quote John Philip Sousa, the band leader who wrote "Stars and Stripes Forever." In 1910, just a hundred years ago, he said, "What will happen to the American voice now that the phonograph has been invented?" It's true, people used to sing at the dinner table. Mothers would sing lullabies to their kids. Men would sing in bars. Now that's the exception, not the rule. However, there are, I believe, not dozens or hundreds, but I believe there are thousands of people who are looked upon as old grandpa, and who're now making up songs and getting people to sing with them. And who knows, in summer camps and schools, they still get kids singing. We'll see. My introduction to [the million-seller songbook] Rise Up Singing touches on this. I'd say what Pass It On! is doing is one of the most important jobs that need to be done for the whole human race. You might find out from people in other countries. Do you have any subscribers in China or Russia? There must be some people who are really into children's songs. There must be some way. Are there any people in the United Nations who are specialized in reaching children?

Pete performs at CMN 1998 National
Conference in New York City.

PIO!: There's UNICEF.

Pete: That's right, UNICEF. I think it's worth asking them for contacts around the world. When I was in Japan, we made movies of children in the school yard singing while drawing pictures with chalk. They were drawing traditional pictures, if you can imagine someone here drawing a picture of Popeye with his big muscles or Spiderman or something like that. They were singing, they had short songs, with rhymes in them, one little melodic line when they drew the legs on something, another piece of melody when they drew the hat. And there was a professor who took me there because he felt this was folklore that our cameras could catch.

We also had our cameras with us when we visited Samoa. And they had a welcome song, a very rhythmic welcome song. And the leader danced kind of a hula dance, weaving her body. The twelve-yearold students in the class sang the welcome song, but she led them. She gave the pitch and the tempo and they followed her. She danced the hula up and down the aisle. Unfortunately, we did not get this on camera, nor did we get it on camera that evening, because we sang for the local college, when a young man did a very masculine type of dance, up and down the aisle, but he performed the same function [as the woman did earlier] and the rest of the class took the rhythm and pitch from him. They sang the same song, but now by people in their late teens and twenties, where before it was sung by twelve year olds.

Here in the U.S., the first time the miners' union song "Which Side Are You On" was sung, it was sung by two small girls at a local union hall. The mother made up the song but the daughters were there when she made it up. She said, "No one will listen to me but they will listen to you two." So the two little girls went and sang at the union hall.

PIO!: Speaking of the importance of women and mothers in passing the torch, you wrote a good bit about Malvina Reynolds in your book

Pete: She played in a women's orchestra when she was young. She got married and had a kid and supported her husband, a left wing organizer. When she met me, her kid was starting to grow up and she thought she'd like to try writing songs and singing them. She was absolutely an extraordinary songwriter. Her daughter, Nancy Schimmel, is working on a biography of her mother now.

PIO: How do the arts help people overcome barriers?

Pete: Well, it's like in a joke: you suddenly find a meaning that you never heard or thought of before. When I heard the five-string banjo played by Kentucky mountain people, it gave me a whole new feeling for the instrument. Previously I'd heard banjos playing in early jazz bands or played elegantly by people who tried to make the banjo a classical instrument, and you'd study it like the flute. They'd learn and play correct notes and surprise people with how the banjo could play Schubert or Schumann or Chopin or Bach.

Pete plays banjo and sings from audience listening to "Kids from Room 12"
perform during NY Metro regional gathering.

PIO!: So you were impressed by the folk music approach, where people pick the instrument up and express something other than what's on a written page, something that has to do with their lives?

Pete: People are surprised with what the banjo can do…. It's basically a rhythmic instrument, more than a melodic or harmonic instrument.

PIO!: It's like a drum. I read somewhere that it actually came from an instrument that was brought over by African slaves.

Pete: Yes. Slaves introduced it. [Thomas] Jefferson had a little book called Notes on Virginia, and he mentioned the slaves' main instrument was the banjo. The drums were forbidden in the United States because they could signal slave revolts. Down in the Caribbean, or further south, slaves were allowed to use drums, but not up here. In the 1830's a poor white farm boy learned how to play banjo from slaves near him, and minstrel shows were born: "Oh Susannah," "Old Dan Tucker," "Dixie," and hundreds of others. His name was Joel Walker Sweeney. He put on blackface, rubbed his face with burnt cork, and put on shows with dialect: "Dis is how darkies sing dis song: 'I was gwine to de riber.'" Blacks turned away from the banjo, because they were insulted by the minstrel shows. And only a few blacks played banjo in the twentieth century.

PIO!: There's a saying on your banjo.

Pete: This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

PIO!: This reminds me of something else in your book about the influence of either African American music or African rhythms in bringing people together here.

Pete: Well, Alan Lomax put me on to it. He took early recording machines around to prison farms in the south and recorded black prisoners singing after WWII. One of my favorite songs is one of these prisoner songs called Long John: (singing) He's Long John/ He's long gone/ Like a turkey through the corn. (talking) Every line is repeated by the gang: (singing) Like a turkey through the corn/ Like a turkey through the corn/ With his long clothes on/ With his long clothes on. (talking) And when they invented tape recorders some professor came back from West Africa with the same exact melody, of course with African words.

You could say it's well known that American music is part African and part European and probably influenced from different parts of Europe and who knows where else. There are some melodies you can trace exactly and some you can only guess. There's a melody that is quite well known. It was sung back in slavery days: (singing) Got my hand on the gospel plow/ Ain't nothing for my journey now/ Keep your hand on the plow/ Hold on, hold on, hold on. (talking) I've heard four or five different versions of that melody, and during the civil rights movement: (singing) Keep your eyes on the prize/ Hold on… (talking) So melodies as well as rhythms came over, and instruments.

Oh, it's interesting. I tell people about the guitar. The guitar was not known in America in the early 19th century. It was kind of a middle class instrument, played by a few people in the north. But after the war with Mexico, the guitar swept across the south and slaves started playing it. They invented a way of playing whereby your thumb gets the basic beat; bum, bum, bum, bum, bum… And the fingers of the upper three strings usually would get the off beat and they would play the melody: Bebum, bebum, bebum, bebum, bebum. And they would play a melody: freight train, freight train. And every single one of those melody notes is syncopated syncopated. So it's the eighth note advance, instead of being on the beat: (singing and tapping out the beat on each word) freight train, freight train. It's not that. It's: (singing and tapping out the beat just after each word) freight train, freight train. The beat would come down a half moment later.

PIO!: isn't that an Elizabeth Cotton song?

Pete: Yes. She made it up when she was a teenager, borrowing her brother's guitar. So this style of guitar playing is now worldwide because white people picked it up here and imitated it in England and in other countries. It's all over the world now, folk guitar.

Pete sings at school assembly. Photo by David Bernz

PIO!: You tell an inspirational story about "We Shall Overcome" in your book

Pete: Very important to give Guy Carawan and his friend Frank Hamilton credit for giving it the particular kind of rhythm, because then it took off. I tell about the workshop they had at the Highlander [School] in 1960. And that was the hit song of the weekend. Guy had taught it to the 60 or 70 young people, and me too, in a rhythm we'd never heard it [played before]. It was 12/8 time: 4/4 time but each quarter note was broken up into 3 eighth notes: (counts and taps it out, then sings while tapping the triplets) We shall overcome. (talking) And this was a brand new rhythm for the song. One other song I use that rhythm for is "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder." My best songwriting in 1973 consisted of three words: "brothers, sisters, all" or "sisters, brothers, all." Quite a number of songs took off when they got rhythm into them. That's what jazz introduced. And I guess, [Earl] Scruggs banjo also. The songs were good, but the new rhythm just made them take off.

PIO!: In chapter 4, you say in much of rural and 18th and 19th century America, there were two types of music, church music and love songs, which were considered the sinful music'. In reading that I caught myself asking where were the folk songs and the children's music in there, which side were they on, or were they on both?

Pete: I think they would tend to be with parodies of the church songs. One of the most successful camp songs in America goes to the tune, "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain," which is "When the Chariot Comes," but the kids would sing (singing) She'll be coming around the mountain when she comes. Toot, toot/ She'll be driving six white horses when she comes. Whoa back/ We'll all go out to meet her when she comes. Hi babe/ We'll all have chicken and dumplings when she comes. Yum yum/ She'll have to sleep with grandma when she comes. Snore snore/ She'll be wearing red pajamas when she comes. Scratch, scratch. (talking) In camps you'd hear not that only that but half a dozen others. I believe that the kids might have been going to a church camp. While the parents were off listening to a sermon and singing the official hymn, the kids were off swimming somewhere, playing a game, anything to keep busy. They would start making up new verses. (sings several other examples).

PIO!: (laughter) I remember those.

Pete: Well I don't envy your job, having only a few pages and figuring what to say that would be of interest. But it is interesting that the CMN like the PMN did not want to be an organization with a capital O, handing down the law to all the beginners: "This is what you must do. Teach this song. Teach it right." They're a network, wanting to be in touch with each other: a much more democratic kind of a thing. Now, I may be claiming too much credit for what we've been doing, but I look at myself as old grandpa for a whole lot of extraordinarily talented song writers: people like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell, and a whole lot of others. I can't remember all their names, but we have made it very difficult for the powers that be [who might be complaining]: "Oh, if there was just one organization we could condemn and corrupt, but now they are all over the place. So where do we start first?"

PIO!: (laughter)

Pete: There are little organizations here and little organizations there. So the middle class is no longer under the thumb of people with big money, and who knows, we may be able to save the human race.

PIO!: That actually was one of the questions I wanted to ask you to talk more about, about going to the college campuses in the fifties, about that being some of the most important work you did.

Pete: It's probably the most important work. I could have kicked the bucket in 1960 and all these very talented young people would have kept on.

The interviews were transcribed by Anna Stange and Abette Denise Jones- Bey.