NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Pete Seeger introduced many of us to folk music, to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, to mountain ballads and rousing political anthems to silly kids' songs and to cries of outraged protest. And whether at a concert, an anti-war rally, an environmental protest or at a coffee shop, his infectious smile and quick blue eyes have always been able to convince even the most jaded to lift up their voice and sing along.
On his new CD, the Grammy Award-winner takes it all back home, performing with kids from Beacon, New York, the Hudson River town that's been his home for many years.
(Soundbite of song, "Down By The River")
THE RIVERTOWN KIDS & FRIENDS (Music Group): (Singing) I'll meet you down by the river, down by the river, down by the river, (unintelligible), down by the river, by the Hudson River, down by the river, is where I will be.
CONAN: "Down By The River" from the new CD "Tomorrow's Children," Pete Seeger with the Rivertown Kids & Friends. Later in the program, we'll talk with ocean swimmer Diana Nyad about challenges unmet. At 60, she's about to try a swim that defied her at 29, from Cuba to Florida.
But first, Pete Seeger joins us from the studios of WRRV in Poughkeepsie, New York. Along with him are David Bernz and Dan Einbender, the co-producers of "Tomorrow's Children." And gentlemen, thanks for all of you to be with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. PETE SEEGER (Musician): Well, thank you.
Mr. DAVID EINBENDER (Co-producer, "Tomorrow's Children"): Thanks for having us.
Mr. DAVID BERNZ (Co-producer, "Tomorrow's Children"): Good afternoon.
CONAN: Whose idea was "Tomorrow's Children"?
Mr. SEEGER: I think that when the kids sounded so good, a lot of people said other people will want to listen to them. And so all of a sudden, a record started to be made. I would say it was also possible because a wonderful drummer in our hometown has a studio right next to his in his home.
And his name is Jeff Haynes. And he's a very experienced drummer. He's played music all around the world. He's from the Caribbean. And I'm sorry he isn't here with us.
CONAN: Sorry to miss him, too. But who pulled the Rivertown Kids together as a group?
Mr. SEEGER: Oh, that was their teacher, a woman who, she would start off in September saying children, what song would you like to sing? And any song you want to. And they would sing a song. She said now, you should know that every day, we're going to start the day with a song, and if we get your work done in the other classes, we'll have time for some more songs at the end of the day. So her class got to be known as a singing class.
CONAN: And of course, you're the well, I'm sure you may not be that comfortable with the term but the local celebrity?
Mr. SEEGER: Oh, I hate the term. It's the most difficult time in my life. The mail comes in faster than I can answer it. The telephone rings all day. If I had my way, that movie, "The Power of Song," would never have been put out until after I was six foot under.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Nevertheless, you are called upon for all kinds of things. Who got you together with the children?
Mr. SEEGER: I think it was Dan Einbender. He's a Clearwater(ph) leader, and Clearwater takes kids out on this beautiful sailboat to learn about the river, and pretty soon, Dan was visiting their class.
CONAN: Dan, are you there?
Mr. EINBENDER: Yes, I am.
CONAN: Can you tell us how that happened?
Mr. EINBENDER: Sure. The kids were studying the Hudson River, and Terry Udell(ph), their teacher, asked me to come into the classroom. We'd done kind of a very short orientation, getting to know your river, down by the water, but she wanted more.
And I started taking them on field trips, and while we were on the field trips, my friend David Bernz here came down, and we would sing with the kids. And we discovered that they loved singing in a way that in my 40 years of singing with kids, I've never seen before. It was kind of a perfect storm, actually.
The kids were so enthusiastic about singing, and obviously, you know, kids want to avoid doing classroom work, and they'd rather sing, but Terry was very good about using the music, incorporating it into her curriculum. Whatever we would sing, she would fold into the curriculum.
So they would sing a silly song, and then they would dissect the song and learn how it was put together, and before long, they started writing their own songs.
And I brought Pete in because I know he loves better he loves nothing better than singing with kids, and these kids were really into it. And the more he came, and the more he sang with them, I think the more professional sounding they became.
We ended up doing a couple of concerts, and actually when Pete made his recording "Pete at 89" with Dave Bernz, the night he won the Grammy, he called Dave and said: Dave, can you maybe get the record back, and we'll add a couple of more songs I think should be on there? And that was sort of the germ of the idea to make a whole new record. And it just kind of evolved through the availability of, like Pete said, this wonderful recording studio that Jeff Haynes owned.
CONAN: And the kids, I assume, are - well, they're probably all on summer vacation now, but they're all due back in school?
Mr. EINBENDER: Oh, yeah. They've all moved on now to middle school. So that's kind of sad for me, but it was an amazing year that we spent together.
Mr. SEEGER: I even had them singing about mathematics:
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) Two times two is four. Two times four is eight. Two times eight is 16, and the hour is getting late. We've all be doubling, doubling, doubling, all be doubling down through the years.
Twice 16 is 32. Next comes 64. Next comes 128. Do we need to hear more? We've all been doubling, doubling, doubling, all been doubling down through the years.
Next comes 256, next 512, next 1,024. Figure it out yourself. We've all been doubling, doubling, doubling, all been doubling down through the years.
Double 10 more times, we had ancestors over a million. Double another 20 times, you had ancestors over a trillion.
And then I say hold on, there never were a trillion people in the world, at least not yet. And this gets us talking to a big problem, the human problem today. We've got to stop the human race from doubling so much or else we'll be trying to put a million people where every one person is now.
CONAN: You went past my arithmetical capabilities quite a while ago. But your songs, Pete, even for kids, your songs have always had a message.
Mr. SEEGER: Well, I always ask, when people ask me that kind of question: What chance do you think there's going to be that there'll be a human race around in 100 years?
CONAN: I think there'll be a pretty good chance.
Mr. SEEGER: You mean in spite of global warming and the human race doubling every 32 years and the oceans filling up with plastic and the hydraulic fracturing filling the water with poisons? I hope you're really that optimistic.
CONAN: Well, I think there well, let's hope so, in any case. Let's hope so, for all of our children's sake. But the title of this CD, "Tomorrow's Children," where did you come up with that?
Mr. BERNZ: This is David Bernz speaking. I guess I should answer that. One of the songs that Pete used to hum when walking through the woods with me in his driveway or near the river was this beautiful song that the poet Walter Lowenfels had translated and called "Tomorrow's Children."
And so we thought that - how apropos it would be to include that song on an album that is sung largely by tomorrow's children. And so we had Pete sing that song with just his 12-string guitar, and we titled the album after it.
Mr. EINBENDER: It's also the message, too, when you think about the purpose of this album, and really one of the main things that Clearwater strives to give kids is tools for dealing with all the problems Pete was just talking about. And probably the most important tool they can have is a sense of hope for the future. If that doesn't exist, the rest of it doesn't count.
Mr. BERNZ: And the song has this beautiful line near the end: Our greatest joy was in opening the way for you. And that's really what Clearwater and Pete have been doing for so long is opening the way for generations of younger people to pick up the message and carry on.
CONAN: You mention Clearwater. The Hudson River sloop has been active on the river for some years. And Pete Seeger, I suspect you don't remember, but I think 40 years ago this summer, a very awestruck young reporter was given the opportunity to sail along the Hudson River around the sloop Clearwater with you and Robert Boyle(ph) and I think a bunch of other people for a couple of days up the Hudson River. And I have to say that's one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Mr. SEEGER: Wow.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEEGER: Well, who knows? Who knows? But I tell people, when you come to a curb at the edge of a street, do you look up in the sky and say, God, it's dangerous crossing streets, will you please save me? No, you don't do that. You look to the left. You look to the right. You use the brains God gave you, and if there's no car coming, you cross.
And it's the same way in the future. You don't just look up at the sky and say, God, won't you save the world? You get busy thinking of what needs to be done to save the world, and you get people to do it. And that's the most successful song I've helped to put together in the last year.
A friend of mine, he wrote two Clearwater favorite songs.
Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) Sailing up, sailing down, up, down, down, up, up, down the river.
Mr. SEEGER: It's been sung for 41 years now, and the songwriter's name is Lorie Wyatt(ph). He had a stroke about 15 years ago, but he fought his way back. So now he can talk again and walk again and drive again.
And he called me up and said Pete, I've got some song ideas, but I haven't been able to finish them as much as I'd like. Could I come visit you? And we spent two days just tossing around ideas for this and that, and all of a sudden, I had one of the better songs I ever helped put together.
Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) When we look and we see things are not what they should be, God is counting on me. God's counting on you.
Mr. SEEGER: You know, I'm in the wrong key.
Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) And, yes, when we look, and we see, God's things are not what they should be, God's counting on me. God's counting on you, hoping we'll all pull through, hoping we'll all pull through, hoping we'll all pull through, me and you.
Mr. SEEGER: The third verse has a nice verse.
Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) Yes, when drill, baby, drill turns to spill, baby, spill, God's counting on me, God's counting on you.
CONAN: Pete Seeger in the studio in Poughkeepsie, New York. We're talking about his new CD, "Tomorrow's Children," which is to be released on July 27th on Appleseed Recordings. I guess it was released on July 27th on Appleseed Recordings.
We'd also like to thank David Bernz and Dan Einbender, co-producers of "Tomorrow's Children," who are with us there in the studio.
Pete Seeger's going to be back in just a moment. If you'd like to speak with him, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Pete Seeger is known as the grandfather of the folk revival, the songwriter, environmentalist, performer. More than 70 years singing and playing his banjo.
Pete Seeger is with us today to talk about his long career. You can listen to "Solartopia" and "English is Cuh-ray-zee," two tracks from Pete Seeger's latest CD, "Tomorrow's Children," on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And let's begin with Terry(ph), Terry calling us from Sag Harbor in New York.
TERRY (Caller): Hey Pete, Hi Dad, Hi Dave.
Mr. BERNZ: Hi.
Mr. SEEGER: Hello.
TERRY: It's Terry Sullivan.
Mr. EINBENDER: Hi, Terry.
TERRY: Hey, how are you doing? I've got a question for Pete, and it's the, probably the best kept secret in Clearwater and the folk-music business and that is the sense of humor of Toshi Seeger and the organizing capability, but most people don't know about the sense of humor of Toshi Seeger, and I wonder if Pete could address that.
Mr. SEEGER: I met my wife about, yeah, about 70 years ago, when I joined a square-dance group. And here was this teenager whose father was Japanese, and because of the Oriental Exclusion Act, it was not easy for them to go through World War II or just to live in this country. But they didn't give up hope, and the sense of humor kept them going.
Her father wrote Washington right after Pearl Harbor and said the only hope for Japan is to get rid of the militarists, and I volunteer to do anything to help the American war effort. And he did very dangerous work over in the Burma Theater.
But he knew what it was like to live with danger and still be able to find a way to joke and tell stories.
TERRY: So Pete, you think that's where Toshi got her sense of humor, from her dad?
Mr. SEEGER: I think oh, also from her mother, who was from Ole Virginnie(ph). I used to kid her and say she was a World War I hippie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEEGER: They called them bohemians in those days.
CONAN: Well, Terry, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.
TERRY: Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email that we have from Sally(ph) in Seattle. The first album I received as a child was Pete Seeger's "Children's Concert at Town Hall," April 21st, 1963. I just want to thank Pete for introducing me to music and for continuing to be such an empowering presence for children and everyone struggling for a voice. Pete, do you remember that album?
Mr. SEEGER: Oh, I sure do. It has a picture of my daughter at only about age four or five, sitting on a stool, and I'm singing to her. And the last verse in my song:
Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) When we work with younger folks, we can never give hope. God's counting on me. God's counting on you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Here's another email, this one from Per(ph) in Portland, Oregon. I remember back in the '50s, Pete Seeger was to give a concert at Brown University, but it was strangely canceled, perhaps for political reasons.
So the Association of University Women held the concert in their house across the street from the campus. I was sitting on the stairs going up to the second floor when Pete and his wife walked in. He stood in the crowded living room, and we all sang together in musical solidarity.
Pete, was that when you were at odds with the House Un-American Activities Committee?
Mr. SEEGER: Well, the people who thought they knew what patriotism was didn't know what to do about me. They said don't listen to this guy. He's a damn communist. All they did give me free publicity and sell more tickets.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I actually wanted to play a cut of tape for you. A couple years ago, this show paid tribute to Folkways Records and its great producer, Moses Asch. Our guest was Richard Carlin, the author of "Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways."
And we wanted to play a clip about him of him talking about you and what it was like to record with Moe Asch.
Mr. RICHARD CARLIN (Author, "Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways"): Pete tells a wonderful story of how he could be just walking in New York City, think of a song, run up to the Folkways Studio, take out his banjo, record it and 10 minutes later be back on the street walking again.
And it was that kind of open studio and open not only in terms of the door being opened but open to all kinds of people. I mean, you have to understand at that time, it was unusual for African-American folk singers, other noncommercial artists to be able to even get in the door of a record label.
And it was doubly unusual for them to be able to go into a studio and record whatever they wanted. Moe never interfered.
CONAN: Is that your memory of those days?
Mr. SEEGER: Absolutely. Did you know that Albert Einstein helped him get started, though?
CONAN: Albert Einstein?
Mr. SEEGER: It was early in 1939, the father of Moe Asch, the famous novelist, Sholem Asch. He says Moe, I hear you bought a recording machine. Will it fit in the trunk of my car? And Moe says yes, why? He says we've got to drive to Princeton, New Jersey, and record a two-minute message from Dr. Einstein, which can be played on the radio, I hope in many places, urging American Jews not to waste a minute, to get their relatives out of Germany now.
So they drove to Princeton. They recorded the two-minute message, and over supper, Dr. Einstein says, well, young Mr. Asch, are you a writer like your father? No, says Moe, I make a living installing public address systems in hotels. But I made enough money to buy this recording machine, and I'm fascinated with what it can do.
There's a great Negro folk singer in New York named Lead Belly, and nobody is recording him because they say he's not commercial. But I think this is American culture, and people should know it. He's recorded for the Library of Congress, but you have to drive to Washington to hear the record. This is 1939. Einstein says you're absolutely right. Americans don't appreciate their own culture. It'll be a Polish Jew like you who will do the job.
So Moe recorded Lead Belly. I said how many records did you sell? A hundred copies the first year. But then they invented LPs, and now he was in business.
And that's how come this song "This Land Is Your Land" became known throughout America. He recorded it with Woody Guthrie in 1948, and they were still using 78 rpm shellac records then. But when they just then invented LPs, and now Moe could record all sorts of things.
The kids liked this song, and they kept singing it. Within 20 years, the whole country knew the song because the kids took it home with them. It was never played on a single radio station. It was never sold in a single music store. But the kids liked it: This land is made for you and me.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Sara(ph): I received a letter back from Pete a few months ago, after my boyfriend and I wrote him a thank you letter for all that he's done and continues to do. We were thrilled to get a response. I just want to thank him again and look forward to getting the new album. And the new album again is "Tomorrow's Children."
This from Steve(ph) in Reno, Nevada: When I was in elementary school back in Briarcliff Manor, New York, Pete Seeger enlisted the talents of my sixth-grade class to help create his world-famous song "On Top of Spaghetti." I still have the record.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Not the last time or the first time he's played for children. You brought your banjo, Pete. Are you going to play something for us?
Mr. SEEGER: Well, I should give credit to Tom Glazer, who really invented that version of "On Top of Spaghetti." I used to sing "On Top of Old Smokey."
(Soundbite of song, "On Top of Old Smokey")
Mr. SEEGER: On top of Old Smokey, all covered with snow, I lost my true lover for courting so slow.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: It was changed to on top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's see if we go to this is Barbara(ph), Barbara with us from Medford, Oregon.
BARBARA (Caller): Hey. In the early '60s, when I was a small child, my mom worked at U.C. Berkeley. And she took me there to work one day and said that Pete Seeger was giving a free concert in one of the nearby halls.
And so I went over there and heard the hilarious song "Dear Liza," "There's a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza." And I remember through the whole song, when it came to the last verse, we all cracked up. And I was wondering: How on earth did you ever come up with a song like that?
Mr. SEEGER: It's an old German folk song, and usually, translations don't work. Robert Frost, the great poet, was once asked: What is your definition of poetry? He looks to the sky and says: Poetry is what gets lost in the translation.
But this is a translation that works. "Dear Liza" sings better than "Lieber Heinrich."
(Soundbite of laughter)
BARBARA: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Barbara. Let's see if we can go next to, this is Steve(ph), Steve with us from Toledo.
STEVE (Caller): Good afternoon.
STEVE: Mr. Seeger, a number of years ago, I saw you in Toledo at a concert for a labor movement. And I teach labor history at a local college. And I asked you why they didn't make why they make labor songs but not management songs. And your response was they didn't need to make management. They took care of themselves. Do you still feel that way?
Mr. SEEGER: I don't think any art should be mandatory. As a matter of fact, I'm really not very enthusiastic about anything being mandatory. That implies that the government or some organization is so powerful they can make you do something you don't want to do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEVE: Okay, then. Thank you very much. It was an honor meeting you and an honor talking to you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.
STEVE: Thank you. Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. You mentioned that the Sloop Clearwater, which got involved in trying to clean up the Hudson River 41 years ago. There's been a lot of progress on a lot of the issues that you've worked on over the years on racism - certainly a major issue still today, but considerably different than it was when you were much younger. The Clearwater and you have been active trying to clean up the Hudson for a long time. Do you think you've made progress? Do you think you're on the right track?
Mr. SEEGER: Well, there's still more progress needs to be made. But it is half-way clean now. We have an annual swim across the river. The little town where I lived is about one mile from the town on the other side of the river. And every July, we raise money to build a floating swimming pool which will go up and down with the tides, and people can safely swim in the water.
CONAN: And that's not something you could've said four years ago.
Mr. SEEGER: Nope.
CONAN: No. This from Jude in Salt Lake City: I'm listening to your broadcast with Pete Seeger. I just like to thank him for all his done to inspire my generation. As a child of seven, I was lucky enough to hear him sing at a strawberry festival on the Hudson. From that day on, my parents tell me I became an ardent activist. I led my first protest in third grade, and I haven't stopped since. Thank you, Pete, for all you have given me. I still remember that day on the Hudson like it was yesterday. Of course, Jude, you're not the only one.
Heather in Anchorage writes: Back in '69, Pete did a concert here in Anchorage, tickets no more than $5, to support the environment. As usual, he sang, but took questions from the audience. He was asked why he spends so much time and energy cleaning up the Hudson. His response: There's no place left to escape, so we have to clean up our own backyards today. To this day, that inspired me, even in the huge land of Alaska, to keep it clean. And we noted that in the third verse of that song you were singing earlier in the program, you've had something about the current crisis, the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. SEEGER: There's a whole lot of things we're doing which are going to have to be changed in the light of what the damage that we're doing to the Earth. And I used to be very pessimistic. I said there was 50-50 chance that there wouldn't be a world here in a hundred years. I confess I was more pessimistic than that. I said that, though, to encourage people to think that their one little teaspoon of effort would be what will save the world. But it's now millions of teaspoons doing things all over the country, all over the world.
Look what that woman in Kenya did to save her country by getting tens of thousands of women to plant trees again. They've planted 30 million trees. She didn't go to the government. The government would've given her the brush off. She went right to the villages, said, we're part of the problem. We took money to chop down the trees so that Europe could get more lumber. But we've got to plant them. And her name is Wangari Maathai. There should be a song about her.
CONAN: She's been on the program. We're talking with Pete Seeger. His new CD is called "Tomorrow's Children."
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get Kaycee(ph) on the line, Kaycee with us from Tucson.
KAYCEE (Caller): Hello, Pete.
Mr. SEEGER: Yeah.
KAYCEE: My mother used to teach at Idyllwild Art Foundation, so we could get tuition. And I'll never forget one day, you were singing "Abiyoyo" to the little kids and scared my now 58-year-old brother nearly out of his life.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KAYCEE: But I just wanted to thank you for everything you've done for so many years. And you were a big part of my deciding to go into education as a career. And I've just recently retired from that. So, thank you so much.
CONAN: Kaycee, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it. And I know a lot of people have similar stories. And we want to take the time to thank them for their phone calls and their emails. But I also want to take the time to play one cut from the new CD, "Tomorrow's Children," the song, the title tune, sung by Pete Seeger. In the liner notes, it reads: Pete thinks of this song often these days and sings these gentle words of generational change. This is Pete Seeger with "Tomorrow's Children."
(Soundbite of song, "Tomorrow's Children")
Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) But you who know days of a different kind, tomorrow's children for whom work is more like play. And living is what poems are for me today, a passionate utterance carefully designed. Remember us, the lame, the deaf, the blind, not for the stupid things we've done and can't forget, nor the endless dull jobs over which we all sweat, nor all the sad chronicles that we leave behind. But that we loved as much as anyone ever did, that we knew joys, the little deeds, the grand design, the dream of changing the world into something new. Believe us, in our way, we loved to live. Know that many, many things we loved, and of all of these, our greatest joy was in opening the way for you.
CONAN: Pete Seeger, thank you for that beautiful song, and thank you very much for being with us today.
Mr. SEEGER: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Iconic folk musician Pete Seeger won a Grammy in 2008 for his album "At 89," his new project, "Tomorrow's Children," available now. Pete Seeger joined us from the studios of WRRV in Poughkeepsie, New York. Our thanks, as well, to David Bernz and Dan Einbender, the co-producers of "Tomorrow's Children."
Next up: Diana Nyad had a dream to swim the 103 miles from Havana to Florida. She's going to do it at the age of 60. Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.