No living musician has walked a straighter line between his art and his activism than Pete Seeger.
In the McCarthy era of the 1950’s, Seeger and his group the Weavers were blacklisted for their political activities. During the 60’s, he attended the Freedom Marches in the South and helped bring the song “We Shall Overcome” to the civil rights movement, where it became an anthem of hope and determination. Later in the decade, Pete could be found at rallies protesting the Vietnam War, and his antiwar song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” got him banned from the Ed Sullivan Show.
In 1969, he helped found the Clearwater Sloop, which still sails up and down the Hudson today, bringing awareness to environmental issues.
His latest album, “Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Volume 3,” will be released on Sept. 23 by Appleseed Records (www.appleseedrec.com).
Seeger has been awarded a Grammy, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Award and the Presidential Medal of the Arts. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
He has been a member of Local 802 for 61 years and is an honor member.
Allegro editor Mikael Elsila called Pete Seeger at his home in Beacon where he spoke to him about musicians, Labor Day and the lack of lullabies.
ME: As Labor Day approaches, people often think about workers. But do you think musicians should see themselves as workers, too?
PS: Absolutely. On the other hand, undoubtedly there are different kinds of workers. A musician in a symphony is different from someone serving hamburgers. Actually, my regret is that I haven’t found any particular way in which America as a whole can remember that Labor Day took a lot of struggle to get. Samuel Gompers, you know, had picked May 1 as a nationwide one-day strike to push the eight-hour day in 1886. But then May 1 became captured by the left wing of the labor movement, and Congress in 1894 said, “We’ll give you a day that won’t have anything to do with those folks,” and they picked out the first weekend in September. I’m told that there was also an underground conflict between the building trades unions and the coal miners around the date. The construction workers wanted to stick with May because that’s a time when construction was getting underway and they wanted to remind the country that construction workers were needed. Whereas the coal miners wanted September 1 because cold weather was coming and they wanted to remind the country that they needed coal.
ME: What did you think of the Broadway strike and the controversy over virtual orchestras?
PS: Once upon a time, every theatre had a live orchestra. Back in the 1920’s when I was a kid, there were silent movies. If they didn’t have an orchestra, they at least had a piano or an organ player who played along with or in between the silent movies. Even my little hometown of Beacon had an orchestra in the movie theatre back in the 20’s. I’m frankly two minds about so-called progress. As John Philip Sousa said, “What will happen to the American voice, now that the phonograph has been invented?” He really hit the nail on the head. The average parents don’t bother learning a lullaby. They just put their kids in front of the TV and let them go to sleep that way. Bars used to have people singing over their beers, raucously. Now the bar has a TV set. It’s a rare bar that has any singing in it. If you really want the beer to flow free, turn the TV down.
ME: What do you think the most pressing needs for musicians today are?
PS: I would say, first of all, keep your sense of humor. The good and bad are so tangled up, you can only laugh if you don’t cry. As technology steamrolls ahead, I’m sure a lot of us are going to be out of jobs. My grandson [Tao Rodriguez-Seeger] has been quite active in helping organize Local 1000. He’s very particular: he says, ask for a union wage when you work. He’s making a living with a group called The Mammals. Woody Guthrie once told a group that he would need $25 for a benefit performance, back around 1940. The woman said, “But it’s a good cause, Mr. Guthrie.” And he said, “Lady, I don’t sing for bad causes.”
ME: Did you ever think of yourself as a worker?
PS: Well, I realize I’m a strange member of the working class because, like most songwriters, in a sense I’m a capitalist. I once read John Updike said something like, “A writer is a capitalist of the imagination. You write something, invest time and energy in it, and you sit back hoping your investment brings a return.” And here at the age of 84, I’m not singing much anymore. If I do sing, I sing for a very small amount, just a token pay, union minimum – whereas once I would sing for thousands of dollars. But I don’t need the thousands of dollars because songs that I wrote 40 and 50 years ago bring in royalties. Many songwriters think of themselves as gamblers, writing songs that never bring in a penny but hoping someday to hit the jackpot. Like the fellow who wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” He wanted to write a song that kids would sing at Christmas. He tried this, he tried that, he tried the other thing, and finally got “Rudolph.” Speaking of which, did you know the man who wrote “Jingle Bells,” was a failure at everything he tried? He had a good college education. He tried being a lawyer; he failed. He tried being a businessman; he failed. He tried being a professor; he failed. However, sometime in his life, he wrote a little song for his kids when they were sleighing. And that song is still known. His name was James Pierpont.
ME: Music has given a lot to the labor movement, but what do you think musicians have gained from the labor movement?
PS: Quite obviously, if there were no musicians’ union, musicians would be singing for pennies, just getting by as people in the street do. We wouldn’t have health care, wouldn’t have pension.
ME: Is there anything else you’d like to say to musicians, as Labor Day approaches?
PS: I’d say find some way in which we can remind the American population that Labor Day was started way back, 109 years ago, as part of the eight-hour day struggle. And it was unions that got us the eight-hour day.