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The Parabolic Pete Seeger

Folk music legend comes to Buffalo in support of the Western New York Peace Center

Formed in 1967, in opposition to the Vietnam War, the Western New York Peace Center has grown into one of the most influential activist groups in the area—with only a small staff but over a thousand members. The organization has several task forces and committees that focus on prison conditions, militarism, Latin American and Middle East issues, the global economy, economic empowerment, and more recently, high-volume horizontal fracking.

Want to see him?

The WNY Peace Center’s 46th Annual Dinner takes place Saturday, November 9, 5:30pm at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Standard dinner ticket $50. Students/limited income $25. For more information, visit WNYPeace.org or call 332-3904.

At 5:30pm on Saturday, November 9, the group is holding its 46th annual dinner at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Speakers will include Reverend James Giles of Buffalo Peace Makers, a group focused on lessening street violence through gang intervention, and anti-drone protester Rae Kramer of the Syracuse Peace Council. Buffalo-based folksinger Nan Hoffman is also scheduled to perform before the headliner—who should need no introduction.

Pete Seeger has been performing music since 1939. As a musician, singer, songwriter, and outspoken activist, his impact on the American folk music scene is unparalleled. A friend of both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, Seeger is an American icon in his own right—leading millions and millions over the years in singing songs that inspire hope, point out injustice, generate enthusiasm, or provoke laughter.

At 94, Seeger says this is the longest trip he’s made from his home near Beacon, New York in years. He is coming as a favor to old friend Chuck Culhane, chair of the Prison Action Committee at the Western New York Peace Center. The story of their friendship is remarkable, beginning in 1971 when Culhane wrote Seeger a letter from his New York state prison cell. The latter replied that he was honored to receive the note, and they continued to correspond. Years later, Seeger would serve as best man at Culhane’s wedding.

Seeger spoke with Artvoice on two separate occasions as this event was being planned.

AV: What did it feel like as a folk singer when the Weavers suddenly had a number one hit with “Goodnight Irene” in 1950?

Seeger: [Laughs.] Well, unexpected things always happen. For a short while, we were at the top of the hit parade, as they called it then. We went from one expensive gin mill to another—the Palmer House in Chicago, the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas, Ciro’s in Hollywood.

AV: So there you are at the top in 1950, and later that decade you are blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Seeger: Yes.

AV: What did that feel like?

Seeger: Well, it didn’t bother me a bit. I didn’t want to work in gin mills anyway. I like to sing in cheap summer camps for children, or to college kids—and I made a very good living that way. I didn’t need to work in gin mills.

AV: And you entertained a lot of people along the way, and built quite a legend doing so.

Seeger: My favorite parable in the Bible is that of the sower of seeds. Jesus says the sower of seeds scatters the seeds, and some fall in the pathway and get stepped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on stones—they don’t even sprout. But some fall on fallow ground and grow, and produce a hundred-fold—multiply by a hundred-fold. So I look upon myself as a sower of seeds.

AV: Well, you’ve planted a lot, and a lot have grown for the better in the world.

Seeger: Well, my hope for the world is there are so many millions of little local things that are going on that the world will be saved. The people with money can break up any big thing they want—but what are they going to do about millions of little things?

I have a little parable I tell people. Imagine a seesaw with one end on the ground because it’s got a basket half-full of rocks. The other end is up in the air because it’s got a basket not quite half full of sand. And some of us have got teaspoons. And we’re putting more sand in that side. But some people are laughing at us. They say, “Oh, people like you have been working for centuries—thousands of years—trying to get that basket full of sand. But it’s leaking out of the basket as fast as you’re putting it in.”

But we say no. We’re looking very closely, and we’re actually getting a lot more people with teaspoons every year, and that basket is getting a little more full of sand. And we think that one of these days it’ll be more than half-full of sand, and you’ll see that whole seesaw go—ZOOP—in the other direction. Of course, we have to keep putting in sand, because it is leaking out. But nevertheless we think that one of these years that whole seesaw will tip in the right way.

AV: I wanted to ask you…of course, you play guitar and other instruments…but what was it about the banjo?

Seeger: Well, it’s a rhythmic instrument, as well as one that can accompany harmony and melody. I’ve always loved rhythm, and there are just a lot of different things you can do with a banjo. I used to play a ukulele when I was very young. Then my father took me, when I was a teenager, to a festival down south. I heard country musicians play the banjo—and I just fell in love with it.

AV: Here’s a question that you’ve addressed before, but it’s become something of a legend and I wanted to ask you since I have the opportunity: How angry were you when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965?

Seeger: Well, I was not angry at Bob. He was singing one of his best songs, but I couldn’t hear a single word that he was singing because they had the instruments turned up so high. I went over to the man at the controls and said, “Turn the instruments down, so I can hear Bob singing.” And they shouted back: “No! This is the way they want it.” Al Grossman and other people wanted Bob to break with the folkies. [laughs] I was so angry I said, “Dammit, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable!” [Laughs.] But I wasn’t angry at Bob, or the song—it’s a good song.

AV: Which song was it?

Seeger: “Maggie’s Farm.” [Sings.] “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”

AV: To what do you attribute your enduring coolness?

Seeger: Coolness? I don’t know what you mean by coolness.

AV: I guess what I mean is that every generation there is a crop of younger people who get turned on to your music, and it resonates generation after generation. For lack of a better word, I was saying that people keep thinking you’re cool. Why do you think that might be?

Seeger: [Laughs.] Have you ever read my book Where Have All the Flowers Gone?—A Sing-Along Memoir?

AV: I haven’t. I know the song, of course.

Seeger: Twenty years ago, my manager says, “Pete, you’ve put out a lot of songbooks, have you ever thought of putting out a book of your own songs?” So I sat down to write it, but there were a lot of mistakes in it. So three years later I got a batch of friends and we put out an improved version that took us 16 years. I subtitled it “A Sing-Along Memoir.” This subtitle was given to me by the great writer John Updike, who saw the original book and said: “How nice. A sing-along memoir.” That poor guy died far too young. But anyway, that’s the title of the book now. It has about 300 songs in it. A wide range, because I’ve done all sorts of foolish things. Back in my early days I was first a member of the Young Communist League, and then a member of the Communist Party for a while. And then I separated myself. Although I speak with everybody—I speak with people who are conservative; people who are radical. I believe in communication. Communication will save the world.

AV: If you had a hammer, today, which way would you be swinging it? What things in the world do you think need fixing?

Seeger: Oh, there are very urgent things. When I go into a class with very small children, kids seven or eight years old, I say “Hello, cousins!” And they’re a little surprised. So I say, “Well, not first cousins. Not like when you have the same grandparent…but listen to this…” And I sing: “Two times two is four / Two times four is eight / Two times eight is sixteen / And the hour is getting late.” And I tell them there’s a chorus you can sing, kids: “We’ve all been a-doubling, a-doubling, a-doubling, in thirty-two years.” The book The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich said the human race is doubling every thirty-two years. And we can’t go on forever, so the second verse is: “Two times sixteen is thirty-two / Next comes sixty-four / Next comes a hundred and twenty-eight / Do we need to hear more?” We’ve all been a-doubling, a-doubling…kind of funny, and all the kids are singing along. “Next comes two-hundred and fifty-six / Next five-hundred and twelve / Next a thousand and twenty-four / Figure it out yourself…we’ve all been a-doubling, a-doubling, a-doubling…Double ten more times / We’ve had ancestors over a million / Double another twenty times / We had ancestors over a trillion…hold on.”

And I say to them, “Some of our ancestors must have married cousins. And that means that every one of us in the world—we’re all distant, distant cousins of each other, no matter the color of our skin or the shape of our eyes or the language we speak—we’re all cousins. You and I, and everybody else—very distant cousins. And, if we realize this, maybe we’ll try to do something about trying to control our population because we can’t increase it forever. Economists say “If you don’t grow, you die.” When I hear that, I say “Doesn’t it follow that the quicker we grow, the sooner we die?” They just laugh. And I say “No, don’t just laugh. Answer me, yes or no? You’re scared to, aren’t you? You’re scared of that guy Seeger.” [Laughs.]

AV: So you’re stumping the economists, but the seven-year-old kids, they get it.

Seeger: Yeah. We can’t double forever. There’s lots of things we could talk about. My slogan is the one from the great French biologist René Dubos: “Think globally, act locally.” If the human race is still here in a hundred years, it will be the arts which save us. Not just the musical arts and the visual arts, but the cooking arts—and most important, the art of humor. I’ve got a newer song. I didn’t make it up myself, but it was put together by Josh White, Jr. It’s called “English is Crazy.” I get the whole audience singing with me. It’s a little monologue on the English language, which is read or spoken by one out of seven human beings in the world. Can you imagine that? One out of seven human beings can speak of read English. And it’s a crazy language. It’s one language where you drive on a parkway, and park in a driveway. Recite at a play, and play at a recital. Have noses that run, and feet that smell. [Laughs.]

AV: Fracking is a big issue these days, and it stirs up a lot of emotion among New Yorkers.

Seeger: I’ve got a special song about fracking. Two young people wrote a line (to the tune of “This Land is Your Land”) that goes “New York was meant to be frack-free.” And I added three lines of my own. “New York is my home / New York is your home / From the upstate mountains / Down to the ocean’s foam / With all kinds of people / Yes, we’re polychrome / New York was meant to be frack-free. Sing it again! Loud! So they can hear it in Albany.

AV: Thanks very much for your time, and have a safe trip up here to Buffalo.

Seeger: Okay, and you get to your typewriter.

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