Pete Seeger on the music of politics

Issue 

Pete Seeger is a living cultural link between three generations of political and cultural activism. In the '40s and '50s he championed folk music not only as an alternative to pop, but as a vehicle for socialist and left social criticism in general as it was coming under increased attack. In the '60s when the "folk music craze" became a mass commercial phenomenon, his popularity mushroomed even as he was blacklisted from network television. Like Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson, his songs rose above the din. During the '70s and '80s he prioritised the environment, focussing on community efforts in upstate New York to save the Hudson River. Recently he chose to shift his focus to the inner city, helping to organise an inter-racial intergenerational chorus, the New York City Street Singers. CrossRoads' New York editor Ethan Young and film maker Mary Dore met Seeger and asked him about his latest move from rural/suburban to urban activism.

I would like to see if it's possible for music to help pull the city together. The struggle to make cities humane, livable places anywhere in the world is the most exciting struggle going on. It may be that there will be no human race in 100 years, but if there is a human race we will have to make cities decent places to live.

Do you see music playing a role the maybe politics failed to achieve?

I don't draw a sharp line between music and politics. The moment you bring human beings together, you're in politics. Whether you call it religion, science or education or drinking beer or football, you're affecting the body politic. And when you affect the body politic, you're in politics, whether you call it politics or not. But I think I know what you mean; making speeches and finding slogans ...

For many people the failure of what was called socialism in countries overseas is the greatest tragedy of their lives. I look upon it as education. We found some things were definitely not the way to work. You don't get an enthusiastic collective farm by having people sent away to slave labour camps if they disagree.

I will continue to call myself a Communist. Why? Because at age seven I read about the American Indians. The sat around the council fire and made decisions of life or death. There was no rich or poor. Similarly the happiest people I ever knew, people who lived with no thought of riches, were happy because they struggled together. Now, curiously enough, I feel that this does not mean you do away with competition. What we've got to do away with is the tremendous, foolish inequality you get when you win a prize. The idea of getting a billion dollars for being clever is so foolish that one wonders how long the human race will put up with it.

If the world is doubling in population every 32 years, tell me, when do you think it will level off? Ask this of any politician and watch them stumble and mutter. But don't let them get away without answering. You see, the gap between the rich and poor is increasing and increasing. When will it start decreasing? Tell me when? Force them to answer. If they are not willing to answer when, they don't deserve to be in politics.

There's a lot of politics coming into popular music right now. I'd be curious to hear how you feel it's taking shape.

I use the word folk music as little as possible because it means such different things to different people. In the pop field today, anybody who plays an acoustic guitar or banjo and stands at a microphone is a folk singer. A grandmother singing an old traditional lullaby, she's not a folk singer, she's just a grandmother singing an old song. This is a popular definition I don't like.

Most people in the so-called folk music field also have a rather narrow definition. If it's English or Irish or Scottish, it's folk music. If it's African that's world music; that's African music. Chinese, that's Chinese. But I point out there's about 4,000 languages in the world; and probably each of these languages have several different kinds of folk music.

So, I think the way to look upon folk music is that it's all around the world and pop music makes use of it as it has for thousands of years. If it's a good melody, a good rhythm, a good combination of instruments, pop music will try to make some money out of it. Pop music tends to exploit superficially.

The word folk music was invented in Europe in the mid-19th century for the music of the peasant class, ancient and anonymous. Here it was extended to the music of cowboys, lumberjacks, slaves and Africans working on the chain gangs.

Along comes Woody Guthrie, he makes up songs, so they called them folk songs. Bob Dylan said he wasn't a folk musician, but you can call it folk music if you want to. Similarly, there are rock bands today, borrowing from different elements of world music and adding new ideas.

How do you feel living in this decade, this era? Everyone else, people younger than you, are so pessimistic, so discouraged.

It's easy to be pessimistic, especially when one has made mistakes; when one has had hopes which have been crushed. But anybody who says there is no hope, I say how can you be so sure? did you really predict that Nixon would leave office the way he did? Did you predict that the Wall would come down the way it did — with so little bloodshed? did you predict that the Pentagon would leave Vietnam the way it did? I think nobody has predicted all the unusual things that have happened in the last few decades. So don't be too certain that you know what is going to happen.

We have tools of communication we've never had before. We have xerox, tape recorders, fax and videotapes. And I look forward to human beings all around the world communicating with each other, even if they don't understand each other's language. They'll be using sports, they'll be using dance and mime and pictures and words, too. And melodies and rhythms. Although there are tremendous dangers, I think anybody who gives up is kind of foolish. The saddest people I've ever known in the world are those who have given up. The happiest people are those who have been struggling.

Right now in the field of music, all sorts of music is being made up which is relating real life to music. In the 1930s, when I was a g was "Wrap your troubles in dreams and dream your troubles away." Herbert Hoover said to Rudy Vallee, "Mr Vallee, if you could only sing a song that would make people forget the depression, I'll give you a medal". Of course there are still some musicians trying to get that medal. But there are an awful lot of others saying that's a waste of time, you can have a lot more fun and make a living too by being just as outspoken as you want.

I'm fascinated to see women around the world arguing with each other, as well as with men, trying to decide how will we create a world where children can grow up healthy and strong and positive — and not be corrupted, not be discouraged, not be beaten down. Matter of fact, because there are so many women thinking along these lines is one reason why I feel more optimistic than ever.

I've had to face the fact that, like many men, I made assumptions when I was young, which were male assumptions, which were wrong. I made up union songs which talked about brothers this and brothers that on the assumption that all the union people were male. And I sang songs which I thought were funny which, in the light of the present crisis, are not so funny.

Do you sometimes fear voices like yours are being drowned out by the mainstream media?

It's true. You can spend thousands of hours trying to do something, and a person who has control of the media wipes out your efforts in 15 seconds. They reach millions when we reach thousands. On the other hand, there are thousands like us and we are all around.

I still go around with a stone in my banjo case. In 1968 after King was assassinated, I was invited to Duke University. They had a peaceful protest. A thousand students sitting down, refusing to attend classes, demanding the president bargain in good faith with the maintenance employees, mostly black, demanding the president give more scholarships to black students, demanding the president resign from his white-only country club. It was a very peaceful protest, and I said: This is history-making. Duke's a conservative place. This is the first time this has ever happened here. But when we went up to NBC, they said they couldn't spare any cameras. They said, let us know if there any violence; we'll send somebody down. Boy, I hit the ceiling.

I picked up a stone out of the driveway and I carry that stone in my banjo case today. I don't intend to ever throw it at a person. I've had stones thrown at me at Peekskill, it's no fun. But if I find myself at a TV station, and they're not covering a story simply because there's no violence, I'll give them some.
[Abridged from CrossRoads (US).]

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