Bruce Blew My Cover: Pete Seeger
ON THE FIRST Friday of the month, in fine weather and sometimes foul, you will find Pete Seeger, the folk-singing legend and pioneering environmentalist, in a small wooden clubhouse by the Hudson river, 70 miles north of Manhattan.
At 87, and only slightly stooped by age, he looks much as he did 40 years ago, when he was the voice of the left, and an inspiration to young folk singers like Bob Dylan. Here at his beloved Beacon Sloop Club, in jeans and with shirt sleeves rolled up, he is still the driving force for a weekly dinner that draws a few dozen similarly conscientious folk at the river's edge.
"The town gave us use of the building 45 years ago," recalls Seeger. "My wife suggested we call it a pot-luck dinner and we've been busy ever since."
Seeger has won many awards, including the National Medal for the Arts, but his main concern these days is teaching children about the natural life of the Hudson. Ecology is so much his passion that sometimes he likes to be called a river singer. Indeed, along with raising anti-war consciousness in the 1960s, he played a key role in the movement to clean up the Hudson, which forced General Electric to pay half a billion dollars for the removal of toxic substances.
"I still call myself a failed communist," says Seeger, preparing the club's stage for a late afternoon sing-song. And it's true that his most famous compositions, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ (adapted from an old Russian song about Cossacks going off to war) and ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ (a big hit for the Byrds) don't sound as revolutionary as they did.
Seeger's banjo once sported the message: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" (an echo of the message on Woody Guthrie's guitar: "This machine kills fascists"). The anti-fascist, union anthems he sang with Guthrie and later with his own band, the Weavers, placed him at the forefront of the action. He was targeted as a communist sympathiser in the 1950s (he was called before the McCarthy hearings after being warned that ‘If I Had a Hammer’ would go down badly with the authorities, found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison). During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he led a crowd, with Martin Luther King, in a rendition of ‘We Shall Overcome’.
Nowadays, Seeger doesn't play before large audiences, partly because he fears his voice is no longer strong enough. But he'll spend hours in the club, mischievously giving out bumper stickers reading "Gravity – it's just a theory" and encouraging people to send them to anyone in Kansas, heartland of the anti-Darwinism, creationist movement. He'll sing along at the club and tell stories for hours – but his best story is his own.
Born in 1919, and immersed in music by his teacher parents, Seeger got his big break in 1940. His parents were helping famous folk team John and Alan Lomax to transcribe songs recorded in the south. Woody Guthrie was persuaded to come to Washington to record them and Seeger accompanied him in the studio. The results were eventually published as a book:Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. "I went out west with Woody," says Seeger. "He taught me how to sing in saloons, how to hitch-hike, how to ride freight trains. Then I went out on my own."
Guthrie, he says, taught him how to busk. "He'd say put the banjo on your back, go into a bar and buy a nickel beer and sip it as slow as you can. Sooner or later, someone will say, 'Kid, can you play that thing?' Don't be too eager, just say, 'Maybe, a little.' Keep on sipping beer. Sooner or later, someone will say, 'Kid, I've got a quarter for you if you pick us a tune.' Then you play your best song." With that advice, Seeger supported himself on his travels.
Last year, Bruce Springsteen – a friend since the 1990s – released an album of songs Seeger had performed over the years. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions put Seeger back in the spotlight. "I wish he hadn't used my name," says Seeger. "I've managed to survive all these years by keeping a low profile. Now my cover's blown. If I had known, I'd have asked him to mention my name somewhere inside."
While he likes Springsteen's renditions ("They're not my songs, they're old songs, I just happened to sing 'em,"), he says the renewed attention has added to the admin work that falls to his wife of more than 60 years, Toshi. "Most men chain their wives to a sink. Mine is chained to a table covered with correspondence. 'Oh, Mr Seeger, won't you listen to my record? Read my book, come over here and accept this award …'" He refuses almost all such requests.
The business of the mighty river comes first nowadays. He's the enduring, seemingly ageless, folk-singing socialist-ecologist, and a fervent believer in thinking globally and acting locally. And down by the river, after the monthly pot-luck dinner, there's always time to take out the old five-string banjo and sing a song. "The real revolution will come when people realise the danger we're in," he offers in parting. "I'm not as optimistic as people think I am. I think we have a 50-50 chance of there being a human race in 100 years".
© Edward Helmore, 2007