Air Date: Week of January 1, 1999
Renowned for his combination of music and social activism, folk music legend Pete Seeger explains to Steve Curwood that it was Rachel Carson's book 'Silent Spring' that really got him thinking and active on environmental matters. In 1969, with the help of other musicians and activists, Pete Seeger built a sloop he christened the Clearwater, because that was his intention: to clear the waters of the Hudson River of pollution and garbage. Pete Seeger lives on the Hudson, in a small, quiet town called Beacon, about an hour north of New York City and just 30 miles from where he was born. For decades, he and his neighbors have met on the rivers' banks, at the Sloop Club to socialize and organize over potluck suppers. He asked Living On Earth to meet him there, where it’s his turn to set up for this month’s gathering.
SEEGER: (Singing) I've lived all my life in this country. I love every flower and tree. I expect to live here till I'm 90. It's the nukes that must go and not me.
EVERYONE: (Singing) It's the nukes that must go and not me. The nukes that must go and not me. I expect to live here till I'm 90. It's the nukes that must go and not me.
CURWOOD: That's Pete Seeger leading a crowd in an anti-nuclear song at a Harvard University gathering back in 1980. For some in the audience this may be the apex of their protest days. For Pete Seeger, it's another night on the town as the nation's troubadour of conscience. America's tuning fork, some call him. For more than half a century, Pete Seeger has been leading people throughout the world in song, and in the process he's become a walking history of folk music and social activism. In the 1930s and '40s, you'd find him and his famous banjo on the union picket line.
SEEGER: (Strumming banjo) Now you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do. Got to talk to the workers in the shop with you. You got to build you a union, got to make it strong. But if you all stick together, boys, 'twon't be long. You get shorter hours. Better working conditions. Vacations with pay, take the kids to the seashore...
CURWOOD: Singing songs with outspoken political views led Pete Seeger in 1955 to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Congress wanted him to testify about alleged Communist affiliations. Name names, it was called. Mr. Seeger refused, was ordered to jail, and blacklisted. An appeals court blocked his prison term, and Pete Seeger kept on singing. In the 1960s it was songs for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam.
SEEGER: (Singing) The sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure this is the best way back to the base?" "Sergeant go on, I forded this river about a mile above this place. It'll be a little soggy but just keep sloggin', we'll soon be on dry ground. We were waist deep in the big muddy, the big fool says to push on...
CURWOOD: And ever since then it's been the environment. In 1969, with the help of other musicians and activists, Pete Seeger built a sloop he christened the Clearwater, because that was his intention: to clear the waters of the Hudson River of pollution and garbage. Pete Seeger lives on the Hudson, in a small quiet town called Beacon, about an hour north of New York City, and just 30 miles from where he was born. For decades, he and his neighbors have met on the river's banks at the Sloop Club to socialize and organize over potluck suppers. He's asked us to meet him there, where it's his turn to set up for this month's gathering.
A bright red pickup truck loaded with logs and plywood pulls up. A tall, wiry man with a white beard and glasses jumps out.
SEEGER: Hope you haven't been waiting too long.
CURWOOD: Nope, how are you?
Pete Seeger has lived 8 decades, but he moves with the ease and energy of someone who still has a lot to do.
(To Seeger) Mr. Seeger, you got here a Ford Ranger, except it didn't make much noise when you pulled up.
SEEGER: I bought it for $8,000. A schoolteacher who teaches electricity wanted to learn more about electric cars, so he made his own electric car. And he put into it a 28-horsepower electric motor, and 20 6-volt batteries.
CURWOOD: Can I see under the hood?
SEEGER: Not much here.
CURWOOD: Nope. Except a sign that says, "Caution, wear rubber gloves. You could be electrocuted." (Laughs)
SEEGER: Right. There's like 400 amps. For me it's perfect. I live on a very steep mountainside and I'm always carrying rocks and logs, and with a low range and 4-wheel drive I can inch up the steepest kind of slope with a ton of logs. It can go a foot a minute if I want to go that slowly, because I just feed in more or less power with the accelerator. I'd be burning out the clutch if I was using a regular gasoline car.
CURWOOD: Let's go over here by the -- your docks here out of the water and we can chat a bit. What a place for a sunset, huh?
(Water lapping on shore)
SEEGER: This waterfront was a tangle of weeds, and the river was like an open sewer 30 years ago when the Clearwater started. And little by little it's gotten better. That park over there was our big victory. We petitioned and petitioned and people laughed at us, but by gosh the petitions finally had an effect. And a little city money and a lot of Federal and state money -- a million dollars to make a park out of 7 and a half acres of garbage.
CURWOOD: Ah hah. Pete Seeger, how'd you get involved in environmental concerns?
SEEGER: It was Rachel Carson's famous book "Silent Spring." I read it in the New Yorker, in installments. Up to then I'd thought the main job to do is help the meek inherit the Earth. And I still, that's a job that's got to be done. But I realized if we didn't do something soon, what the meek would inherit would be a pretty poisonous place to live. And so I made almost 180-degree turn, started reading books like "The Population Bomb" by Paul Erlich, or "The Poverty of Power" by Barry Commoner. I'm a readaholic. And I was reading a book about the sailboats that sailed here, oh, all during the 19th century. Alexander Hamilton wrote one of the Federalist papers on his way to Poughkeepsie in a sloop, where they were arguing whether or not to sign the Constitution idea and agree to it. Well, I write a letter to my friend: wouldn't it be great to build a replica of one of these? Probably cost $100,000. Nobody we know has that money, but if we got 1,000 people together we could all chip in. Maybe we could hire a skilled captain to see it's run safely and the rest of us could volunteer. And 3 years later the sloop Clearwater was built up in Maine, and I helped sail it down with Don McLean and a batch of other singers. And now it takes school kids out. It's not a rich man's cruise boat. Two or 3 times a day it takes groups of 50 school kids out, teaches them what makes rivers dirty and what's got to be done to clean them up. Of course, people say what can a sailboat do? It can't do much except bring people together. But when people come together, that's when miracles happen, right?
CURWOOD: What do you think it's done for the river?
SEEGER: It drew attention to it in such a friendly way that people couldn't help getting attracted. In the little town of Cold Spring south of here, there were some very conservative people who thought it was a Communist, treasonous project, because I was involved with it.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Aren't you Communist, Pete Seeger? (Laughs)
SEEGER: I told people at age 7 I became a Communist when I read about American Indians. And anthropologists, that's the term they use for the way our ancestors lived anywhere in the world. The men hunted, the women gathered berries and dug for roots and carried babies on their back. And somebody killed something to eat, the meat was shared. That's communism. I admit, it seems romantic to want to go back to that, but I really do believe that if there is a world here, if there's a human race here in 100 years, we will have learned how to share again.
SEEGER: Well, down in this little town, a man came down to see the Clearwater, and he beckoned to me. He said, "Seeger, can I talk to you a minute?" I said, "Sure." He said, "I don't want you to think I agree with you, not one tenth of one percent, but that sure is a beautiful boat." He couldn't take his eyes off it. (Curwood laughs) Hundred-and-six foot tall the mast goes up. I call it a symphony of curves. There are hardly any straight lines on a sailboat and very few right angles. Curves, curves.
(Singing while playing guitar) Sailing down my golden river. Sun and water all my own. Yet I was never alone. Sun and water are all life givers. I'll have them where'er I roam. And I was not far from home.
That was the first Hudson River song I wrote. The Clearwater had not been built. I hadn't even thought of the idea. I was sailing a little plastic boat and there I looked at the water beneath me. There was lumps of this and that floating by with the toilet paper. And the phrase of John Kenneth Galbraith came to mind: Private affluence, public squalor. I had money to buy this little plastic boat. We had money to go to the moon but didn't have money to keep the rivers clean. And later on, I was sailing by myself and I saw the sun go down. The sky turned from yellow to pink to purple to midnight blue. And I had "Sailing down my golden river, sun and water all my own. But I was never alone..." (Fade to singing and guitar)
CURWOOD: Let's talk about some other songs. Garbage.
SEEGER: This was written by a young fellow named Bill Steele, who was for years been the head of the folk song club up in Ithaca, New York. But he wrote it in San Francisco when he was visiting there, and it became an underground hit. There must be thousands of people all around the country who know this song and sing it. I added a verse. A friend of mine had written the first part of the verse: (Sings) In Mr. Thompson's factory they're making plastic Christmas trees. Complete with silver tinsel and a geodesic stand. The plastic's mixed in giant vats from some conglomeration that's been piped from deep within the earth or strip-mined from the land.
Well then he went on to say and so the water gets dirty in Long Island Sound, but I changed the words: (Sings) And if you question anything they say why don't you see? It's absolutely needed for the economy. Garbage, garbage, garbage, their stocks and their bonds, all garbage. What will they do when their system goes to smash? There's no value to their cash. There's no money to be made. But there's a world to be repaid. Their kids will read in history books about financiers and other crooks, and feudalism and slavery and nukes and all their knavery. To history's dustbin they're consigned along with many other kinds of garbage, garbage, garbage...
You know, I drew blood with that verse? I sang it on the Today Show once, and Fortune magazine says, "Esso was sponsoring that program. Do they know what songs are being sung with their money?" (Curwood laughs) And they quoted the verse I'd sung. I don't necessarily like to draw blood. I'd rather persuade people to laugh and eventually agree that maybe I've got a little right on this side. Incidentally, the only way I got it on the Today Show was by -- I have to confess -- a little bit of devious preparation. I knew that NBC wouldn't be happy about me singing it. I come in at 6:30 in the morning; they say, "Pete, what are you going to sing?" I said, "Well, I've got a cheerful little banjo tune; I've got something else a little more serious." "Well, let's hear them." Played the banjo tune. "Fine, what's the other?" I sang Garbage. They say, "Well, Pete, it's a little early in the morning. You got something else?" I was prepared. I sang (Sings): Walking down death row...
They say, "Pete, you got something else?"
(Sings) If a revolution comes to my country...
Well, Pete, I guess we better stick with Garbage. (Curwood laughs) The whole studio broke up: the cameraman, the prop man: yes, we'll stick with Garbage!
(Sings): Mr. Thompson starts his Cadillac, winds it down the freeway track, leaving friends and neighbors in a hydrocarbon haze. He's joined by lots of smaller cars all sending gases to the stars, there to form a seething cloud that hangs for 30 days. And the sun blinks down into it with an ultraviolet tongue, turns it into smog, then it settles in our lungs. Oh! Garbage, garbage garbage... We're filling up the sky with garbage. What will we do when there's nothing left to breathe but garbage?...
CURWOOD: You've spent a lot of time with Woody Guthrie. I'm thinking of Woody Guthrie's song Roll On Columbia, in which he speaks in such glowing terms of the dams that are there.
SEEGER: Yeah. I think if Woody was around now, he would find some funny song. He was wonderful at combining tragedy and humor, all in one song. He did have a funny verse: Them salmon fish are pretty shrewd. They've got politicians, too. Run every 4 years. (Curwood laughs)
CURWOOD: What's the most important thing when it comes to the environment?
SEEGER: I tell people, work in your local community. The world's going to be saved by people who fight for their homes. Now, there may be glamorous places to go to, far across the oceans on, but really the world's going to be saved by people who fight for their homes.
CURWOOD: Is there a song that you'd like to talk about in connection with, you know, working in your own community, working in your town, to make the environment better?
SEEGER: Well, a lot of songs are about it. (Sings) Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow. It's the Garden Song, written by a fellow up in the state of Maine, and Arlo Guthrie and I and lots of others have recorded it. I've also written a little song I sing on the general subject of praying, because I think church people and non-church people should find ways to get together. It was just about a year ago, a little over a year ago, I was out getting wood to start the morning fire. We heat our house with wood. And I look up and see the sun poking itself up over the mountain. (Sings) Early in the morning, I first see the sun, I'll say a little prayer for the world. Hope all the little children live a long, long time. Every little boy and little girl. Hope they'll learn to laugh at the way some precious old words seem to change, 'cause that's what life is all about: to arrange and rearrange and rearrange. And I have a little chorus: (sings) Oh, whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. You get the audience singing it.
CURWOOD: Come on, you guys. (Laughs)
SEEGER: You'll have to help me out, next time. It's like a zipper song; anything nice that happens you can have a new verse. For me, it was ten and a half years ago, one A.M. our son in law Shabazz knocks on the door: "The baby's coming!" I said have you called the midwife? "Yes, yes, she's bringing two friends." Well, so we called up a couple friends. It was a party for three and a half hours; our daughter beamed like she was in heaven, and on occasion she'd let out a shriek and then beam some more. And after three and a half hours her firstborn, who was six years old at the time, says, "I see the head! I see the head!" (Sings) Heard the first yowl of a brand new baby, and I said a little prayer for the world. Hope all the little children live a long, long time, yes every little boy and little girl. (claps) Hope they'll learn to laugh at the way some precious old words do seem to change. 'Cause that's what life is all about: to arrange and rearrange and rearrange." Sing it with me.
BOTH: (Singing) Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange.
SEEGER: (Sings) Well, sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and rub my achin' old eyes. Is that a voice from inside my head, or does it come down from the skies? There's a time to laugh but there's a time to weep, a time to make a big change: wake up ya bum! The time has come to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. Sing it again!
BOTH: (Singing) Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. (Laughter)
SEEGER: I've tried to write lots of songs, but I have to admit that it's one thing to try and write a song and another thing to write one good enough for people to want to remember and sing. Woody Guthrie wrote 1,000 songs and there's maybe a dozen which will be widely sung. And a friend of mine had started a small record company, and he says, "Pete, would you be able to put out a record of some of your own songs?" I said, "My voice is gone, it's too wobbly, too raggedy. When I stand on a stage mainly what I do is get the audience singing; I accompany them. I line out the hymn, as they say in church. But he says, "What if I get other people to sing them?" I said, "Fine, if you can find them." Well by gosh, he got some awful well-known singers: Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt and Billy Bragg and Judy Collins and a whole lot of others, put out 2 CDs, mainly of songs that I wrote. And other songs like We Shall Overcome. All I did was make an arrangement of them.
SPRINGSTEEN: (Sings to musical accompaniment) Hey, we shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day. Darlin', here in my heart, yeah I do believe we shall overcome some day. Well, we'll walk hand in hand. We'll walk hand in hand...
SEEGER: That's an interesting story. Did you know that there's an old gospel song, quite well known, (sings and claps) "I'll overcome. I'll overcome. I'll overcome some day..." Well, 300 women were on strike in 1946. It was in winter and I guess on the picket line they probably had a barrel with a little fire in it, and people were warming their hands and singing old gospel songs to keep their courage up. And one woman, Lucille Simmons by name, loved this song, but she sang it, what they call long meter style. And she changed one word. "I'll" became now "we." And she sang, (Sings slowly) "We will overcome." Now church people know how to harmonize, and the basses get the low notes and the sopranos get the high notes, and you weave in and out. And a group of people can make beautiful music just improvising with each other. It became one of their favorite strike songs: we will overcome some day. Well, a white woman, a union organizer, Zilphia Horton by name, she learned it from the strikers, it became her favorite song. Anyway, I spread the song around the country, but I didn't have a good voice like that, those 2 women, so I gave it a banjo accompaniment -- omm, chinka oom, chinka oom chinka omm, chinka oom, chinka oom... I got audiences in town hall and others singing it, but it didn't really spread. Until 1960, a young friend of mine, Guy Carawan by name, had a workshop called Singing in the Movement. And some 70 young people from Texas to Florida to Virginia gathered at that little Highlander school and swapped songs for a weekend and made up new verses and so on. And when Guy taught them this song, they said, "Oh, Guy, you got a song here!" And Guy had started giving it a kind of rhythm, which now everybody knows. It's -- musicians call it 12/8 time, that is, 4 beats, but each 4 beat is divided up in 3 little beats -- one two three, one two three, one two three, one, two, three, four...
(Clapping and singing before and with an audience): We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart, I know that I do believe, oh we shall overcome, someday. We shall live in peace! We shall live in peace. We shall live in peace. We shall live in peace some day -- ohhh, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome someday -- The whole wide world around!...
(To Curwood) Saving the world is not going to be easy. It's going to require huge arguments. People who call themselves environmentalists don't always agree. One says, "Don't have any dams," but along comes a man and says, "If you have a lot of small dams they won't do any damage, or not enough, and saves burning fossil fuels." Who knows what's going to happen? All I know is I wish I could live another 30 or 40 years, because some of the most exciting things are going to happen. When I meet people who say, "Oh, there's no hope, Peter, look at the things that are going wrong, and those stupid people in Bosnia, there are going to be things like that all around the world, where power-hungry people says 'I know how to handle this, just give me the bomb.' There's no hope." But I say to them, I said, "Did you think that our great Watergate president would leave office the way he did?" "No, I guess I didn't think that." I said, "Did you think that the Berlin Wall would come down so peacefully?" "No, I didn't think that would happen, yeah." I said, "Did you think Mandela would be president of South Africa?" "No, I didn't predict that." "Well, if you couldn't predict those three things, then don't be so confident that there's no hope." And I give them a bumper sticker. It says, "There's No Hope, But I May Be Wrong." (Curwood laughs)
(Seeger strums banjo)
CURWOOD: Pete Seeger, thanks so much for taking this time with us on Living on Earth today.
SEEGER: Thank you for inviting me.
CURWOOD: What's it say on your banjo here? It says --
SEEGER:"This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." I hope.
(Strums guitar and sings): Well may the world go, the world go, the world go. Well may the world go when I'm far away. Well may the scales turn, the swimmers churn, the lovers burn. Peace may the generals learn when I'm far away. (Sings with others) Well may the world go, the world go, the world go. Well may the world go when I'm far away.
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