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John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


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Rik Palieri's Interview with Pete Seeger
Photos of Pete Seeger and Rik with Pete Seeger by Marianna Holzer
All other photos by Jamie Downs

 

SOME BACKGROUND FROM RIK:

"Here is the true story....... A few years ago I was touring over in England. The tour was set up by an old blues playing pal of mine. While I was there , he worked out an interview with West Country TV in Devon. A few months later he was touring over here and I was helping him with his tour. I wanted to repay the favour he did for me , and get him on TV. At first I was stuck. After all, I could not just call my local CBS affiliate and say "Hey I have this great guitar picking player from England , who is touring in the area, could you interview him?" (I know this because I did call and did not even get a reply. ) Then I remembered a friend who had a grass-roots political TV show on public access TV. I would see him at every rally or speech with his video camera . I called Ed up and got some information and contacts for the station. Next called up channel 15 in Burlington and told them my idea. They were interested but said "that sounds wonderful! But what are you going to do for your next show?" My next show? I was dumbfounded. Then they explained that I could not do just one show , I had to do a whole series.They welcomed me into the world of TV by saying ," Rik you are now a TV producer!" I spent the next few days working out an idea for the birth of what would come to be known as "Song Writers Notebook". I thought that with so many song writers on the scene It would benefit our community and the artist themselves to have a show featuring their music and a behind the scenes look at the world of the song writer. I called it The Song Writer's Notebook, because to any writer their notebook is the very essence of their being. It is where all the ideas come from and where their songs come to life. . Then I made up a wish list of guests including my English blues-playing friend Gareth Hedges. Some were local heroes, but there were also the names of some famous people too. With list in hand , I started making the phone calls to explain the project. To my surprise and delight every one on my list said "Yes!" Next, I sat around my house and watched a few copies of Pete Seeger's show "Rainbow Quest". The very show that inspired me,back when I was just starting out. I watched how Pete interviewed his guests and how he combined the interviews with a good mix of music , instruction and education . The big day came and I contacted the studio and made a opening show. With the help of two camera men and the studio engineer , I learned how to produce my show in studio shows. My first show was a introduction to the series and featured me doing the show myself. During the taping I asked lots of questions and practised learning how to work in front of a camera. I knew that I needed to feel comfortable in front of the camera before bringing in a guest. The first show went very well and then the series really started with my first guest Steve Gillette. Steve did a fantastic job, but he also set up a very high standard .After Steve's show , I realized that my guests not only had to be good song writers but they also needed to have a story to tell. Even to this day , when a song writer wants to do my show I tell them: "Everyone who has been on The Song Writers Notebook has a story to tell. What's yours?" Even if the song writer is unknown and lacks experience, if they have a good story to hang the show on, they're on! This guide line has helped me bring on lots of young musicians. All of my early shows were all done in the studio , with the same blue background, potted plants and wooden screen as most P.A. Shows . Soon I found out that in order to capture the vision that I was seeking , I had to get out of the studio and take my camera out on the road, right to where the action is.I soon learned from the in-house engineers how to put together a show from scratch; by video taping my own shows and then doing my own off-line editing. Since that time, I have made about 80 shows featuring the many facets of the world of music, Song Writers like Tom Paxton, Mary Macaslin, Ann Hills, Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips, Margaret MacAurther, Ellis Paul, Small Potatoes, Rachel Bissex, Greg Greenway, Elizabeth Von Trappe, just to name a few. My show has also covered topics like: Hobos ( video taped in boxcars and train yards ); The Celtic Connection Festival and The Open Roads Festival of Gypsies, both taped in Glasgow,Scotland ; The Phoenix Heritage Folk Festival; The Champlain Valley Folk Festival ( here in Vermont); The New Jersey Folk Festival; The Sloop Clearwater Pumpkin Festival; A live concert with Pete Seeger & friends at the Bitter End; Around The Camp Fires at Falcon Ridge; A visit with the Aston Martin Owners Club ( OK I couldn't resist a chance to spend a day riding around in a few vintage Aston Martins, and feel like James Bond); and the upcoming Visit with the CF Martin Company. It's hard to believe that the simple idea of helping out a friend has turned my life around, But thanks to Channel 15 my little show has a life of its own and perhaps with a little more luck we will be able to get it streamlined out on to the Internet. But John, isn't that what you are doing with this Pete Seeger Interview ?) Thanks again. RIK (Who is now running off to the studio)."


This interview with Pete Seeger was conducted by Rik Palieri, the singer/songwriter/Polish-bagpipe player (yes!), for his TV program, "Songwriter’s Notebook," and was recorded by Marianna Holzer, in Beacon, NY, March 21, 1999. Rik had previously made it available for radio, on audio cassette, and he discussed with us at The Philadelphia Folk Festival the idea of having it transcribed and made available on the Web for Pete’s legion of fans online. So here it is. As Rik says, "Pete was in rare form that day – he was really on." You can judge for yourself, as Rik, an expert, informed and unobtrusive interviewer, draws Pete out on a variety of subjects, and in the end is carried away into singing for Pete a birthday song composed by Utah Phillips and Rik for the occasion.

[Opening with Rik and Pete playing and singing together, two banjos and vocals, "John Henry…."]

Rik: Woo-ha! Hey, Pete, it’s great to have you on the "Songwriter’s Notebook"!

Pete:
I don’t know what "The Songwriter’s Notebook" is, but I guess I’ll find out.

Rik:
Well, it’s a great little program where we sit around and talk about songwriting, and the life of people who’ve been writing songs, and what these songs mean. And the reason I thought we’d start out with the old song "John Henry," I think it was one of the first songs that you learned, is that correct?

Pete: I met Alan Lomax in 1935, 37, because my father was working with him at the Library of Congress. Up till that time I’d known jazz songs, songs they taught us in the schools, European folksongs, and Christmas carols, and a few rounds that my mother taught me. But this was brand-new to me, the idea that you could, you didn’t have to have a book in front of you, and you could decide which notes and verses you were going to sing. And "John Henry" was one of the greatest songs I learned then – it’s still one of the greatest songs I know. It’s a noble ballad. Tragic at one time, bawdy at another, funny in another – well, that’s the way it is with a good song, it can mean different things at different times.

Rik:
Now, you were brought up in a musical family, your mother was a concert violinist –

Pete:
That’s right.

Rik:
And your father was a musicologist?

Pete:
He wanted to be a composer, when he was young, tried it, and decided he was not going to be a good composer. He wanted to direct a symphony – actually he did, briefly, when he was in college, doing post-graduate work in Germany, and directed the Cologne Opera’s symphonic Symphony Orchestra. And then finally he was going deaf, and instead of weeping about it, he ended up going into teaching, most of his life. He became the head of the Department of Music at Berkeley, California. Then he got himself fired, because he was outraged by the slaughter of World War One, and went around making speeches about the imperialist war, and next thing you know he was out of a job. He came East again, where he was raised, and he and my mother taught in the Julliard Institute in Manhattan. Their marriage broke up, and they sent me off to boarding school at an early age, but this part of the world, the mid-Hudson Valley, is where my grandparents grew up, and I’ve lived here most of my life.

Rik:
Now your Dad was involved in a thing called the Composers’ Collective. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Pete:
Well, in 1929 it looked like the free enterprise system had come to a dead stop. And he said, "There’s got to be some kind of strict discipline, to see the people are fed and employed. And it’ll either be done from the top – why not do it from the bottom?" So he sided with the Communists. About five or six years later he drifted out of the Communist movement, when the Moscow purge trials went on, he said, "This is no way to run a world revolution." But he and some other musicians, back in 1930, were trying to compose songs for the "proletariat" to "march to the barricades." Aaron Copeland was a member of the group, Marc Blitstein was – actually, they critiqued his first play, The Cradle Will Rock, he was so proud it went on to be a big success. They’d gone over it, note by note, with Marc. Eli Zeigmeister was another. There weren’t many women composing. As a matter of fact, he got a letter from a woman in Chicago who wanted to study with him, and he wrote back and said, "There have never been any good women composers, I think you should turn your talents to other things." Her name was Ruth Crawford, and she ended up becoming quite famous as a composer, she was a brilliant composer, and they ended up getting married, and my father ended up having four more children by her. I had two older brothers, so he had three by his first wife and four by his second.

Peggy Seeger, Pete's half sister,
at East Stroudburg University, 2000
Mike Seeger, Pete's half brother, and Utah Phillips
at Maraposa Folk Festival, 1978


Rik: Wasn’t there a poem your father made up about that time, about Rockefeller?

Pete:
No, it was a round, it was somebody else’s round, a nice little round – [sings] "Joy upon this earth, to live and see the day," first part – second part, "When Rockefeller Senior shall up to me and say, " Comrade, can you spare a dime?" [Laughter] Oh, it’s a fun round! It’s in that little book, Rise Up Singing, which has got all kinds of great songs in it – "O people," – remember the name – "Rise Up Singing." It’s been the biggest seller – you’d think a little outfit like Sing Out! Magazine, it’s sold over half a million copies. And they have old gospel songs, old pop songs, old country songs, satirical songs by Tom Lehrer, and they had a whole chapter of rounds. They’ve got "Voices Hallelujah," that’s my favorite round. I used to get audiences singing it, because I painted the words on a big banner, spread it across the whole stage, and teach the audience how to read music. Said, "See that letter O up there? And five lines, five horizontal lines, and then there’s a vertical bar. And another letter? And then another letter, and another bar. Each one of those O’s is a musical note, and underneath it says "A-le-luh-yah." Notice the first O is on a space, and then the next is on the line below it, and then the space, and then the line below it…. [Tapping his foot] See, you know how to read written music already!" [Picking on the banjo]

Rik:
I think that’s what’s endeared you to audiences all over the world, that you always get people to join in. How did you come up with that idea, of getting people to join in? I mean, Leadbelly used to do that a little bit in his shows; he used to try to get people joining in on the gospel songs.

Pete:
I have to confess it’s almost a religion with me. The world will be saved when people realize we all have to pitch in. You can’t just pay your money and hope that someone else will do the job right. It’s true, we can’t do everything, and I probably could be a better banjo picker if I didn’t try to do so many things at once. But, ah – my wife [Toshi] and I built our own house. Hammer and nails, plaster, cement, so on. And we cook most of our own meals. I read that 80% of American meals are eaten out. But I think my wife and I eat out only if we take a long trip somewhere, and we’re nowhere near a kitchen where we can cook our own meals.

Rik:
That probably goes back a long time with you, sharing a lot of food together when you were in Almanac House.

Pete: Almanac Singers was the name of a group that lasted, oh, not more than a couple of years. It started with Lee Hays, a big tall guy from Arkansas, whose father was a preacher, and he was the man who first taught me the song "Amazing Grace," and how you "line out" a hymn by giving the words to a crowd, and they sing it, you give them another line, you speak the words of the line, they sing it back to you. And his roommate, Millard Lampell, became a well-known screenwriter. And then a little, short, curly-headed guy from Oklahoma, name of Woody Guthrie. A woman joined us later on, from Oklahoma, a woman named Cis Kelly. And then a woman, Alan Lomax’s younger sister, Beth Lomax, joined us. Over two years we must have had eight or ten people, people left and new ones joined. We were very sloppy performers, Woody used to joke that we only rehearsed on stage. But we wrote song after song after song after song. And some of them are still sung.


Rik:
How did you – I know that one of the old 78’s that I have doesn’t have any names on it, it just says, "In the Spirit of Joe Hill."

Pete:
Ah yes. The Anonymous Movement. In Paris, a group of poets got together and said, "Our poems are never reviewed unless they’re by someone famous. We’ll fool the newspapers, we’ll publish our poems anonymously. And some of us, it’s true, are famous, and some of us are unknown. But the newspapers will have to review them without knowing who wrote what." And they foiled the critics. So when we wrote songs, we just said, "By the Almanac Singers." And then when we recorded, we said, "The Almanac Singers." We didn’t give who was who.

Rik:
And now – here comes the train! [A train rumbles past the recording site]

Pete:
Now – the express, to New York!

Rik:
When you were working together, the songwriting collaboration, how did that work? Did somebody come up with an initial idea, was someone more of a lyricist…?

Pete:
Well, Woody, of course, was the most prolific of all songwriters. Lee was prolific – actually, we were all pretty good at coming up with ideas, then somebody would add to it, and so on. For example, Woody wrote about fifteen verses to "Reuben James," And we said, "You know, Woody, nobody but you is ever going to sing those fifteen verses. If you’d give us a chorus, at least, then we’d – people have something to join in on." Well, Woody, he huffed and he puffed, but then after about a week, he wrote a doggone good chorus. He took elements of the verse melody, and he wrote a chorus that sounded like it flowed right out of the verse. And he pared down his fifteen verses to I think four or five. And it’s now sung, nearly sixty years later. [Sings, with Rik joining in after the first line:] "What were their names, oh what were their names, did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?"]

Rik:
Great, great song. Now, even before the Almanac, you were – when we were riding down here, we were talking about one of your first tours, you were traveling by bicycle, and painting [Laughter] barns, wasn’t it?

Pete:
Didn’t have any musical instruments along, had a set of water-colors, spent the Summer going from New England to New York State, never went hungry, I’d sit in the cow pasture and paint a house that looked nice, put some pretty clouds in the sky, and often there was one there, and I’d knock on the door and I’d say, "I painted a picture of your house, would you like to see?" And the man’d say, "Hey, Ma, come look, somebody’s painted a picture of our house." And then I’d say, "Would you like to have it?" And they’d say, "Well, gee, what do you want for it?" And I’d say, "Well, I’m camping out, and if I could get some food, eat some vegetables out of your garden, and it looks like it’s gonna rain tonight, could I sleep in your barn?" "You don’t smoke, do you?" "No, I don’t smoke." Well, I saw the country, never went hungry. And years later, the Weavers got some publicity, I got a few letters from people saying, "Are you the fellow that painted a picture of our house, twelve years ago?" [Gentle laughter, remembering.]

Rik:
You went from there and you joined a puppet theatre group, didn’t you?

Pete:
I played the part of the cow. And the farmer who was milking me said, "My wife’s left me because I’m so broke, I can’t even afford to paint the barn!" [Rik is giggling, an audience for Pete] And I’d say [cow voice] "Well, you’re very foolish not to get together with the other farmers and demand a better price for your milk!" The cow became the organizer for the dairy farmers! [Laughter]

Rik:
And one time you were up there, where was it, and a big strike occurred?

Pete:
It was in August, of 1939, and it was started by a small group, the Dairy Farmers Union, but everybody knew that something had to be done, they were getting paid two cents a quart for their milk, at a time it was selling for twelve and fifteen cents a quart in the stores – someone was making money but the farmers were going broke. And they won that strike thanks to that radical New York mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, and that Jewish Governor in Albany, Governor Lehman, and the CIO unions. So the three groups, that many upstate farmers didn’t like – there was a lot of anti-Semitism in upstate New York, more than there is now, and they didn’t like city people, didn’t like unions. But thanks to those three groups, those three people, they won their strike. Oh, it was quite exciting for a while, some weeks. And we went from strike meeting to strike meeting, all around upstate. And I put new words to an old song, there’s a story about murder [sings] "Oh Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me," and I put, "Oh Farmer, Mister Farmer, come listen to what I say," And the Milk Trust, Mr Shore out in Bethel was out to trick the farmers [Laughs quietly]

Rik:
And then you started doing a bit of traveling out on your own. Can you tell us a bit about that – the first time you hopped a freight train, your Dad gave you some money and told you not to hop the train, but you decided to hop it anyway?

Pete:
Well, that’s a little oversimplified [Laughter] I told him I was going to see the country. And he said, "Do you have any money on you?" And I said, " I have twenty-five cents." And he said, "Oh, take a five dollar bil
l! Please!" And he pushed a five-dollar bill on me, and I said, "Well, I’ll save it in case I need it." But Woody Guthrie had shown me how to sing in saloons. He said, "Pete – put your banjo on your back. Go in and order a nickel beer, and sit there, sippin’ it slow as you can. Somebody will say, "Kid! Can you play that?" And don’t be too eager. Just say, "Maybe. A little." Keep on sippin’ your beer. Sooner or later, somebody will say, ‘Kid, I’ll give you a quarter if you pick us a tune.’ Now, you swing it around. Play your best tune." {Laughter] So I managed to keep eatin’, and a little beer drinkin’, and got out to Nebraska. And there I decided to try to hitch, to ride the freight, for the first time. By then I’d hitchhiked. And I got on the freight OK, but when I got off I didn’t know how to jump off right, and "Whang!" the banjo hit the ground and broke off into two pieces. Lucky I didn’t trip meself. I did have a camera with me, and I hocked it for five dollars – or rather, hocked it and got a Gibson, a cheap, cheap guitar, in exchange, I mailed the banjo to somebody, and never saw it again. It was a nice Stewart banjo, and I never saw it again. And I got, oh, as far as Montana, and I learned to ride the blinds of a passenger train. That’s a fast way to travel. You sit right in back of the choo choo train, and you get covered with cinders, and you keep out of sight when you come into a station, but it goes a lot faster than a freight train goes. I went all across the state of Iowa in one day, from Omaha to Chicago.

Rik:
So you were out there collecting songs at the time.

Pete:
No, I wasn’t really collecting, I’d just run into somebody – I was out there in a bar in Montana, and somebody says, "You know ‘Strawberry Roan’?" I said, "I know the tune, but I don’t know all the words, and he said, "Sit down here, and I’ll give you the words." And he’d order another beer and scribble out another verse, order another beer, scribble out – by the time he got to the last verse, I could hardly read it! But I still sing the song [sings] "I was layin’ around town, just spendin’ my time,/ Nothin’ else to spend, not even a dime,/ When a fella steps up and he says ‘I s’pose,/ You’re a bronc-rider, by the looks of your clothes." Years later, the Weavers had a job in Elko, Nevada, and I met the guy who wrote it. Curley Fletcher was his name, he was in his 60’s then, I’m sure he’s long dead now. He said, "Yup, I was laid up in the hospital, after being in the rodeo and getting’ throwed, and I wrote that song."

Rik:
So you probably have lots of people who come back, years later, after meeting you when you were a young fellow, traveling around, picking up the occasional songs.

Pete:
Occasionally.

Rik:
Now, you got together with Woody, and you were traveling around, for one of your cross-country trips. What was Woody like back then?

Pete: Woody… I’ll always think with the flicker of a grin, on the edges of his mouth – he was always cracking jokes. Making up puns. Not that he wasn’t serious. He was basically a serious man, he had basically a serious purpose in life. He and his wife Marge decided that the most important song he ever wrote was not, "This Land is Your Land," but [singing} "Jesus Christ was a man, Traveled thro the land, /A carpenter, true and brave. / He said to the rich, ‘Give your money to the poor,’ / So they laid Jesus Christ in His grave." And he was just bubbling over with ideas. There was hardly a day that he didn’t think of some verse….



Rik:
Was he a big influence on your songwriting?

Pete:
Oh yeah! Well, he showed me, you don’t have to write a whole song, you just have to take over some verse. And if you change it a lot, you’ve got a new song. But quite often in the singing it, you find yourself adding a little or taking a little off. He learned the blues from a record that was made by Blind Lemon Jefferson, the "One Dime Blues" – [sings] "I’m broke, and ain’t got a dime!" A year later, he’d so rewritten the song that you could hardly recognize it. [Clapping, tapping his feet, up-beat] "I was broke, and I did not have a dime!" It’s a good song – both are good songs – but different songs.

Rik:
So you went from – when did you start using your music politically?

Pete:
I don’t draw a sharp line between politics and other things. You might say that love songs and .lullabies are not political songs, but [Laughs] now in these days when people are talking about population and abortion and everything, maybe in these days babies and love are the most political things of all! Woody showed me that a song could help people get together. [Tuning up] We were singing for oilfield workers in Oklahoma City, and the wife of one of these organizers said, "Woody, all these union songs are all about men! Brothers this and brothers that – can’t you write a song for the union women? Says, "This union wouldn’t be together if it wasn’t for the union women!" Next thing you know he put new words to an old tune [Starts playing, "There Once Was A Union Maid, " Rik joins in on the chorus] I wonder what Schubert would think, he used that song, he made it for "The Happy Ploughman," I don’t know, it might have been an old German folksong before that, and then some country singers put words to it as, "Little Redwing," around the year 1907, and this was in 1940, I heard Woody tap-tap-tapping on the typewriter in the union office, he’d stand up and try out a verse, sit down and tap out another one – neither he nor I realized how famous it would become, it’s gone around the English-speaking world, as a good union song.

Rik:
Then you really started doing some song collaborating, with Lee Hayes.

Pete:
Lee, I now realize, was some kind of genius. I used to think he was just cantankerous and hard to get along with…. But he just wanted to do things right – that is, his way. .. and more often than not [laughs] he was right! He put together the words for "If I Had a Hammer," and all I did was put a tune to it, and it wasn’t all that good a tune, Peter Paul & Mary changed my tune – then the song took off. He put together the words for "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." It was an old Irish song which had a chorus, "Oh, mosha, sweeter than thou," I think that means milk in Gaelic. "There was an old man and he had but one cow," and I couldn’t remember the words, Leadbelly had given it rhythm, and I came up with the idea of calling "Oh, Oh, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," and Lee says, "Hold on Pete, let me see if I can make up some verses," and he wrote about seven verses, and now we were singing together in a group called the Weavers, the year was 1950, and we said, "Lee, these are too many verses," and we pared them down to four or five verses, and it’s been sung by many people now, it’s almost a standard. I’ve played it at lots of weddings.

Rik:
Now, there’s sort of an in-between period, that you’d worked together with lots of people and formed an organization called "People’s Songs."

Pete:
Well, Lee Hayes and I had corresponded when I was in the Army, but the war was over now, and I said, "Lee, we ought to have a newsletter, so that we can keep together people like us, on the West coast and on the East coast, if we maybe had a few dozen readers that’d be enough. Burl Ives at that time was working in the movies in California, I knew the people down in the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and there were some in Canada, and so, the moment I got out of the service, Lee and I and some others had a little meeting, in Greenwich Village, New York, and we called our version, "People’s Songs," to distinguish it from the scholarly folklore societies, they called themselves, because we didn’t know whether it was a folksong or not, as a matter of fact, people to this day can’t agree on what a folksong is, I use the term as little as possible. Some people think a folk song is anything sung by anyone with an acoustic guitar. It’s a folksong. They may have written it yesterday, but it’s a folksong. They may have written it in some modern idiom, but if they’re standing on a stage before a microphone with an acoustic guitar, it’s a folksong. [Laughter] Oh, some old grandmother, leaning back in a rocking chair singing a traditional old song she learned from her grandmother, oh, "she’s not a folksinger, she’s not on a stage with a guitar!" [Laughter] That’s just some old song she’s singing!

Rik:
So that you had people from all over the country starting to get excited, that you started sharing the information thro The People’s Songs Newsletter?

Pete:
Pretty soon we had two thousand subscribers. And yet, we were not good businesspeople. We didn’t pay our bills enough, and three… years and a month later, it was in February of ’49, we had to close our doors. However, I put out a little mimeographed, interim newsletter, saying, "Some day we got to get together again," and a year later – year and a half later we started up again, called it Sing Out! Magazine. And Sing Out! is still going, it’s now in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and has like ten thousand subscriptions – maybe more now. It’s not a big seller, but has a big library, of hundreds and thousands of songs, old and new. If you want to know where to get any of my songs, or any of Woody’s songs, ten, hundred thousand others, get in touch with Sing Out! Got a pencil? Get a pencil – or a pen [Laughter] -- Telephone: 6-1-Zero – 8-6-5- 5-3-6-6 -- I’ll give it again later – I hope. [Laughter]

Rik:
Now, one of the probably… pivotal time periods was The Weavers’ appearance as the No Name Quartet, was at the Peekskill Riot. Right?

Pete:
We -- I wanted The Weavers to be on, we’d formed up six months earlier, but we were told "No, we want you, Pete," so I sang, the rest of The Weavers were sitting in the audience. So it was Woody Guthrie sitting in the audience, and a number of other musicians, but Paul Robeson was the main artist, and he asked Leonid Hambro – a concert pianist – to play a few numbers, and me to sing two or three songs. One of the songs was "If I Had a Hammer." That was September 4th, 1949, and it was a notorious occasion, because the Klu Klux Klan organized an attack, and they had members in the police force that stood by, watching, while people threw stones at every car that left the concert. The concert took place, and we were congratulating ourselves, "See, it’s America," the concert took place, but we didn’t know what was going to happen to us. As we left, it was like running the gauntlet. Around one corner it was a young fellow throwing stones from this side, around the next corner a young fella throwing stones from that side – every single window of the car was broken, several times. And there was a policeman standing about fifty feet away from one guy throwing stones. I stopped the car, tried to roll the window down, but it was so splintered I could only get it down about an inch. I called, "Officer aren’t you going to do something?" He just hollered back, "Move on!" So he knew all about it. Well, the town of Peekskill is very different now. Most of the people in town know that it wasn’t a good thing to throw stones at women and children. But they still don’t know the exact story. I don’t suppose any one person will know everything. However, I go back to Peekskill every year and sing. [Train whistle, pause for train to pass, taping pauses.]

Rik:
So after that, you went into performing with The Weavers, and you were probably surprised that Leadbelly’s song, "Goodnight, Irene," rose to the top of the pops.

Pete:
Leadbelly died only one year earlier. If he could have lived twelve months more, he would have seen his ambitions come true. He knew he was a good musician, he knew he had some great songs, "Irene, goodnight" was just one of them – "Rock Island Line" was another – [sings] "Let the midnight special" –that was another one. He had hundreds of great songs. But he died of what they called "amnyotropic lateral sclerosis" – what Lou Gehrig, the baseball player, died of – and it swept him away, he was about sixty-three years old, in 1949, it was December of 1949. Hey, it’ll be fifty years, this coming December. If anywhere up there you are, come December 14th, sing a few Leadbelly songs, in remembrance. Do that.

Rik:
What was he like, when you first met him?

Pete:
Very polite guy. Very soft-spoken. If he wanted to sing, he could sing loud! Take off his jacket, he had muscles like a prizefighter. In his sixties, he walked light on his feet, like a prizefighter. He had the heart of a champion. If he’d never been a musician, he might have been a champion athlete. Very well coordinated. He got in trouble when he was young, spent about twenty years of his life in prison down South, and the only way he survived was by being a good musician. The guards’d say, "Come on, Leadbelly. Play us some music tonight, we’re having a party." Otherwise he might have been killed long before. But his story’s now been told, many different ways – there’s a movie about him. However, the movie ended before he came to New York. One of these decades – one of these centuries -- someone will make a movie about how Leadbelly met Woody, in New York, around 1940.

Rik:
Were you there?

Pete:
Close friends.

Rik:
Were you there, at that time?

Pete:
Met Lee and other people – Lee Hays. ‘Course, this is what cities have done, throughout the ages. Cities make it possible for the people to meet each other, they might not have met otherwise. This is the days before they had the Internet. You can meet people [Laughter] internationally! But in those days, Woody from Oklahoma, Leadbelly from Texas, Lee Hayes from Arkansas, me from New England, Millard Lampert, a fellow from New Jersey – Aunt Molly Jackson from Kentucky—and so on, well we met in New York, and started off this thing they called a "folk boom." I, ah, mistrust words. So I use these terms as little as possible [laughs].

Rik:
I guess one of the funniest stories I’ve read is how Woody got the neighborhood restaurant to give you one of these "Oklahoma Burgers," on credit – what was that all about? [laughs]

Pete:
No, we had to pay extra! He went into the corner restaurant, called the Jefferson Diner, right across from the Jefferson Market, where Greenwich Avenue bumped into Sixth Avenue, yes, that was it, I think – anyway, he got a hamburger and said, "What kind of hamburger is this – a little meat? A little roll? Why, in Oklahoma, we get a slice of bacon! We got a slice of lettuce! Onion! And mayonnaise! That’s what we call a hamburger in Oklahoma!" The man says, "Well, it’s gonna cost you an extra nickel, but I’ll give it to you." And when we went into that diner, we asked for an Oklahoma --- "Oh, you mean with everything!" And four years later, after World War Two was over, we went into the same diner, and said, "Do you still sell Oklahomas?" and he said, "Oh, you mean hamburger with everything?" [Laughter]

Rik:
A legacy left behind! So you brought home the new word, "hootenanny."

Pete:
Woody and I ran into the word, "hootenanny," in Seattle, Washington. It was used for the monthly fund-raising party for the New Deal Political Club. Hugh Delacey, a wonderful carpenter, had started it, and later on got elected to Congress by it. And once a month they had food, maybe a big Kraft elbow, and maybe dancing, maybe a movie would be rented, and some singing, an informal party. The organization had a vote on what to call this monthly party, and "hootenanny," the word "hootenanny," won out overt the word, "wingding," by a nose [Laughter] Both of them are country terms for an informal party. The man who brought the term to Seattle was a man from Indiana – he said that’s where he learned it. Well, that used to be French territory before the English, captured in one of the French and Indian Wars, in the year 1764, and once there were some French students at Cornell University, and they said, "You’re having a ‘hootenanny’ here? Really?" And they said, "What’s wrong?" And they said, "Well, where I come from, that’s when they shoo the bride and groom out into the fields, and they spend the first night, uh…" [Laughter]

Rik:
So you brought this term back to New York, and that’s how you paid your rent…?

Pete:
We’d have a Sunday afternoon party, and charge thirty-five cents at the door, which is like charging five dollars now, and people, we’d sing all afternoon. Josh White would show up, and Leadbelly, Burl Ives, and quite a range of people – Aunt Molly Jackson, her half-brother Jim Garland…-- it was a lot of fun.

Rik:
Now, was that where you first heard Leadbelly sing "Goodnight Irene"? Did you think it was a special song when you first heard him sing it?

Pete:
Oh, we knew it was a good song. We just didn’t think the entire American people would recognize it and so on. It was the B side of the record. The first record that we made. Then the disc jockeys, out of curiosity, said, "Let’s see what the other side is." And people called in, "Play that again!" And, within a month, this was the Number One song, all over the country, it stayed at Number One, Number One, week after week after week, for two or three whole months – you couldn’t escape that song in December of 1950 in the United States. You’d go into a diner and somebody’d say, "Turn that jukebox off – I’ve heard that song fifty times today!" [Laughter]

Rik:
And then, right in the middle, just when The Weavers were really taking off – the Red Channels were published!

Pete:
Well, I’m sure the blacklisters said, "How in the world did we let these so-and-so’s slip thro our fingers?" We thought we were such small potatoes, why were they bothering about us, and suddenly there we were, on all the airwaves. Well, they chopped us down, little by little, a year later we weren’t welcome on the television, and instead of being welcomed into the big, ritzy nightclubs we were down to Daffy’s Bar and Grill. Finally, in ’52, we took a sabbatical, Lee Hayes said it turned into a "Mondical" and a "Tuesdical." But a man named Harold Leventhal, my agent, and he’s still my manager, he said, "Would you be willing to put on a reunion concert?" Ronnie by now had a baby, Fred had gone back to college, Lee Hayes had been writing short stories, I’d been building a house, raising a family, doing a little teaching. Well, Town Hall would not rent to us. They wanted to stay away from political types like us. But Carnegie Hall said, "Oh, if you’ve got the money, we’ll rent to you." And we filled Carnegie Hall. It was astonishing. And it was recorded by the then-little Vanguard Record Company, and it was not a bad seller. All of a sudden The Weavers were in business again. We didn’t have to go to those damned nightclubs. We didn’t have to go on the television. We just went from college to college to college. But, trouble was, being a member of a quartet is like being a member of a family. And I was raising my own family. And in 1957, I said, "Please, get somebody to take my place. And how about Erik Darling?" They made wonderful records with Erik, he’s still wonderful. He lives in Arizona –

Rik:
I was just with Erik.

Pete:
Oh yeah?

Rik:
At Folk Alliance. We went out to dinner, and I said, "Erik, was it difficult for you, to replace Pete?" And he said, "Well, you know, I was so busy trying to learn all the things that Pete would do, and he talked about one thing that you would do, when you were doing a Spanish song, you know, and you really can get your fingers moving along [banjo picking],
you know, and he really had a devil of a time with that, because he knew his fingers would not make it thro the whole thing [laughs] – and he says there was another time, when it really came to him what it was like, to be replacing you, and he said he was in Glasgow, and The Weavers were playing, and a guy in the back of the room says, "Sing "Down in the Mines"! [Rik with Glesga accent], and they knew he didn’t know it, so they just ignored it and went on a bit, and a few minutes later, same voice, "Sing ‘Down in the Mines’!" Well, Ronnie went into this elaborate thing about, "Sorry, we don’t know the song, we’re really sorry, the next time we come back we’ll really learn it," and a few minutes later, the same voice, "Sing ‘Down in the Mines’’! Pete Seeger would have sung ‘Down in the Mines’!" [Laughter]

Pete:
You know the song we’re talking about, "Dark as a dungeon, /Way down in the mines" -- great song. Merle Travis was a Kentucky man, his father was a coalminer, but he said, "Merle, get out of coalmining if you can, this is a good way to get killed. He says, "The only reason I can’t die, I owe my soul to the company store." And Merle was thinking about his father, I think he was working on a country music station, and he pulled his car to the side of the road, pulled out a pencil and paper, and wrote down the words of "Sixteen Tons," and then a few days later, "Dark as a Dungeon, ‘way down in the mine," away back in…47 – but they didn’t become famous until Tennessee Ernie made a record of it about four years later.

Rik:
So you kind of dropped out of The Weavers, and you started doing solo shows all over the country, barnstorming the colleges, pioneering the whole "college circuit." And just when you started getting things going along, all of a sudden you got slapped with ah, by HUAC….

Pete:
Well, at the very beginning of it, 1955, when I was just started singing in colleges, I was called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee, "Mr Seeger, are you a Communist, did you sing here, did you sing there," I said, "I’ve got a right to my opinion, you’ve got a right to your opinion, I’m not using the Fifth Amendment to protect myself, I think these are questions that no-one in America should be asked, especially under the threat of reprisal if they give the wrong answer," and every time they asked me the question, I said, "Same answer," Finally he said, "We do not consider this sufficient answer, do you realize you may be cited for contempt of Congress?" I think I shrugged, which made him mad. Uh – however, you know, the crazy thing was all he did was give me free publicity. I kept on going from one college to another college – most important job in my life. I could have been – I could have kicked the bucket in 1960, but I’d done the most important job in my entire life, I’d introduced the songs of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, to a whole new generation of young people, and these were the people who carried it on – Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton – and a whole lot of other songwriters. But I didn’t kick the bucket, my wife and I helped others get started, and the Newport Folk Festival introduced a lot of other people to the idea that, hey, you could have a lot of fun, don’t care whether it’s "popular" or not, as long as you like it, that’s the important thing.

Rik:
H’m. Now you were talking about that period of time when you were under the eye of the House Un-American Activities Committee, you went inside yourself, and you came out with some of your most long-lasting songs.

Pete:
Well, there’s ups and downs in everybody’s life. First of all, I’d like to say my wife and I have been together now, this Summer it’ll be fifty-six years. If there’s any heroic person in the world, it’s my wife, who kept the homefires burning while I was traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling – we didn’t used to have running water, she’d have one kid on her back, and another one pulling at her skirt, and walked a hundred yards down the hill to get a bucket of water to cook with, and if a dog barked at night, she didn’t know if someone was out there – we lived on a deserted mountainside, and…. Like any person in this world, I’ve made mistakes, I remember in 1968, feeling very blue, because Martin Luther King had been assassinated in April, and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in May, I think it was, early June, and in the Fall Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, I was at sea, by then I was 39 years old, no, forty-nine years old! Hitting the half-century, so I made up a blues, and I guess I never thought anybody but me would sing it, but Guy Davis, a wonderful young blues singer…[Tuning, then sings to banjo:] "When my songs have turned to ashes on my tongue…. /When I look in the mirror and see I’m no longer young…. / When I’ve got to start the job, of separating false from true…. /And then I know, I know I need the love of you…. / I’ve found tarnish, on some of my brightest dreams…/Then some folks I trusted turn out not quite what they seemed…./Then I’ve got to start the job of separating false from true…./ And then I know, I know I need the love of you….[banjo break]…." Well, there’s room for all different kinds of song in this world….Soft ones, slow ones….Angry ones…

Rik:
What is your favorite one, of all the songs you’ve written?

Pete:
Well, that’s like asking a mother what her favorite child is! Uh…. Well, I like blues…. "Midnight Special" is still one of my favorite songs of all time – it’s an irregular blues. When Gordon Jenkins the band-leader heard it, he said, "I’ve never heard a seven-bar blues before!" You drop a beat when you’re coming into that song – I didn’t write it, I just learned it from Leadbelly – I made up a verse, tho – a verse appropriate to this season of Spring! I don’t know when you’re going to put this on the air, but uh…. [Banjo re-tuning, then:] "Bright yellow blossoms…/ Just as pretty as you please…/ Daffodils and lilacs, all the dogwood trees…/ So many colors…/ Makes your heart want to sing…/ you thank your lucky stars…. /For getting one more Spring…. [Rik joins in on chorus] Oh, let the Midnight Special/Shine her light on me/ Oh, let the Midnight Special, / Shine her ever-lovin’ light on me…[Pete drops into a bass voice, growls the end]… Ever-lovin’ light on me!" [Laughter] No, I don’t have any one favorite song -- some I sing more than others, I’ll confess, at any one time I find myself singing a song over and over again. Right now I’m intrigued by a song I helped put together – all I did was write words, to somebody else’s music, somebody else, one of the most famous musicians in all the world, a fellow named Ludwig von Beethoven, two hundred years ago writes a simple melody – actually, two melodies together! – one of them alone doesn’t seem to mean too much, but put ‘em together [slow picking out on banjo] --- it’s the Seventh Symphony, and I put words to it. "We’ll work together, even tho we work differently." That’s one saying, but the top part is saying, "Tho-We-Work-Differently," so the words aren’t exactly the same, "When we consider, the many great dangers," the other part says simply – "All – Of -the dangers…" And, "Visions of children, asking us to save them." You know, you think of it, our grandchildren’s grandchildren, they’re not going to exist, if we don’t save this world from the fools who think that bombs are the way to solve the world’s problems. Or bacteriological warfare. And uh, I’ve become much more of a pacifist in my old age. I’m convinced that the world can and will learn that… it’s better to talk than shoot? And when words fail – and they will fail from time to time – people don’t use the same words – they use grand words, like "Freedom." Hah! It means such different things it’s like a joke! One person’s talking about freedom of private enterprise, another person’s "free to a prose-fight!" Another person’s "freedom of scientific research." Freedom to be free of too much scientific research!

Rik:
Pete, with the Millennium coming up, what are some of your hopes for this world?

Pete:
While there’s life, there’s hope. While there’s young people, people know how to laugh. And between, uh, willingness to communicate – and that means not just words – use the arts, use sports, use food. One woman says, "Don’t forget hot tubs!" [Laughter] "Whyn’t you get the leaders of the world in a hot tub together?" And if we realize that we can communicate – we don’t have to all the time – there are times just to be silent – I think there will be a world here. It’s true that no one of us is more than a grain of sand. But here’s a little parable I thought of years ago. Imagine a seesaw, and one end is on the ground because there’s a basket half-full of rocks on that end. And the other end is up in the air, because there’s a basket only a quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill it. Most people are laughing at us, "What do you, gee, it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in!" And we say, "Well, it’s true, but we’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time, and it’s not leaking out quite as fast as it’s going in," and one of these days, you’re going to see that whole seesaw just go "Zoo-oop!" And people will say, "How did it happen so quickly?" "Us and our doggone teaspoons…!" [Quiet laugh, gentle ring on the banjo.]

Rik:
Well, Pete, I think we have time for about one more song. [Begins to play and sing: "I asked your mother for you. / She told me you were too young. /I wished to the Lord/ I’d never seen your face/ I’m sorry you ever was born…!"

Pete:
[To recording crew] Sing it with us! [They join in] Irene, Good ni-ight, I-rene, Good night! [Everyone] I-rene good-night – good night Irene, Irene goodnight, I’ll see you in my dreams!"

Rik:
"Sometimes I live in the country/And sometimes I live in the town/And sometimes I get the great notion/To jump in the river and drown!"

Pete:
Well, sing it! [All join in next chorus]

Rik:
You know, my favorite verse is that one – "Stop your ramblin’/ Stop all your gamblin’/ Stop stayin’ out late at night!" [Pete is lining it out] "Go home to your wife and family/Stay there by the fireside bright!" [All join in ]: Irene, goodnight, /Irene, goodnight/Goodnight, Irene, /Irene, goodnight, / Good night, Irene, / Good night, Irene/ I’ll see you in my dreams!"

Rik:
Well, she caused me to weep, / She caused me to mourn, / She caused me to leave my good home, / But the very last words I heard her say, / "Honey, stay just one more song!"

All: [Last chorus]

Rik:
And thank you, Pete Seeger, thank you for being on "The Songwriters’ Notebook’!
[Gap in tape]

Rik:
I have a little surprise I want to do for you off-camera. This is a song that Utah Phillips and I wrote for you. I was just with Utah a week and a half ago….

Pete:
Ohmygosh!


Rik: And uh… [Begins melody on guitar] He wrote the words and I tried to put a tune to it. He says that he wrote the words when you came out to see him in California, and he said that he has always wanted to tell you how much that you have meant to him, and he wrote this song, and then I was visiting, and he says, "Rik, I haven’t been able to come up with a melody’ – and there’s a part of it that’s your [Pete’s?] words near the end:

[Sings:]"Let me tell you of a jewel, /In the middle of my mind/ A voice so pure and simple, / It helps my life shine/ It’s a name you all remember, /A face you can’t forget, /A voice that time is aging, /But it’s still singin’ yet. /
[Singing and playing] He gave his voice to the people/Everywhere he’s been/Lift every voice and sing out! / And pass it on again!"

Pete: Good tune!

Rik:
"From picket lines to Peekskill, /He’s always there to sing. /From Seabrook to the Pentagon, /You can hear his banjo ring. / From Selma to Delano/And a thousand places more, /His voice is like clear water, /Running on the Hudson shore. /He gave his voice to the people/Everywhere he’s been/Lift every voice and sing out, /And pass it on again! /He gave his voice to the people/Everywhere he’s been/Lift every voice and sing out! /And pass it on again! "Oh sacred world, now wounded, /we pledge to make you free. /Free of war, free of hate, /Or selfish cruelty. /And here in our small corner, / We plant a tiny seed, /And it will grow in beauty/To shame the face of greed/
Let me tell you of a jewel/In the middle of my mind/A voice so pure and simple/It helps my life shine/Its name you all remember/A face you can’t forget/A voice that time has aged, /But it’s still singing yet! /He gave his voice to the people/Everywhere he’s been. /Lift every voice and sing out/And pass it on again!" Happy birthday, Pete!


[Tape ends in laughter]Thank you for the privilege of transcribing this audio-tape, Rik; thank you for recording it in the first place, Marianna. Rik Palieri’s own recordings are available thro his website http://www.rikpalieri.homestead.com. Utah Phillips’ birthday song to Pete, is of course, copyright by Utah Phillips ("Is not the laborer worthy of his hire?"), so please contact him, at:

before attempting to sing it from the lyrics printed here – and happy two more birthdays to Pete Seeger since this tape was originally made, and many, many more following. The music of Pete Seeger is now being released through Appleseed Recordings (http://www.appleseedrec.com) the latest in the series being "If I Had a Song, The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol II" (APRCD 1055), with Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Eliza Carthy, John Wesley Harding and The Minus 5, Steve Earle, Dar Williams and Toshi Reagon, Arlo Guthrie, John McCutcheon and Cory Harris, Moxie Fruvous, Eric Anderson, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Joel Rafael Band, Guardabarranco, Kim and Reggie Harris, and Magpie, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, and Larry Long joining Pete in a tribute to "Folk music's most celebrated living icon." – John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs.