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Pete Seeger: Still Fighting the Good Fight

Seeger, the living embodiment of the native folk tradition, is optimistic about the current musical climate upon his release of 'Circles & Seasons'

Peter Seeger
The Denver Post via Getty Images
October 18, 1979

AMBLER, PENNSYLVANIA—I first contact Pete Seeger by phoning from the lobby of the Sherman Inn in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, where he is staying before an appearance with Arlo Guthrie at the Temple University Music Festival in Ambler. The groggy, halting voice (he has just arisen from an afternoon nap) sounds unmistakably reluctant to do an interview. He questions the purpose of getting together. Ultimately he gives in – though still reluctant – and we arrange to meet backstage at the festival's roofed amphitheater.

At sixty, Pete Seeger certainly is no showbiz prima donna. "America's tuning fork," the living embodiment of native folk tradition, Seeger hails from a family famous for its contributions to music. His father, Dr. Charles Louis Seeger, who died this year at ninety-three, was a noted ethnomusicologist who taught at Yale, Juilliard and Berkeley and was on UCLA's faculty well into his seventies; Seeger's mother taught violin at Juilliard. Dr. Seeger's second marriage, to musicologist Ruth Crawford, produced singer Peggy Seeger and Mike Seeger, who cofounded the New Lost City Ramblers, rediscoverers of Depression America's rural music. Pete Seeger himself worked at the Library of Congress' pioneering Archive of American Folk Song – before dropping out of Harvard, bumming around the country with Woody Guthrie and becoming one of folk music's most famous practitioners.

But he matured during America's political dark ages. Always partial to labor and left-wing causes, Seeger had a contempt charge hanging over his head from 1955 to 1962 – the result of a bristly run-in with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In those days, longtime manager Harold Leventhal recalls, "All of us, myself included, had those guys looking over our shoulders. When Pete gave concerts, there was always a picket line from the American Legion or so-called anticommunist groups."

Even after acquittal, Seeger still found himself blacklisted. In a sublime irony, he was barred from ABC-TV's Hootenanny, the folk-revival show that owed its existence to him.

But by now, Seeger is almost universally accepted as something approaching a musical saint. The only danger at present is that his still-valid message of brotherhood is falling on apathetic ears.

Seeger strides into the dressing room toting a banjo and massive twelve-string guitar. He is tall, erect and still trim, wearing a floral shirt and blue jeans; a jaunty purple handkerchief protrudes from a rear pocket. His hair started thinning out on top awhile ago, but he compensates with a salt-and-pepper beard. Eyeglasses hang from a strap around his neck.

In contrast with the outgoing, affable concert figure, Seeger in conversation is wary. He studiously avoids my gaze – a pity, as his crinkly, pale eyes are delightful to behold the few times he does make contact. The famous wheat-straw voice answers questions punctually and tersely, not volunteering information.

"I've made a lot of mistakes, and one of them is running off at the mouth too much," Seeger says. "I try to watch my tongue a little more than I used to. It's not my nature.

"I don't know that much about Rolling Stone. It's been going ten years? The same person owns it who started it? That's an achievement. He hasn't sold out to Kinney or General Dynamics? They must have made him an offer, though."

Seeger has recently been in touch with the world of megacorporations. Circles & Seasons, his first solo album for Warner Bros., was released a couple of months ago. He is surprisingly complacent about his commercial alliance: "I buy Mobil gas; I might as well make a record through another big corporation. I've no ambitions to set the world afire with a great album, but occasionally I run across some songs I'd like to try recording."

Circles & Seasons is a typical Seeger bouillabaisse, embracing American Indian chants, Spanish Civil War songs and Sicilian tarantellas. It was recorded at Fred Hellerman's backyard eight-track studio. Hellerman and Seeger were members of the Weavers, the quartet that took Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" to the top of the record charts in 1950, formally initiating the folk boom. In 1979, though, the term folk doesn't sit too well with Seeger.

"I use the word as little as possible," he says in clipped tones. "It's almost meaningless these days. It got a bad name around 1964 when the word was widely abused. Either like music or don't like it. But to have to make a big thing about definitions – leave it up to scholars whose business is to try to find boxes to put things in. Writers of articles are supposed to find boxes to put things into. I try to discourage them."

But Seeger is optimistic about the current music scene. "There are tens of thousands of singers and hundreds of thousands of individuals making music, whether they're playing bongo drums or concertinas or French harps – and they're making it by ear. That's the important thing." It is important, he says, because this activity demonstrates a living process of oral transmission.

"Intellectuals who have mastered words say, 'Oh, the language barrier isn't much. Anybody can learn a new language. I've done it myself!' Not everybody does. There are so many other forms of communication that could and should be used. Not just pictures and melodies but touch, dance, food."

Still, Seeger believes in being rooted to one place. "I'm a firm believer in gathering moss. Most intellectuals are slow to realize the need for having a geographical home. I think one of the lessons of the American Revolution, of the Vietnam War, of Hitler's defeat was that the world's gonna be saved by people who fight for their homes. I moved up to the country [Beacon, New York] and built my own home with my wife, 'cause I didn't want to keep moving all my life the way my parents had. I had gone away to boarding school from age eight on. So I wanted to live in one place. My wife stayed there; while I was out singing women's lib songs, she was home scrubbing the floor."

Seeger's objective and often self-critical eye, as well as his precise writing and speaking, reflect his former journalistic ambitions. He concedes that if he had his life to live over, he'd like to be a newspaper reporter. Or a blacksmith. Or a sailor. His once-notorious political opinions also contrast hard-nosed realities with idealistic naiveté. He advocates a moratorium on technology.

"I still believe the only chance for the human race to survive is to give up such pleasures as war, racism and private profit. Obviously, various attempts to solve these problems haven't met with the success I thought they might. But you never can tell. I've never been overoptimistic. I was about twelve when I read H.G. Wells' saying that it was a race between education and disaster. I had no reason to think he was wrong. But I think the word education is a bad choice; it makes people think of reading books. I've got a good line for you. Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don't.

"But I'm not that pessimistic either. I've seen people's heads turn 180 degrees in a few minutes. So who knows? I'm sixty years old, old enough to know better. I guess that's what I try to say in my concerts: that I haven't got any neat phrase for you. All you have to do is listen."

And Seeger has never abandoned his activism. "The most wonderful thing about Pete," says Arlo Guthrie, "is that he's managed to do the things that are important to him – the Clearwater, for instance. [Seeger and his supporters launched a crusade ten years ago to clean up the Hudson, using the sloop to gain public attention; since then, the river's condition has improved markedly.] It proves you can be nuts and still get something done. That gives hope to everybody."

After the interview, Seeger strolls onstage for a sound check. Singing and playing "The Water Is Wide" before an empty house, he seems comfortable again.

This story is from the October 18th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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