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Fresh Air's summer music interviews: Pete Seeger

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we conclude our series of interviews with musicians from the FRESH AIR archive. Since today is Labor Day, we've pulled out our interview with Pete Seeger, who is famous for singing songs about working people, unions and social justice. Seeger is one of the most important figures in the history of American folk music. He popularized Woody Guthrie's song "This Land Is Your Land" and wrote "If I Had A Hammer" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" In the 1940s, he sang union songs with the Almanac Singers.

A few years later, he co-founded the Weavers, who surprised everyone, including themselves, when they became the first group to bring folk music to the pop charts until they were blacklisted. Seeger refused to answer questions about his politics when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. His conviction for contempt of Congress was eventually overturned on appeal. As a young man, Seeger believed songs were a way of binding people to a cause. Here's one of his many labor songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COTTON MILL COLIC")

PETE SEEGER: (Singing) When you go to work, well, you work like the devil. At the end of the week, you're not on the level. Payday comes, you ain't got a penny 'cause when you pay your bills, you got so many. I'm going to starve, and everybody will, 'cause you can't make a living in a cotton mill. When you buy clothes on easy term, collect will treat you like a measly worm. One dollar down. And then, Lord knows, if you can't make a payment, they take your clothes. I'm going to starve, and everybody will, because you can't make a living in a cotton mill.

GROSS: Pete Seeger kept singing and protesting right through 2011, when he joined a march in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests. For many years, he was also a champion of environmental causes. When I spoke to Pete Seeger in 1984, he told me about how much he was influenced by Woody Guthrie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SEEGER: Woody showed me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains, how to sing in saloons. I said, what kind of songs do you sing? Well, he said, this year, here's five or six tunes that are nearly always worth a nickel or a quarter. (Singing) Makes no difference now what kind of life fate hands me. I'll get along without you now. That's plain to see. It's a Gene Autry hit - was in 1940.

GROSS: Was it hard to learn how to jump a railroad car?

SEEGER: No for men. It's - of course, for a woman, it would be much more difficult. The danger of being assaulted by men who assume that any woman who'd travel that way is open to his advances. But Woody said, you wait in the outskirts of town. And when the train is picking up speed, it's still not going too fast, you can grab a hold of it and swing on. Getting off the first time, I didn't know how to do it. And I fell down and skinned my knees and elbow and broke my banjo. Fortunately, I had a camera with me. And I hocked it in a local pawn shop and bought a very cheap guitar. I knew a few chords. And I got through the rest of the summer playing the guitar.

Woody was a direct actionist. When he was singing once for - to raise money for war bonds during World War II, he and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were in Baltimore. And they said, Mr. Guthrie, we have a seat for you at the table. And your friends, we have some food for them in the kitchen. He said, what do you mean? He tipped the whole table up - a big, crowded dining hall - dumped a whole table full of plates and everything on the floor and tipped another table up. And finally, he was restrained. And Brownie says, Woody, you're going to get us all in trouble. I'm lame and Sonny's blind. And they let him out. He was absolutely furious.

Now, part of his education - here's what happened. Before he met a lot of radicals, he was singing country songs on a little station in California. And he sang a song with a lot of dialect. It was probably an old minstrel song - I's going across the river. And he got a letter. Dear Mr. Guthrie, I think you mean well or I would not bother to write. But don't you know that kind of dialect is deeply offensive to people like me? We like your music, but that dialect is unnecessary. It's a relic of slavery. Woody, next day on his program, read the man's letter on the air, said, folks, I just read you this guy's letter. I want to - and now I'm picking up a copy of that song. Now, you listen. I got the copy of this song right near the microphone. And he took up that song. And he held it near the microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER TEARING)

SEEGER: He tore it into strips...

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER TEARING)

SEEGER: ...Right in front of the microphone. That was Woody Guthrie.

GROSS: You started doing a lot of performing for unions in union halls and even on picket lines. How did you all come up with the songs that you thought would really speak to the people who were there?

SEEGER: With long discussion. When I met Lee Hays, I met one of the few geniuses I've met in my life. We were always talking and thinking of what kind of songs were needed. We'd be trying out this and trying out that. Sometimes one person would start a song and another person would finish it. That's how it was with the song "Talking Union." We'd heard Woody singing, you know, the old "Talking Blues."

(Playing guitar, singing) If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you what to do. Got to grease your feet in a little mutton stew, slide out of the devil's hand, ooze over in the Promised Land. Take it easy. Go greasy.

And so on. And I don't know whether it was Lee or Mill or me who thought of...

(Playing guitar, singing) You want higher wages, let me tell you what to do, got to talk to the workers in the shop with you. Got to build you a union, got to make it strong, but if you all stick together, boys, it won't be long. You get shorter hours, better working conditions, vacations with pay, take your kids to the seashore.

They made up most of the first part of the song. And they had one problem after another. Suddenly, it came to a dead stop. How are you going to win? The song was unfinished for a couple of weeks. And up on the roof one day, I found myself thinking, well, the only way any of these struggles are won is by the unity of people. I wrote three more verses - didn't have much rhyme in them, as I remember. But I got the idea across that in spite of all the things that could go wrong, all the attacks that would be made on a group of working people that you could win if you stuck together.

GROSS: In 1949, you were one of the people who were supposed to perform at the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill.

SEEGER: I did. I sang "If I Had A Hammer" and "T For Texas." I forgot what else. "We Shall Not Be Moved," maybe.

GROSS: You and many of the people there were...

SEEGER: And we had stones thrown at us.

GROSS: Yeah.

SEEGER: It was a pretty horrifying day. A lot of people thought, this is the beginning of American fascism. This is how Hitler got started. I was just one of 10,000 people. There were 20,000. It was a huge crowd, came to hear Paul Robeson. But the Ku Klux Klan had infiltrated the police force of the county and maybe the state, for all I know, and the city. I don't know the details. But it was the Ku Klux Klan that initiated the attack. And they had the concert surrounded with walkie talkies, like a battlefield.

And after the concert was over, everybody who attended it was directed down one road. There were three roads you could have gone, to the left or straight ahead or to the right. Now, I wanted to go to the left because my home was up there. But the police said, no, all cars down here. And they directed us as though they were going to run the gauntlet. And there were some 15 piles of stones about the size of a baseball, which had been waist high, these stones, thousands of stones. And every car that came by got a stone - wham - at close range.

There was a policeman standing about 80 feet away. And I said, officer, aren't you going to do something? And he said, move on, move on. Then, I look around. The guy in back of me was getting stone after stone because he couldn't get past me. I was stopped. So I moved on. Funny, last - about a year and a half ago, I was out west. A man says, Pete, you were at Peekskill, weren't you? Yep, I said. He says, do you remember the car in - time you stopped and spoke to a policeman? And I said, yeah, and there was a car in back of me getting hit. He says, I was in that car. I...

GROSS: Had he been hurt?

SEEGER: Yeah - well, he would have been killed if I hadn't moved on.

GROSS: When you look back - I don't know about how many times before that you had been confronted with that kind of direct violence. How did you behave during it? And are you satisfied with the way you behaved when you look back?

SEEGER: Well, I'm sure that in retrospect you can just think how the things we did wrong - but knowing what I knew then, why - I think we did the right thing. And I was of the opinion then that the average American wouldn't go in for that kind of fascist approach. You see, there were signs went up in Peekskill. Somebody printed them up. They were put on bumpers, bumper stickers. They were put in windows of apartments and houses. I saw them in bars. They said, wake up, America; Peekskill did. Now, it was all America to do the same thing. You find these Commie so-and-so traitors, whatever you think they are, and you show them what's going to happen to them. Either they get out of this country - that's the whole idea of America, love it or leave it.

Yet within about a month, those signs were taken down. Now, nobody knows exactly why those signs came down. But I'm convinced that within Peekskill, there were many arguments within families - might have been a grandparent that would say, you mean you threw stones at women and children? Well, we don't like these people either. But still, you don't throw stones at women and children. I mean, is that what Abe Lincoln would have done? Is that what Thomas Jefferson would have done or anybody you admire? Is that what Jesus would have done? And it's significant that those signs did not stay up in Peekskill. And you'll be interested - as of last month, Peekskill has a Black mayor.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Pete Seeger in 1984. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, "JESSE JAMES (JUST ASK)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Pete Seeger in 1984.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: During the 1950s when you were performing with the Weavers, I think that, initially, you performed at a lot of demonstrations and union halls and outside. And then, you made a decision to start trying nightclubs. Was that a big crisis to actually decide...

SEEGER: Oh.

GROSS: ...To move into the clubs?

SEEGER: We - that was a soul-searching. In one sense, I felt we was going into enemy territory. Why should I want to contribute to the nightclub scene, which I thought was anathema? I come from old New England Puritans, who thought nightclubs were dens of iniquity, and never have been much of a drinker myself. But I wanted to reach people. And I remember Woody telling me, Pete, if - it's good experience, singing a bar. You ought to do it occasionally. So I did. But to take a job at a nightclub and work there six nights a week - but we took it, and it was a very valuable experience. We learned a hell of a lot in six months. The Weavers had had six months of rehearsals and were ready to make some records.

GROSS: Were you really surprised when your record started getting played on the radio and became big hits?

SEEGER: Yes, we never expected to get on the hit parade. And to everybody's surprise, including the head of Decca Records, "Goodnight, Irene" sold 2 million copies in the summer of 1950. It was the biggest seller since World War II along with one of Bing Crosby's songs. "Sam's Song" was the big seller. But "Goodnight, Irene" was on every jukebox in the USA in the year 1950. You couldn't escape that song. It floated up from every filling station, from every diner.

GROSS: That might have made it even more difficult than when you were blacklisted.

SEEGER: Well, it made difficult for the blacklisters. But I didn't expect to last 10 minutes. I thought the blacklisters would be after us a lot sooner. It took them a couple years to chop us down. And it was a full five years before they got around to calling me up before the Committee on Un-American Activities. I was surprised they took so long.

GROSS: You wanted to sing a song to the committee, right?

SEEGER: I think I did. They questioned me about a song. I said, oh, that's a good song. I'll sing it to you. Well, no. They didn't want me to sing. They wanted to know where I had sung it - at the following place. I said, well, I have a right to sing a song anywhere I want to whether I agree with the people or don't agree with them. I'm not interested in telling you that. They said, we direct you to tell us. No. They said, you are liable to be under contempt of Congress. Do you use the Fifth Amendment as your defense? No, I said. I just don't think these are questions any Americans should be asked especially under threat of reprisal if they give the wrong answer. So in effect, I was defending myself on the basis of the First Amendment. See, the Fifth Amendment, in effect, says, you have no right to ask me this question. But the First Amendment, in effect, says you have no right to ask any American such questions.

GROSS: I'm speaking with Pete Seeger, if you're just joining us. Have the wounds ever healed among the folk musicians who were friendly witnesses and those who weren't before HUAC?

SEEGER: I guess it's been harder for the friendly witnesses. History has not been kind to the Un-American Activities Committee. It feels as I felt, that these people didn't love America so much as their own particular version of America, which was somewhat limited, shall we say. And so those who cooperated with the committee have wished they could forget it all. Those who stood up to the committee, as Lee says, if it wasn't for the honor, he'd just as soon not been blacklisted. It was an honor.

GROSS: Well, that honor kept you off of television for many years afterwards. How did you feel around the early '60s when the folk music boom started taking off, when finally folk music had become commercially viable and you were, in a way, prevented from participating in it because you weren't allowed on radio or TV?

SEEGER: Well, I was mad. I wrote some articles in Sing Out! magazine warning people that this ABC television show called "Hootenanny" would be kind of a travesty on what a real hootenanny would be. A real hootenanny was a bunch of people who hoped that music could bring people together, to bring a peaceful world, a world without racism, a world where you had a right to join a union, a world without sexism. And instead, it was a second-rate vaudeville show. Some good folk music got played on the air, but there was an awful lot which was kept off the air. Why? Because it wasn't cheerful, happy music. And yet, to my mind, some of the greatest tragic music in the world are the tragic songs that I've heard sung by American working people.

GROSS: Well, take a song like "If I Had A Hammer." That is, I think, one of the most recorded songs in the world. I mean, hundreds of people have recorded it, right? But when you had first written it, it was considered a very dangerous song.

SEEGER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: What was considered dangerous about it?

SEEGER: Hard to say. Talk about freedom and justice, maybe. It's hard to say, hard to say. And if you tried to pin people down, well, they'd just say, that's one of these commie songs. I'm sure in the Southern states, the segregationist leaders would have said, oh, this talk about all my brothers and sisters, only the commies talk that way. Only the n***** lovers, only the race mixers talk like that. My gosh, people today can't realize, though, how much America has changed as a result of the civil rights movement and, one thing after another, the women's movement. We didn't win all the victories we hoped we would win, but we won some victories. And maybe that's the way the world moves forward.

One of my favorite songs these days is - oh gosh, I love it, but don't have a guitar with me - Arlo and I sing it all the time. (Playing guitar, singing) We are climbing Jacob's ladder. We are climbing Jacob's ladder. We are climbing Jacob's ladder - brothers, sisters, all.

I sang it way down low, the way you might sing it if you were singing a child to sleep. That's a great song. It was made up by people in slavery. But it's, I think, one of the most scientific songs in the world. Revolutionists, as well as religionists, often forget that heaven doesn't come in one big bang. It comes in many steps.

GROSS: Your work has inspired thousands and thousands of Americans of different generations, and you could have, if you wanted to, really, like, played that role to the hilt of, you know, like, the father of the modern American folk music movement.

SEEGER: No, I would have known it was a lie. My main purpose as a musician has been to get people singing and get people to make music by themselves. And it's the only reason I keep singing is because I'm a skilled song leader now. My voice is 50% shot. I can still shout in the high notes, but I - my low notes are very wobbly. But I can still get a crowd singing. And so when they're singing, they don't bother listening to me. They're having a lot of fun. And that's my main purpose. I want to show people what a lot of fun it is to sing together.

GROSS: My interview with Pete Seeger was recorded in 1984. He died in 2014 at the age of 94. After we take a short break, we'll hear the interview I recorded with Bruce Springsteen in 2016 after the publication of his memoir, "Born To Run." Springsteen recorded an entire album of songs associated with Pete Seeger. Here's one of them. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAY ME MY MONEY DOWN")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I thought I heard the captain say, pay me my money down. Tomorrow is our sailing day. Pay me my money down. Pay me, pay me, pay me my money down. Pay me or go to jail. Pay me my money down. Soon as the boat clears the bar, pay me my money down. He knocked me down with a spar. Pay me my money down. Pay me, pay me, pay me my money down. Pay me or go to jail. Pay me my money down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.