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Pete Seeger: "For Too Much of My Life, I Preached to the Converted"

A previously unpublished interview

Wikimedia Commons/Josef Schwarz

After Pete Seeger turned 80, in 1999, I wanted to interview him at length while I had the chance, and I made a pilgrimage to his house on a mountainside overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon, New York. We talked for a while in the kitchen, because Seeger had promised to help his wife stir the fruit for some jelly she was canning. "She shouldn't be spending her time stirring," he said. "She's the brains in this house. She should be reading." We wrapped that conversation up after a couple of hours, and we took it up again on the phone a few weeks later. A few months after that, we picked things up again, and ended up talking, on and off, over a period of more than ten years. When I heard the news that Seeger died, I pulled up my transcript of those interviews, for the pleasure of hearing the spindly vigor in his meticulously chosen words. Some excerpts from these previously unpublished conversations:

Pete Seeger: Along the river by my house, there used to be a beautiful, nineteenth-century village, which has been ruined by the scam of urban development. After a while, an oil company constructed a big tank along the banks of the river to provide fuel for the developers, and today there are dozens of the things. They seem to be propagating.

Beacon's getting money now, but it's also getting gentrified. I don't know what's going to happen to the people who have lived here all their lives. A local politician, a nice fellow, said to me, “Pete, if you don't grow, you die.” He was referring to population growth, not intellectual growth or emotional growth. At one o'clock at morning, I sat up in bed with the next question. If that's true, is it therefore true that the quicker we grow, the sooner we die? The world's only so big. If that's true, doesn't it follow that the human race is far bigger than it should be? 

Hajdu: What's your response, as an activist? What can you do about population growth? 

Seeger: Some things are so big, like this population problem, that the best way to tackle them is in small ways. I can sing a song about over-population and maybe touch one or two people at a time with it. I'd just have to write that song—and make it go down easy. That's the key. I'd have to write a funny little song that sneaks the message in, go in through the back door.

When the Vietnam War ended and there were no more huge demonstrations in Washington, a lot of people thought, “Well, I guess there are no big things happening now.” I believe the big thing now is many small things. I think that there are probably not hundreds of thousands but maybe millions of people like me who are working for peace and working to get out the vote and working on the population problem—but doing it in a lot of small ways, instead of one big way, and I've become convinced that that's the best way to do it. This is a thing it has taken me a long lifetime to learn.

I lost too many battles by trying too hard to do too much too fast. Over the years, I learned the value in slowing down and paring down. When you're facing an opponent over a broad front, you don't aim for the opponent's strong points, important though that they may be. You pick a little outpost that you can capture and win. And then you find another place that you can capture and win it, and then you move slowly toward the big places.

Marx really oversimplified things when he said "The big are going to get bigger, and everything else gets wiped out." What's been getting wiped out with economic expansion is medium-sized operations—medium-size businesses, medium-size concert halls, medium-size churches. But little things are booming—small little businesses, small nonprofit organizations, small this and that all over the country.

Look at Martin Luther King. People wondered, “Why is he worrying about sitting at the back of the bus or having a seat at a lunch counters? Why doesn't he go after schools, housing, voting, jobs?” He took on sitting on a bus, but he won it. All he said he wanted was the right to take a seat on the bus, and he got a Supreme Court ruling that segregation was unconstitutional.

That's my philosophy now. I sing for a class of children, and I'm aiming just to reach the minds of one or two kids. I sing at the VFW Post here in Beacon, and maybe one of them won't think I'm a hateful Commie anymore.

Hajdu: Are you saying that you're not a Communist anymore? I noticed that you're still quoting Marx.

Seeger: Well, I'm still a Communist in the sense I don't believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. I think that the pressures will get so tremendous, if they're not already that big, that the social contract will just come apart. On the other hand I'm no longer a member of the Communist Party, as I was in the 1940s. It was very sad to see the enthusiasm of the people in Russia who in those days thought we are going to create a new society, and how their dreams just came apart.

There's more socialism in America and around the world today than most people realize. The GI Bill was basically socialism. Public education is basically socialism. You might consider that all armies are basically socialist organizations.

Hajdu: There seems to be mixed messages in that list.

Seeger: You have a point there. What I'm trying to point out is that socialism is not dead—for better or worse. People just attach names they like to the things they like, and I'm as susceptible to that weakness as the next person. My father warned me about this a very long time ago. He said, “Beware of the lingocentric predicament.” My father said “People used words and forget that no two people attach the exact same meanings to the same words.”

I'm talking about great old words like God and liberty and freedom. I mean freedom to one person means free to use the free enterprise system, to make as much money as I can. And freedom to somebody else means free to enjoy the world without having to breathe in poison that some factory left behind.

Another one of my father's sayings was “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch.” All you can do is circle around saying it's somewhere in there as you point in different directions. But you can't put your hands on its pulsing, furry, little body.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't speak the truth as you know it. You know the story about Herbert Hoover calling a meeting with Rudy Vallee? Hoover said, "Mr. Vallee, if you could only sing a song that will make people forget the Depression, I'll give a medal." All too many musicians have spent their lives trying to get that medal. I think it was rather foolish—in fact, evil. There was no good in forgetting the Depression. What we had to do was face the Depression, like we have to face the problems of our own time, and sing out about of them, even if all we can reach are two children at a time.

When I look back now, I feel that for too much of my life, I preached to the converted. Better to preach to the people who are yet oriented one way or another, like very young people. Besides, I can only sing to a few people at a time now, because my voice is so weak. I probably shouldn't sing at all. My voice is gone, I can't play like I used to or like I want to, and I get awfully tired awfully quick. I can't do everything I used be able to do, but I believe that there are things worth saying.