When I was in college, I interviewed Pete Seeger. He was a genuinely nice man, tolerant of an inexperienced upstart.
It was one of the very first times EVER I asked somebody questions, wrote down what they say, put quotes together in an article and had it published in the school paper (I had mostly wrote reviews and poems).
Pete Seeger was coming to play at the school – they had just built a new arts center – and the interview was part of a review of his concert. He seemed old then, older than my parents, even though they were the same age. You think everyone your parents age are the same and it was a revelation to find out that members of the generation protested the war, supported environmental movements too.
We talked a good while. I asked him about song writers and public affairs. I remember most him being just so warm and friendly. I must have told him I had seen him in concert. Ronald Reagan had entered office and I do remember one joke, what he thought of the new president – “he’s a good cowboy actor.”
I was a punk-er by then, but being a Dylan freak I was knowledgeable about folk music, etc. I had some good questions. I remember I had to get permission for the interview, and could not tape it. The concert was a good show – the school was very left-leaning, the majority of the faculty had been in the movement – and they loved singing along to those old folk songs.
I worked all night on that thing, the process was new to me and did not come easy. Also, it was on a typewriter, manual Smith Corona, onion skin paper. My philosophy professor and a student-advisor said to me after he read the article in the paper –– “hey Herrick, maybe you actually can write.”
A few years earlier – when I was 15 – me and buddies Danny and Tony – saw a Tribute to Leadbelly concert, with Seeger and Arlo Guthrie – also Sweet Honey in the Rock and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. How we ever heard about this concert or got tickets is lost to the mysteries of time. We loved the show, I remember liking it a lot but what I remember most is that Danny’s mother drove us, went out to dinner, then picked us up. In college, this had become a favorite teenage memory. The concert was released on CD a few years ago, but I never picked it up. I preferred the memory.
My buddy Danny has a story about meeting Arlo Guthrie in the early 90s and how he was astounded he had gone to the Leadbelly Tribute.
I’ve been a folk music fan since I was a kid. It has to do with being a Bod Dylan freak, which happened like at 13. See, that’s the evolution. Within two years of getting really into – in the parlance of the times – you’re off to the big city to see Pete Seeger sing songs that even then were at least a half-century old. Seeger pre-dated Dylan by about 30 years, although was also a contemporary a solo-artist – he was signed to Columbia also – and if you think of some of the other contemporaries, Seeger outlasted them and was still relevant 15 years or so when my musical tastes were in formation.
Me and the guys did not ask our mom to drive us to see Tom Paxton or the Kingston Trio, not to mention the Highwaymen. We probably had little to no idea who they were anyway.
Some artist linger past their time and some do not and Pete Seeger is somebody whose music lingered because of its authenticity. His recordings are really not that good, they certainly disdain any kind of polish. The studio was not his forte and his live recordings are more documentations of folk music as opposed to a preservation of a performance.
Seeger connects us to how songs were sung before recorded music. That is, together. His father was a academic folk musicologist, and Seeger had not just an library-sized memory for songs, if you listen to his interviews (there’s a swell one available for free at archive.org with the great Studs Terkel), he studied the evolution of these songs – a recent old song I’ve discovered – the Golden Vanity, a mournful ditty about a sailor who sabotages a ship, goes back to Elizabethan age, according to Seeger. He encourages us to sing along – I remember my philosophy rhapsodizing about how he loves singing along in groups with Pete, a main focus of the concert he performed and I can still recall – but he also engages us with the history of the songs. He was a scholar, but never in an ivory tower and made the scholarship – the backstory of a song – listen to Guantanamera, one of the few distinctively famous recordings of his long career –part of the experience. A.P. Carter collected songs from hither and yon, but he made them all into Carter Family songs and while Seeger was inspired by the Carter Family too, his ethnographic tendencies acknowledged lineages more than A.P. ever cared to, opening up a collective history to all the listeners. In contrast, the Carter Family seems to fabricate some Southern agrarian ideal that may be deeply involved with a grand mythology, yet is weirdly ahistorical. It’s a past without memory.
The context Seeger provides enhanced the song, often distracting from his musical gifts. He had a warm tenor, robust in his youth but as it became frayed and withered, it gained more gravitas without loosing warmth (a quality that eludes Dylan, for example). He was instantly familiar. He sounded like the neighbor you always wave hello to. Eternally optimistic, but convincing and credible.
Totally under-rated banjo player too, as good a picker as any but he wasn’t into showing off. His folk didn’t have a bluegrass flash. He was good as Ralph Stanley or Earl Scruggs, his contemporaries and peers. Musically, critics never gave him his due, but that started to change with reissues and box sets and of course the Seeger Sessions, where Bruce explored the music contained in Seeger’s song. I have both the studio and the 2-CD Dublin Live set. Bruce really performs a kind of exegeses on the music. Seeger sessions is not well regarded by Bruce fanatics – there’s no E-Street or Bruce songs and the lack of starkness that made his first foray into folk music – the Nebraska masterpiece – but it is one of his most rousing records. He has having so much. More importantly, he got me listening to Seeger again. I have a civil rights era Seeger recording of We Shall Overcome, and it is Pete with a crowd infusing a hymn with emotion and an unmistakable insistence on justice. With his Seeger Sessions large jug band, Springsteen opens the musicality of that song – what Seeger could do with a crowd and his sole tenor and 12-string guitar strumming, Bruce needs strings and horns. Bruce’s gifts as an arranger are under-recognized, and this arrangement showcases those powers at their height. We think of this as a simple song, but Bruce shows how much complexity there is that makes a song sound simple. Bruce moved on from the Seeger Sessions, but as we heard on Wrecking Ball, the influence of Peter Seeger has never left this latter-phase of his art.
Pete showed us that music was not just about technique or perfect notes, it was the sound of our collective humanity. His recordings go back to the 1940s, but he was taught by people who did not learn how to play instruments or use their vocal skills by records. Songs were passed down, from generation to generation, from field to porch. The musician is just a vessel, creating the means we share our humanity. Dancing at a rave, or joining in a chorus when the band does the hit you loved in high school for their encore – is that really so far removed from singing We Shall Overcome as the cops with dogs and night sticks block the Birmingham Bridge – or expel kids from Zuccotti Park?
Two weeks ago, I downloaded newly discovered Almanac Singers songs, his pre-Weaver band with Woody Guthrie. The album is State of Arkansas. I don’t really like The Weavers, but loved what I had of the Almanac Singers. The Weavers sound too commercial, over-produced and syrupy. The authenticity of Seeger’s solo work is absent.
Some of the songs were repeats I have on other Smithsonian Folkways collection, they didn’t make a lot of recordings this New Deal era ultra-lefties. The story on them is that they were pro-union and pro-workers, but also isolationist in the pre-Pearl Harbor United States – a total anomaly, because the isolationists were almost all 0—all except for the Almanac Singers – Republicans, anti-Roosevelt folks and committed anti-Semites/pro-Nazis. When World War II happened, the Almanac Singers changed their tune and supported the war. As they became popular, their isolationist past came out and could not find places to gig and broke up. Same thing would happen with The Weavers, who had actual number one hits, but because of Pete’s wobbly past, were blacklisted.
State of Arkansas is really a revealing folk album, shedding light on how even at this embryonic stage, topical songs were interwoven with folklore discoveries. Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston (we desperately need a revival of Cisco Houston, a near-forgotten genesis of a folk singer) were in the band and their repertoire includes some deep folk songs, for instance – Blow The Man Down – yes, the sea chantey I think I remember first in in Popeye cartoons. A revealing recording, they are singing with a serious intent, that whoever in that band first found this song first found it in its orginal authentic setting. Twenty some odd years later, when college kids at Newport were collecting folkways Sea Chantey collections, these songs were not being sang by sailors on the seven seas. When the Almanac laid down that track – which is very strange and its goofiness only makes it stranger.
In the past decade and a half, one of musical revelations is that country music is folk music (duh.) I love Roy Acuff, the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family – all the stuff that George Jones, Johnny Cash and even Hank Williams learned. A lot of the songs were on records by the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, even Dylan but done in what were unmistakably folkie arrangements, to my uneducated and inexperienced ears. Hell, they were mainly acoustic instruments.
But the songs also sounded like the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs I got into soon after being stuck with terminal Dylan-Freak-itis at 13.
But listening to that old timey stuff, barely political at all – unlike acoustic blues of the same era, like Robert Johnson or Blind Lemmon Jefferson or even good ole Leadbelly – who seem to at least imply that the hard times is due in part to society. Woody and Seeger, radical leftist platitudes. But they are set to the same melodies and chords. It’s wild. Union Train is the Wabash Cannonball.
In one of their anti-war ditties, well anti-draft – is C for – the song is a note for note rip off of T for Texas, by Jimmy Rogers. What weirdness, on so many levels. Hearing antiwar song from the World War II era is shocking. Seeger was so far left he didn’t like FDR? Now, that’s radical, but the naiveté both appalls and appeals.
But the other level is how does such a blatant rip-off happen. Were they’re royalties involved. Was it a rip off or a kind of parody? Did they cop the melody knowing it would spark a recognition in the audience, be a crowd pleaser or were thing so dispersed back then, radio so segmented and sporadic, that they could pretend it was theirs?
As tides changed, they became anti-Hitler (This Guitar Fights Fascists was written on Pete’s guitar, or was it Woody’s?) and there’s a great breakdown Rally Round Hitler’s Grave, not a deep song at all, just threats about boiling Hitler in oil kind of thing. It really rocks Great Seeger Banjo licks, fast as Earl Scruggs. This is up-tempo Appalachia and Seeger has an authentic claim to Appalachia, except the northern part of the range.
Too bad, Seeger never played with the Hillbillies, a duet album with Ralph Stanley. The old weird America, the Invisible Republic. Seeger was as much a part of that world as Roy Acuff or the Stanley Brothers or the Elmore Brothers or the Louvins. They were all doing the same melodies, all playing acoustic instruments, yet there was no over cross-pollination. Regional differences, politics, the secular verses sacred or just that the music business was so segmented then. By the time of the 1960s, the folk movement came along and that mountain music was relegated to the New Lost City Rambler re-creations and protest seemed to dominate what people thought of as this acoustic music of the people and it wasn’t until the 1970s with Will The Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt band did the rediscovery of that pre-honky tonk country music. Seeger wasn’t invited to jam with them either. As a listener, the music relates more than the musicians or the record companies would let it. Maybe if A.P. recorded Union Maid the right to work movement that holds down southern wages could be squelched.
A guy can dream can’t he?
Seeger is a hero whether you agree with his politics or not. He was always for the working man Die hard leftist and environmentalist, supporting civil rights, worker rights and our right to clean air and water long before those movements were popular and when doing so landed you in jail or blacklisted, which it did for Seeger many times.
A friend of mine pointed out that if it wasn’t for his Clearwater activities, the Hudson River would still be unflushed toilet bowl. People can swim in it now, eat its fish. That is thanks to Seeger and his banjo. His wife of like 70 years died in July, but he greeted canoers during an anti-fracking demonstration on the Hudson, playing his banjo on the shore.
What an amazing link to the past, playing for dustbowl refuges, union strikers, civil rights demonstrations, anti-war and Occupy Wall Street. I can't think of a another example of dedication to idealism and utter absence of cynicism combined with the longevity commitment. He did it when it was cool, when it was not cool. In the news or ignored by all but a handful, Pete and his banjo were found. He’s a hero. A true American hero.
And because he was New York –based, he was often in the news, part of our own firmament for as long my memory goes back. His death is strange. Not unexpected, he was 94 but it’s not like another celebrity of advanced years, when you hear he died you are not prompted to say, I thought he was already dead. We knew Pete was alive and with us and our side.
It’s like hearing a mountain or a river is dead. How can that be? But the mountains and the rivers, they’re not gone and neither is Pete Seeger or the songs or the human truths only music adequately expresses.
I found out something new about Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs that jarred another memory about my encounter with him.
What sparked this insight into the recollection was this article about Farm Aid this year, the last public appearance by Seeger.
But here’s a snapshot.
Neil Young, one of the show’s longtime headliners, had stopped in to pay his respects, and the conversation soon turned to the night in 1976 when Phil Ochs hanged himself… Ochs, a good friend and fellow folk singer, was in trouble. He’d been depressed and drinking for a long time, and he reached out to Pete… “Phil really wanted to talk,” Mr. Young recalled. Pete had to choose between staying in the city another night or getting home. He chose the train. “Pete remembered shaking hands with him, and when he said goodbye to him for the last time,” Mr. Young said. “He regretted not talking to him.” For 37 years, the decision to leave that night ate at Pete. “ ‘I wish I’d done something more to stop that from happening,’ ” Mr. Young recalled him saying shortly before he took the stage.
The way my long ago interview with Pete ended was sort of odd, he just stopped talking and his manager, Harold Leventhal (I know because he is interviewed in No Direction Home and he was a memorable man, when I saw him in the documentary I instantly recognized him).
The questions were going good but he just sort started mumbling and shut down.
I remember asking him about Phil Ochs, not about the suicide or anything like that. I recall asking him about newer song writers and mentioned Phil Ochs – Pete Seeger had a semi-hit, one of his last somewhat commercial cuts with Draft Dodger Rag. Seeger wasn’t known for interpreting new songs and even that one was 15 years ago. By the 80s, Seeger wasn’t putting out records much anymore.
I swear this is true.
What I remember is him just getting quiet, ending the interview. I was asking him questions before he went on stage, hanging out. I had to get permission and stuff. It was a big deal. The article was the interview and the concert. I have done tens of thousands of interviews since then, but like I said, this was my first, and so it is still sort of vivid and it’s been a favorite story. I’ve told it many times through the decades, a short anecdote. In retrospect, I just assumed he was just sick of answering questions and wanted to end the interview. Celebrities, I’ve read, will just shut you out when they don’t want to talk anymore. I assumed that’s probably what happened.
It was very odd though and now I think I have the explanation. This was about five years since Ochs hung himself by a belt from the door of his sister’s bathroom, an apartment in Queens.
Could just mentioning Ochs have shut him down? The manager was all over me, not in a mean way, but was sudden. It was not like I asked an obnoxious question – shoot, I was too nervous to be proactive or confrontational – and I had been talking him to for a good while, he gave me good stuff. But I did ask him a question with Phil Ochs in that question and he did stop talking, the rapport abruptly ending, and the manager, who was in the same room and listening I am sure to me and Seeger – he was the star and center of attention after all.
I’ve always been a little bewildered about that moment. I have also read a few Phil Ochs biographies, the New York times piece that appeared after his death was the first time that piece of news was released to the public. It was not in the Phil Ochs film, for which Seeger was interviewed.
I know that must sound a little bit out there, but I am telling you this happened. I am sure that’s why the manager cut me off, he probably knew this history – I think he managed Ochs for a while too, he published Sing Out I believe. He was a luminary in that circle, although I had no idea of that either.
Anyway, I read that thing about Ochs after I posted a FB post on the day Pete died from which I have expanded here.
I feel weird about it, I swear it’s true though. I didn’t mean to offend him and I know I didn’t, it was just inadvertent. He’s talking to some college kid who accidently sparks a regret. He was still friendly and polite and warm but the way that interview ended was perculiar. The gregariousness disappeared.