Pete Seeger’s park-bench chat with NC News

The Jan. 27 death of Pete Seeger, the 94-year-old folk singer/songwriter icon and longtime champion for social change, may have stirred many people to hum a few bars of his well-known tunes such as: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” or “We Shall Overcome.”

Folk singer Pete Seeger performs  in 1985 at a Catholic Campaign for Human Development conference in Minnesota. (CNS file photo/ Sister Nancy Bauer, OSB)

Folk singer Pete Seeger performs in 1985 at a Catholic Campaign for Human Development conference in Minnesota. (CNS file photo/Sister Nancy Bauer, OSB)

Here at CNS it got us looking through our archives, which contained this 1970 interview (below) with Seeger who spoke to reporter John Sullivan — back when CNS was called NC News — on a park bench on the National Mall in Washington. The story was part of a series titled “Dateline: U.S.A.” the news service was doing in those years. Seeger wasn’t a Catholic but he was in town as part of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, which then and now offers a look at the many ethnicities, folkways and cultures that make up U.S. society. In his story, though, Sullivan highlights how Seeger had recently calmed another singer — who was attacking Catholic legislators – by singing a New England Irish Catholic protest song: “No Irish Need Apply.”

(Editors: This is the second article in NC’s continuing series: DATELINE U.S.A)

PETE SEEGER –‘Boxes’ don’t help people

8/12/70

By John R. Sullivan

(NC News Service)

WASHINGTON (NC) — He lives in a log cabin his family and friends helped build.

He wears jeans, old shirts, old sweaters, work shoes and drives an old station wagon. His traveling entourage usually consists of his wife, Toshi, and his younger daughter, Tinya

When strangers recognize him, he smiles awkwardly, mumbles his thanks and, as if wondering what to say next, ambles away.

He doesn’t have a press agent.

And that, believe it or not, is Pete Seeger, the man who, at 51, is helping young America rediscover — for at least the third time — the country’s folk music tradition.

It’s an unlikely portrait of a man whose 25-year career includes thousands of concerts, the formation of an immensely popular singing group (The Weavers), sales of several million recordings, the recording of probably 100 albums.

But then, Seeger is a man of many apparent contradictions: his father, Dr. Charles Louis Seeger, is a musicologist, conductor and educator at UCLA: Pete. a Harvard drop-out, is a banjo-picker. He volunteered for the Army in World War II, entertained troops and campaigned with the rest of America against the Hun; now he is firmly anti-war.

He was born of a sophisticated family in New York City, lived in Washington and has traveled throughout the world: now he prefers the woods near his home outside Beacon, N.Y.

Not long ago, Seeger sat on a bench in Washington’s Mall and talked about some of these things — a little bit about himself, but mostly about the world around him.

Obviously, he’s not an easy man to typecast, and Seeger is the first to admit it: “I try not to get myself put in a box and I try not to put other people in boxes.  . . . There’s a tendency to give a dog a bad name and kill it.”

On a recent television show with Canadian singer Oscar Brand, Brand opened a heated attack on Catholic legislators who vote against abortion and for parochial school aid. Seeger quickly calmed him down. “Before we start looking anti-Catholic,” he said, “let me sing a song.” It was a New England Irish Catholic protest song, “No Irish Need Apply.”

Stories of Seeger’s calming interventions abound, but he sees himself as one who stirs up people.

“I don’t want to find myself being used by people just to calm things down because, frankly, I’m glad to see people getting stirred up.

“You know the old saying: the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. And the world is full of good people who are not stirring up enough trouble.”

“Of course,” he added, “what kind of ruckus it is, is a different matter, and I don’t think it’s going to be· easy for any person — it’s certainly not easy for me — to decide exactly what kind of a ruckus, or where or when. You have to kind of argue out each particular situation on its own merits.”

Seeger is fond of quoting Negro abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “He would see progress without struggle, would rather see Niagara without hearing the roar of the waters.”

And he is not optimistic about progress coming calmly to the United States. “There’s going to be real hard times ahead, and there’s no getting around it.

“A lot of good people are going to get killed — it’s very probable. All we can do — you and I — is to try and lessen the hardship and lessen the violence. And keep plugging, saying ‘watch out.’”

Seeger’s own ruckus-making these days is focused on the commercial television industry -– the same one that banned him from appearing from 1955 until last year. The ban followed his conviction — later thrown out — for refusing to answer questions of the House Un-American Activities Committee during its unproductive probe of “subversives” in the entertainment industry.

But Seeger’s ruckus has nothing to do with the ban.

“I’m not mad about that at all,” he said. “But I do walk around in a rage that television — the closest thing to face-to-face contact there is — is not available to all the people.”

Libraries, he argues, collect and distribute all kinds of ideas.

“It would be harder, but I think television could do the same thing,” he suggested. “Right now a plurality — not even a majority -­ rules what goes on the air. A minority — even a large one — has very little say in it.

“The air belongs to the people,” he says, “so they ought to be able to share it.”

It is a concept that fits Seeger’s activist inclinations.

“This is one world and there is going be no world if we don’t learn to share again. I know love is a fine word — it’s my favorite four-letter word — but I have an even more favorite word, and that is ‘share.’

“A man says he loves his wife but he keeps her in the kitchen and makes her do all the dirty work. A man says he loves his children, but he doesn’t give them any say in what they want to do; he tells them what to do.

“Needless to say, you help guide people, but there’s a difference. You’ve  got to get to sharing. It’s a lot more concrete thing.”

In 2008,  Seeger told beliefnet.com, an independent online resource on faith and spirituality, that he used to say he was an atheist but he no longer felt that way.

“Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”

He also noted that preachers had described him as spiritual to which he responded: “Maybe I am. I feel strongly that I’m trying to raise people’s spirits.”

3 Responses

  1. Pete Seeger was also a card-carrying member of the PCUSA, who didn’t shrink from embracing Stalin even after the latter’s pact with Hitler. The aw-shucks people’s minstrel schtick was Seeger’s way of dedicating his talents to a hard-left agenda.

  2. His parents are gone now, but Pete will be remembered by his sister, Peggy.

  3. Seeger WAS a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) until Stalin’s crimes were exposed by the 20th Party Congress in 1956. At that point, he quit the Party. Maybe we should remember that Dorothy Day, like Pete, was an ex-Marxist.

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