Folk Legend Pete Seeger Looks Back Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger talks with Scott Simon about his career. Also, hear a two-hour tribute concert featuring Natalie Merchant, Bruce Cockburn, Judy Collins and others.
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Folk Legend Pete Seeger Looks Back

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Folk Legend Pete Seeger Looks Back

Folk Legend Pete Seeger Looks Back

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When Pete Seeger was 20, he got a job that changed his life, and in a way, the lives of millions. He was assigned to work at the Library of Congress with musical folklorist Alan Lomax. Together, they went through stacks and stacks of scratchy old records, most of which had never been played on the radio.

Mr. PETE SEEGER (Folk Singer, Songwriter): And he starts teaching me a whole batch of great songs, songs like "The House of the Rising Sun," "Home on the Range," hundreds of songs. Then he found out in the prisons of the South where black prisoners who sang while they were working--often they were putting English words to old African melodies. There's a song I still like to sing, I play it with a banjo, but it was an ax-chopping song. I tell the kids, just repeat every line after me. (Singing) One day, one day...

(Soundbite of music)

Children: (Singing) One day, one day...

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) ...I was walking along.

Children: (Singing) ...I was walking along.

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) And I heard a little boy.

Children: (Singing) And I heard a little boy.

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) He was singing a song...

Children: (Singing) He was singing a song...

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) ...about ole Long John.

About Long John, he's Long John, he's long gone with his long clothes on.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) Oh, I could take you to the Cong.

Children: (Singing) I could take you to the Cong.

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) He's Long John.

Children: (Singing) He's Long John.

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) He's long gone.

Children: (Singing) He's long gone.

Mr. SEEGER: See, it's--Long John escapes and it went on and on. They didn't have anybody telling it was--the time was up. They had all day to sing. Sometimes the song would go on for five or 10 minutes. And I started learning American history out of songs.

SIMON: Pete Seeger went on to add a whole new chapter. He's written some of the best-known ballads of the 20th century, "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Turn, Turn, Turn" among them. Many Americans have an image of a tall, gaunt, bearded man, a kind of Johnny Appleseed of American folk music playing his banjo across the country in high schools, churches and college campuses and union halls, at civil rights marches and anti-war protests. The FBI opened a file on Pete Seeger in 1941. They thought they detected Communist influences in his music. In fact, he had joined the Communist Party in the 1940s. 1955, he was called before the House on American Activities Committee and refused to name names of those who had been in the party with him. Pete Seeger was blacklisted and charged with contempt of Congress.

Ms. SEEGER: I was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail, but I only spent about four hours behind bars where I learned a folk song. However, my lawyer got bail money for me, and I was out on bail for a year until the appeals court acquitted me.

SIMON: Did you...

Mr. SEEGER: However, I wasn't hurt by the blacklist so much because I just went from school to school, to college to college, to summer camp to summer camp. And I didn't get rich, but I made a living. And if the John Birch Society attacked me, all they did was give me free publicity and sell more tickets. My manager and I once had a joke between us as, `That last concert didn't sell out. We should have gotten the Birches to attack you.'

SIMON: How did you come to write "If I Had a Hammer"?

Mr. SEEGER: Well, first place, the words were written by Lee Hays. Lee was the son of a Methodist preacher in Arkansas, and he'd been raised on hymns. And he knew that some of the greatest old gospel songs, only change one word and you got a new verse. Well, he had three verses, then a fourth verse to tie it all together, and he sent it to me in January 1949, saying, `Pete, can you make up a tune for this?' And as I remember, I sat down at a piano and plunked out a tune. It wasn't a bad tune, but it wasn't as good as it should be because Peter, Paul and Mary improved it about eight years later, and there, the tune got picked up by everybody.

(Soundbite of "If I Had a Hammer")

PETER, PAUL and MARY: (Singing) If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning. I'd hammer in the evening, all over this land. I'd hammer out danger, I'd hammer a warning, I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land. Oo, oo, oo, if I had a bell, I'd ring it in the morning.

SIMON: So Lee Hays wrote the lyrics and you wrote the tune.

Mr. SEEGER: We were accused of writing it for the Communist Party. Somebody said, `Is it true that song was written and sung for a meeting to get the Communist Party leaders out of jail?' I said, `Sorry to disappoint you, no.' On the other hand, we called ourselves Communists and...

SIMON: I read an interview you did with The New York Times about 10 years ago where you said you thought you might have been a little naive politically about Joe Stalin.

Mr. SEEGER: Oh, heavens, of course I was. I thought he was simply a hard driver. But let me tell you why I originally joined the Communists. I was in college and everybody was discussing what to do about Hitler. And it seemed to me the Communists had the most sensible thing. He said, `We got--right now the whole world should condemn aggressors, should condemn Italy and Ethiopia. You should condemn Japan and Manchuria and Hitler making threatening noise about Czechoslovakia and Austria and so on.' And I decided they were right and I joined the Young Communist League at age 18, and one thing led to another. I went on, later was briefly a member of the Communist Party in the early '40s.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) Now I hate Hitler and I can tell you why. He's caused lots of good folks to suffer and die. He's got a way of shoving folks around, I figure it's about time we slapped him down, give him a dose of his own medicine, lead poison.

I think it's worthwhile mentioning, it's not enough to be disciplined. It's not enough to be courageous. Some of the Communists were extraordinary courageous people. But I dropped out about '49. I never liked being a member of a secret organization.

SIMON: How did you come to write "Where Have All the Flowers Gone"?

Mr. SEEGER: I read a book written in Russia by a guy named Mikhail Sholokhov, about the cossacks along the river, Don. And at one point in the book, it had three little lines. It said--describes the cossack soldiers galloping off to join the army of the czar way back in the 19th century singing, `Where are the flowers? The girls have plucked them. Where are the girls? They were all married. Where are the men? They're all in the army.' And I say to myself, `Gee, that sounds like an interesting song, I should look it up.' But I never got around to looking it up.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting in a plane in 1955 on my way to sing at Oberlin College. I pull out my little pocket notebook and see those three lines, and I suddenly connected them with another line I'd written in my notebook, `long time passing.' See, maybe those three lines could fit together with that little phrase, long time passing, would sing well. And pretty soon, a tune comes to me. I didn't find out till later, a friend pointed it out, I'd swiped the first lines from an old Irish lumberjack song from the Adirondacks. (Singing) `Johnson says he'll load more hay, says he'll load 10 times a day.' And I had the tune. And then I added the end the intellectuals' perennial complaint through the ages, `when will they ever learn.' And 20 minutes later, I had three verses to a song, and I--with scotch tape, I stuck it to the microphone and sang it to the kids.

(Soundbite of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone")

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing. Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago. Where have all the flowers gone? The girls have picked them every one. Oh, when will you ever learn? Wo, when will you ever learn?

That song pays my taxes these days because it's sung all around the world in different languages. The French version sings beautifully. But the German version is so good, Marlene Dietrich took it all around the world. (Seeger sings in German) Anyway, it's all around the world now.

SIMON: Tell me a bit about your relationship with Woody Guthrie. You met him before he was famous really.

Mr. SEEGER: I was 20 and he was 27 when we first met. And he must have liked my banjo picking because I had a good ear and I could accompany him in any song he played. I didn't need to hear it twice. And then he taught me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains and also how to sing in bars. Oh, this one, most interesting things, says, `Pete, if you go into a bar, sling your banjo on your back but don't play it right away. Buy a nickel beer'--that's what they were in those days--`and sip it as slow as you can. Sooner or later, somebody's going to say, "Kid, can you play that thing?" Now don't be too eager. Say, "Maybe a little," and keep on sipping your beer. Sooner or later, somebody would say, "Kid, I got a quarter for you if pick us a tune." Now you swing it around, play your best tune.'

(Soundbite of banjo)

SIMON: Tell me about "This Land is Your Land," how that song came to be.

Mr. SEEGER: Woody was hitchhiking to New York in February and it was cold. His thumb stuck out in the February wind; he'd occasionally go and buy a nickel cup of coffee and warm up a little bit. And Kate Smith had a hit record of "God Bless America," and he started writing a tune with the line `God blessed America for me.' (Singing) God blessed America for me. And making up verses in front of it. And I didn't hear him sing this song, although I met him only one month later in New York. He wasn't completely satisfied and over the years tinkered with it, including writing a brand-new line, which we all know now.

(Soundbite of "This Land is Your Land")

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) This land was made for you and me. This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream water, this land was made for you and me.

And that Tiny Folkways Records put out a 10-inch LP of it in 1949. And it got in the schools and got in some school songbooks. That song was never on the hit parade. It was never played on the radio. It was never played on TV. It was a nothing of a song as far as the commercial world was concerned. But 15 years later, practically everybody in America knew this song.

SIMON: And how many times have you recorded it would you guess?

Mr. SEEGER: Oh, I don't know. I've recorded it several times, different ways.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SEEGER: I often these days, since my voice is so bad, what I do is I say, `You all know this tune.' And I go...

(Soundbite of banjo)

Mr. SEEGER: I sang at the local school here near where I live in Fishkill just a week or two ago. I had about 300 kids, age roughly nine, 10, 11, 12, and they even sang in harmony. I had some kids sing three notes above the melody.

SIMON: What do you think singing together does for people?

Mr. SEEGER: Singing together, you suddenly find out there's things that you can learn from each other, that you wouldn't learn with arguments and which you might not learn any other way.

SIMON: Mr. Seeger, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.


(Soundbite of "If I Had A Hammer")

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning--hammer in the evening.

Crowd: (Singing) I'd hammer in the evening.

SIMON: "Sing Out: A Concert Celebration of Pete Seeger" airs on many NPR stations this Fourth of July weekend. You can also hear it on our Web site,

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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