Pure Pete Seeger

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The wit, wisdom, and song of one of America’s best-known bards comes to life in this program, which offers a rousing musical portrait of the beloved and often controversial folk singer, songwriter, storyteller and activist Pete Seeger.


The Bill Moyers Collection: American Archive of Public Broadcasting


PETE SEEGER: We got some big jobs we can do in the music field. One is reminding people what fun it is to make music and how much fun it is to let music participate in the rest of life. The important thing is not, “Is it good music?” “What is the music good for?” That’s the important question. And if it bids fair to help weld the people into more democratic action, you can’t fault it.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] He’s still going strong at 75, “Pure Pete Seeger.” I’m Bill Moyers. Pete Seeger can get anyone to sing, including journalists who have to carry their tunes in a bucket. Pete and his banjo have been part of America’s story for half a century. When I heard he was about to turn 75 – Pete Seeger 75? – I knew it was time to pay a visit. Pete and his wife, Toshi, live in a house they built by hand overlooking New York’s Hudson River. When I came calling, he was surrounded by three generations of Seegers, including his grandson, Tao, doing what they love to do best, making music.

[interviewing] Oh, it must be great just to be able to pick up a banjo or a guitar when- when you want to play, when you’ve had an argument with your wife or an argument with yourself-

CHILD: Or dad.

BILL MOYERS: -or an argument with your dad, as she says- just- and just to turn the whole- whole thing around.

PETE SEEGER: It is a lot of fun. Actually, there’s now millions of people that keep a guitar hanging on the wall somewhere, or a banjo or some kind of music. They know they’ll never get to make any money at it, but they’ll occasionally get together with friends and they’ll make a little music here, a little music there. It’s all around the country.

BILL MOYERS: But that’s what you want, as a singer, isn’t it?

PETE SEEGER: Yeah, that’s what I’ve really wanted. I’d really rather put songs on people’s lips than in their ears.

BILL MOYERS: Do you remember that song, that kid’s song, “The Hambone Lesson” for kids?

PETE SEEGER: Well, Sonny Terry was a harmonica player and his nephew taught me this. He said his father used to do it with the- line up all the kids and- and he’d get so excited, he’d be tapping them on the head and Mother said, “Quit that. You’ll bash those kids brains out.” Now, the idea is [tapping in rhythm] you keep your rhythm, no matter what you do, no matter where you tap. You can pat on the back of the hand coming up, pat on the back of the other hand.

You can hush little baby and-a don’t say a word.

Papa going to buy you a mockingbird.

If that mockingbird don’t sing,

Papa going to buy you a diamond ring.

If that diamond ring is brass,

Papa going to buy you a looking glass.

If that looking glass gets broke,

Papa going to buy you a billy goat.

If that billy goat don’t pull,

Papa going to buy you a cart and bull.

If that cart and bull turn over,

Papa going to buy you a dog named Rover.

If that dog named Rover don’t bark,

Papa going to buy you a horse and cart.

If that horse and cart fall down,

you’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town!

BILL MOYERS: Now, that’s not going to put one to sleep. That’s going to wake one up.

PETE SEEGER: Kids get to be about three years old and they wake up to the realization that a lullaby is a propaganda song. And some of my best stories got made up when my own kids- this fella’s mother and his uncle- “No, we don’t want a lullaby! We want a story, a long one.” That’s how I made up the story about Abiyoyo. “Don’t go near him! He’ll eat you alive!” There was Abiyoyo. He had long fingernails, because he never cut them, slobbery teeth because he didn’t brush them, stinking feet because he never washed them. He raises up with his claws. Just then, the boy whips out his ukelele. [singing]

Abiyoyo! Abiyoyo!

Abiyoyo! Abiyoyo!

The giant started to dance. [singing]

Abiyoyo! Abiyoyo!

Abiyoyo! Abiyoyo!

The boy went faster! [singing]


The giant got out of breath. He staggered. He fell down flat on the ground and they all sang, [singing]

Abiyoyo! Abiyoyo!

Abiyoyo! Abiyoyo!

BILL MOYERS: You’ve spent a lot of your life singing to kids.

PETE SEEGER: I wanted to be a journalist and I knocked on the doors, made telephone calls and wrote letters, but I didn’t even get the nibble of a job. It was the Depression. I had dropped out of college. Didn’t have a degree in journalism or anything else. Meanwhile, I had some relatives who taught school. My aunt says, “Come sing for the children in my class. I can get $5 for you.” That was a lot of money. It seemed like stealing to take money for what I’d always done for the fun of it. But I went, took the money and forgot about looking for an honest job. I’ve been singing ever since.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Pete Seeger was a young man when he grabbed his banjo and criss-crossed America with his friend and fellow folk singer Woody Guthrie. They rode the rails and hitch-hiked from town to town, singing for their supper and learning about folk music at the grass roots.

PETE SEEGER: [singing]

Wish I had a nickel, wish I had a dime

Wish I had a pretty little gal [unintelligible]

Round, round [unintelligible] Round and around, I say


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Pete brought the music back to New York, where he helped form the Almanac Singers. [reprise round] It was the early 1940s and they played the subway circuit, racing from benefit to benefit, singing in support of unions and the fight against fascism.


Well, Irene, good night

Irene, good night-

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] After Pete and his friend, Lee Hays, started a new group called the Weavers, their songs climbed the charts and helped spark the growing interest in folk music. Their political sympathies got them in trouble in the country’s post-war paranoia over communism and the Weavers fell prey to the blacklist.

PETE SEEGER: [singing]

To everything, turn, turn, turn,

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Concert dates and club bookings grew scarce, but Pete Seeger couldn’t stop singing. He found a new audience on college campuses and with children in camps and schools.

PETE SEEGER: [singing]

There was a cottage in the woods

A little man by the window stood

Saw a rabbit running by

Frightened as can be.

[singing] This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine-

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] A generation awakened to folk music singing along with Pete Seeger.

PETE SEEGER: Let’s see if we can get this crew singing with us here.


PETE SEEGER: Let’s sing the- this song uses an old tune. It was a German Christmas carol. I wrote it when I met some of the fisherman on the river, who fished for shad every spring. [singing]

So many homeless sailors,

so many winds that blow

I asked the half-blind scholars

which way the currents flow

So cast your nets below

And the gods of moving waters

will tell us all they know

So cast your nets below

And the gods of moving waters

will tell us all they know.

La La La La

The circles of the planets,

the circles of the moon

The circles of the atoms

all play a marching tune

And we who could join in

can stand aside no longer

Now let us all begin.

One more time.

[singing] La La La

And we who would join in

can stand aside no longer

Now let us all begin.

BILL MOYERS: I like that. Yeah. You wrote that one

PETE SEEGER: I wrote the words.


PETE SEEGER: And the rhythm, of course, came from the Caribbean. I’ve- I fell in love with Caribbean music way back when I was his age. There was a Cuban song on all- it was a top 40 hit. [singing] Peanuts- Well, I’d never heard that kind of rhythm before, but I started trying to play it. And I’m still learning- trying to-

BILL MOYERS: That’s how you came on “Guantanamera,” wasn’t it? That- that’s one of the ones that most people associate with you.

PETE SEEGER: I was singing for the children at a summer camp up in the Catskill Mountains, and when I finished singing, the children said, “Oh, we have a song to teach you.” And I was- you know, I said, “Can you send it to me?” “No!” They sat me down. They brought out this very shy young man. He was a Cuban who was studying music in the Manhattan music school. And I listened and I said, “I don’t know Spanish, but that’s a nice chorus. I bet I could get people singing that chorus.” And I’ve sung this song in 35 countries of the world. I’ve sung it in Japan and China and India and Africa, Latin America, of course. And I now- I’m convinced that Jose Marti ranks right up there along with Shakespeare and Pushkin as one of the world’s great, great poets. So simple. This was his last book of poetry before he was killed. He participated in an abortive uprising in 1895. Hey, it’s going to be 100 years since he wrote this- it is 100 years since he wrote this song, just about. [sings “Guantanamera”] “I am a truthful man from this land of palm trees. Before dying, I want to share these poems of my soul. My poems are light green, but they are also flaming red.” Then there’s a verse says, “I cultivate a rose in June and in January for the friend who gives me his hand. And for the cruel one, who would tear out this heart with which I live, I do not cultivate thistles nor nettles. I cultivate a white rose.” [sings]

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Pete Seeger never thought it was enough to sing romantic songs about social change.

PETE SEEGER: [singing] Oh, there’s anger in the land- Tonight, you and I have got a war to stop.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] If he and his banjo could put toes to tapping, they could send feet to marching. Music could unite people and inspire them to organize workers, demonstrate for Civil Rights and stop wars.

PETE SEEGER: [singing] Support our boys in Vietnam Bring ’em home, bring ’em home- [singing] Here we stand, knee-deep in garbage, firing rockets at the moon- You get that?

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] As he traveled the world singing for one controversial cause after another, back home in the conservative Hudson Valley, some folks didn’t take to having an agitator for a neighbor.

PETE SEEGER: Right where we are right now is where a forest fire was started – arson- by somebody who was trying to scare us. The headline in the paper said, “Seeger sings anti-American song in Moscow.” Well, it wasn’t true. I’d- I’d been asked by some students at the college in Moscow University, “What kind of songs do you sing at colleges?” And I’d stayed away from the subject of Vietnam. It was 1967. But I said, “Well, Bob Dylan is singing this and Phil Ochs is singing that and here’s a song I wrote.” It was a kind of a sad lament for a man killed in Vietnam. I got the words out of a local paper. A woman wrote- her husband said- [singing]

He said, ”We’ve no friends here. No, hardly a one

We’ve got a few generals who just want our guns

But itíll take more than that if we’re ever to win

Why, we’ll have to flatten the country”

“It’s my own troops I have to watch out for, “he said

“I sleep with a pistol right under my head”

He wrote this last month, last week he was dead

And Simon came home in a casket.

These are the words in her letter I put into the song.

BILL MOYERS: And you sang this song in Moscow?

PETE SEEGER: In Moscow. Well, the headline said, “Seeger sings anti-American song in Moscow” and I was due to sing for the kids in the high school and a petition was passed around, got 700 signatures, that I shouldn’t sing there. And I had some friends in town said, “Pete, you better cancel. You’re going to be run out of town.” And as I say, a forest fire was started right here one Sunday and at the other end of our property on another Sunday. However, we had neighbors and we had a few friends in town and my neighbors had- they- they knew who- who started the fires. Said, “What are you, trying to burn the mountain down because you don’t like Seeger?”

BILL MOYERS: It did trouble people that, in the midst of the Vietnam war, you’d go to Moscow, to go to Hanoi.

PETE SEEGER: Well, I still believe that songs can do things that speeches can’t and I wanted to show them the side of America that they didn’t know. America has many sides. It’s got a Ku Klux Klan side, as well as a Martin Luther King side. It’s got a very macho side, as well as a- a nurturing side. I know which side I’d like to see have more influence, but I have to admit I’m only one person.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think this place has meant to your life, to your singing?

PETE SEEGER: It’s given me a place to come home to. I’ve been very lucky and, of course, if it hadn’t been for Toshi, my wife, why, I wouldn’t be here at all. She kept it going months and months when I was traveling. And I confess, it gives me a kind of inner peace just to go walking in the woods. I’d been a nature nut as a little kid, but then I put that behind me and thought maybe the main job was trying to help the meek inherit the earth. And then I realized in 1963 that if the meek inherited the earth ever, it might be such a poisonous garbage dump, it wouldn’t be much fun for anybody. And a few years later, worked with the people on the Clearwater project, trying to clean up the river. You should see that boat- 100 feet tall, 100 feet long, all wood, no brass, no plastic, no chromium.

BILL MOYERS: Was Clearwater your idea?

PETE SEEGER: I simply wrote a letter to a friend- “Wouldn’t it be great to build a replica of one of these boats? Not a half-size boat, a full-size boat.”

BILL MOYERS: One of the boats that used to come down the Hudson.

PETE SEEGER: Yeah. And three years later, this huge sailboat was built up in Maine, and I got a crew of musicians. We sailed down the coast and gave fund-raising concerts every night and sailed on the next day.

BILL MOYERS: But that boat, probably more than anything else, galvanized interest, symbolically, in the river, in the Hudson.

PETE SEEGER: Kids come on the boat, say, “Wow!” And then they’re told, “This is how New York City was built.” Hudson River bricks built New York City. Catskill bluestone slate made the sidewalks of New York and they were carried on boats like this. And the kids help raise the sails, sing a song while they’re raising the big sail. Clearwater’s learned how to teach on a boat. You don’t just talk at them. It’s all hands on. Eight of them go to the starboard side and put a net in the water, catch some fish. “Wow! I didn’t know there were any fish in the river still. It’s so dirty.” Oh, lots of life down there still. So the kids get a whiff of science, a whiff of sailing, a little of history, sing some songs. And some of them get their lives turned around. The purpose of the Clearwater is not just to be a beautiful boat, but to clean up the river and make the shores accessible to everybody. Next week, we’re having the strawberry shortcake festival at the river. You should come down. It’s 2,000 servings of the world’s best strawberry shortcake. We cook them right there and you have hot biscuits and cold strawberries and real whipped cream. No plastic stuff- to eat right away. And people from our home town come down. There’s all sorts of people who probably would disagree with me on 1,001 things, but they love that strawberry shortcake.

PETE SEEGER: [singing]

Some are young, some are old

Old, young, young, old, up and down the river

Sailing on, stopping all along the way

Well, it may be dirty now, but it’s getting cleaner every day.

Right where we are now was a garbage dump 25 years ago and a million dollars was spent to build this park. It’s well-used. It was only 50 cents when we started 17 years ago.

WOMAN AT TABLE: But gas used to be a quarter a gallon!

PETE SEEGER: I’ve always said there’s lots of better banjo pickers than I am, but nobody can make better shortcake. So I served it to the Sloop Club one month. They said, “Let’s do it next month.” Well, it- we sold 200 shortcakes the next month and next year, another festival, sold 600 shortcakes. Next year, another festival sold 1,000 shortcakes. So now we’ve run it for 17 years and it’s almost down to a routine. There should be should be hot, hot, hot biscuits and then cold strawberries and cream on top.

PETE SEEGER: [singing]

People come, people go

Come, go, up and down the river

Sailing on, stopping all along the way

Well, it may be dirty now, but it’s getting cleaner every day.

Oh, sing that last line again. [singing]

The river may be dirty now, but she’s getting cleaner every day.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The folk revival that began in the 1940s when Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were young men climaxed in the 1960s. Pete was giving his support to a rising group of younger musicians. He and Toshi helped to establish the Newport Folk Festival as the country’s most important annual gathering of folk musicians. The music that Pete first sang with friends in a loft in Greenwich Village was now popular all across the land. [interviewing] The New York Times says that –

PETE SEEGER: Folk music is “giving up the ghost.”

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, giving up the ghost, that folk singing seems to have finally come to an end in the competing claims of multi-culturalism.

PETE SEEGER: I wrote him a letter. I said, “I, for one, will very glad when the 1960s definition of folk music gives up the ghost.” And I sent them a copy of Sing Out magazine, listing 400 festivals going on in the next three months. He doesn’t even know they exist. Newport is no more, in the sense that it was, but it’s all over the place.

BILL MOYERS: Folk singing’s still happening.

PETE SEEGER: It- they just don’t call it “folk music.” It’s bluegrass here and it’s blues there and it’s gospel music here and it’s traditional English ballads somewhere else and Irish music here and Italian music there. And once in a while, like at the Clearwater Revival, we put them all together in one place.

BILL MOYERS: What is your definition of folk music?

PETE SEEGER: Well, first of all, realize that the term was invented 150 years ago, in Europe, by scholars who wanted to describe the music of the peasant class, ancient and anonymous. In this country, the definition was extended by old John Lomax, who collected cowboy songs and lumberjack songs and songs of prisoners on chain gangs. Then along came Woody Guthrie, and they call him a folk singer, and a whole string of people follow Woody. Now if you have a microphone in front of you and a guitar in your hand and you’re singing in English, you’re called a folk singer. But some grandmother singing a 400-year-old song to a baby, she’s not a folk singer. Oh, no. She’s not on the stage. She’s not in front of a microphone. She’s just a grandmother singing an old song, not a folk singer. Hah! It’s a silly use of the term, misuse of the term. After all, there’s thousands of different kinds of folks and they all got music.

BILL MOYERS: What you’ve done so effectively is to get people to sing and, very often, at pop concerts, commercial concerts, which I like, of- quote – folk singers, the audience is very passive. Not with you.

PETE SEEGER: Well, I’m not much of a voice anymore and never did have much voice, but if I can get a crowd singing, we make some good music. Teach one the high part and the low part. People sometimes satirize it, Pete Seeger trying to get four-part harmony out of a bunch of jerks, but we do it sometimes. You know the old hymn[ singing} All people that on earth do dwell- I put some new words to it and I get audiences singing in rich harmony- [singing] All people that on earth do dwell sing out for peace ‘tween heaven and hell ‘Tween east and west and low and high Sing peace on earth and sea and sky. I teach a high part for the sopranos and tenors. I teach a bass part for the low altos and basses. By gosh, sometimes we get some great harmony.

BILL MOYERS: You ever teach them “That Old-Time Religion,” that song that you- the new words you made to the “Old-Time Religion”?

PETE SEEGER: I don’t want to offend anybody, but it is funny. There’s a group of people who like science fiction who get together regularly to make up parodies and satirical verses. And a friend of mine taught me this version. [singing]

We will pray with Aphrodite

We’ll pray with Aphrodite

She wears that see-through nightie

and it’s good enough for me.

Give me that old-time religion

Give me that old-time- We’ll pray with Zarathustra

Pray just like we used to

I’m a Zarathustra booster

and it’s good enough for me.

And what were some of the other verses? [singing]

Hare Krishna, he must laugh on

To see me dressed in saffron

With my hair that’s only half on

It’s good enough for me.

Give me that old-time religion

Give me that old-time religion

Give me that old-time religion

It’s good enough for me.

I made up a new verse, one new verse. [singing]

I’ll arise at early morning

When my Lord gives me the warning

That the solar age is dawning

And that’s good enough for me.

Oh, give me that old-time religion

Give me that old-time religion

Give me that old-time religion

It’s good enough for me.

BILL MOYERS: Are you writing any new songs now?

PETE SEEGER: Oh, I’m trying to. I can’t say how useful they are. Made up one for my wife’s birthday a couple years ago. But I also wrote a song- just the tune, pardon me. I didn’t write the song. Calvin Trillin wrote the words. But you couldn’t sing it exactly. I had to change the words a little so that I could get a crowd to join in with me.

BILL MOYERS: And this one is about?

PETE SEEGER: He called it “The Ross Perot Guide to Answering Embarrassing Questions.” [singing]

When something in my history is found

That contradicts the views that I propound

Or shows that I perhaps am not the guy I claim to be

Here’s what I usually do

I lie, I simply, boldly falsify

I look the other feller in the eye and just deny, deny, deny

I lie.

I hate those weasel words some slickies use

To blur their past or muddy up their views

Not me, I’m blunt.

One thing that makes me great

Is that I’ll never dodge nor obfuscate

I lie, I simply, boldly falsify

I look the other feller in the eye and just deny, deny, deny

I lie.

BILL MOYERS: The views of the singer are not necessarily those of-

PETE SEEGER: I look upon that song as something to try and help politicians stay on the right side of God.

BILL MOYERS: And yet you can go from that to a strange one in your repertoire, “Treblinka,” the Nazi concentration camp.

PETE SEEGER: A man named Ber Green, who’s dead now, wrote a poem and I couldn’t get it out of my head, put a tune to it. [singing]

And still I choke on the smoke of Treblinka

Wild winds weep over the bones of the dead

In those gray spaces, sacred souls are soaring

The hot ashes of the martyrs rain down upon my head

Forever those sacred ashes can wail in my heart-

Oh, it needs a good voice. My voice can’t- a good cantor could sing this. I’m going to send it to some cantor friends of mine. But you know what? I had to make another verse. It’s- it- you can’t end on this completely despairing note. And I thought that if there was a children’s chorus connected with a synagogue anywhere, they could sing, [singing]

But we are here and we’ll not forget you.

We are here to build and to say

The martyrs’ ashes circle all the world now

And we, yes, we, are here to say so the children-

“Your ashes and their ashes are all mingled.”

BILL MOYERS: One of the biographers wrote that the night, March, 1940, when you and Woody Guthrie met, was the beginning of the renaissance of American folk music.

PETE SEEGER: That’s oversimplifying. But Woody was an extraordinary man and his books are still- I keep opening them up and reading them and getting new things out of them. He was a natural-born genius. Oh, miss him a lot! I guess this happens to a lot t of people my age. You think of people you knew and- I miss Lee Hays a lot, the bass l in the Weavers. He was this fellow who– we were giving a concert right after the 1980 election. He says, “I have a few words on the recent unpleasantness at the polls. Be of good cheer. This, too, shall pass. I’ve had kidney stones and I know.”

BILL MOYERS: What did you and Woody Guthrie teach each other about music?

PETE SEEGER: I don’t know what I taught him. He taught me a lot of things- a certain laconic quality, which I still don’t have – don’t push things too hard – a certain willingness just to– to do impolite things occasionally, when it was necessary. You know, during World War II, Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, these two black musicians, sang at a big rally – ”Buy war bonds, defeat Hitler” – in Baltimore. They sang this song: [singing]

We’re going to tear Hitler down

We’re going to tear Hitler down

And so on. Afterwards, the chairperson says, “Mr. Guthrie, we have a seat for you at the table and we have a seat out in the kitchen for your friends.” Woody says, “What do you mean? You heard us sing together. Why can’t we sit together?” “Oh, Mr. Guthrie, this is Baltimore, remember.” Woody said, “This fight against fascism got to start right here.” He picked the whole table up, with all the silver and glasses, tipped the whole thing over. Went to the next table, tipped it up. They grabbed him and hustled him out.

BILL MOYERS: I never heard that.

PETE SEEGER: “This fight against fascism got to start right here.”

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s what makes even stranger- I mean, even more incongruous to me, his favorite here- what do you think of when you hear this?


This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York islands

From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway

I saw above me that endless skyway

I saw below me that golden valley

This land was made for you and me.

PETE SEEGER: John Steinbeck said, “Woody’s voice is like a tire iron hanging on a rusty rim.”

BILL MOYERS: There’s something very elemental about it, isn’t there.

PETE SEEGER: Yeah. This song, I have to confess, when I heard it first, I said, “Gee, that’s not one of Woody’s greatest songs.” [hums] Doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Shows how dumb I was. Later on, I realized that he’d just put his- hit the nail on the head so simply. I mean, it’s the genius of simplicity. Any fool can get complicated, but he-

BILL MOYERS: Woody died a slow and sad death, didn’t he?

PETE SEEGER: Yeah, he had a thing called Huntington’s disease. It’s a genetic deficiency. And around age 40, he started having spells of dizziness. Next thing, he was in a hospital for the rest of his life, died unable to control his tongue, couldn’t focus his eyes, his limbs just moved wildly.

BILL MOYERS: Did you ever go out to see him, sing for him?

PETE SEEGER: Yeah. Tried to. Actually, last time I was singing was with Brownie McGee, the blues singer, and Sonny Terry, the harmonica player. We got singing “The Rock Island Line” and Woody got so excited, it- he was going to hurt himself. His limbs were just flying around and he was- and he was hitting himself.

BILL MOYERS: “The Rock Island Line”- that has that-

PETE SEEGER: Oh, great song, you know.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, yeah.

PETE SEEGER: [singing]

Oh, the Rock Island line, it is a mighty good road

The Rock Island line, it is the road to ride

Rock Island line, it is a mighty good road

Well, if you want to ride, you got to ride it like you find it

Get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island line.

Jesus died to save our sins,

Glory to God, we’re going to need him again.

Oh, the Rock Island line, it is a mighty good road

The Rock Island line, it is the road

It was a work song.

BILL MOYERS: Who wrote that? Was that just-

PETE SEEGER: A guy named Kelly Pace, in prison in Arkansas, was singing it and old man Lomax and his son, Alan, come and Leadbelly was with them. He was acting as their chauffeur. Leadbelly added it to his repertoire and sang it everywhere.

BILL MOYERS: Leadbelly had a big influence on you.

PETE SEEGER: Oh, yeah. I think of Leadbelly always sitting up straight and singing right out straight- no slyness, no finagling, no tricks.

BILL MOYERS: Which do you think was his greatest song- Leadbelly’s?

PETE SEEGER: Well, “Irene Good Night” is his most famous one, but I still think of “Mr. Tom Hughes’s Town” as the great one.

LEADBELLY: [singing]

Here’s a song I composed about Tom Hughes’s town,

better known as Shreveport, Louisiana

My mama didn’t want me to go into Mr. Tom Hughes’s town,

but I wanted to go all my life

And here’s what I said to my mama,

”Follow me down, follow me down Follow me down by Mr. Tom Hughes”-

PETE SEEGER: He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was 63. But a year before, I thought he’d live to 100, he was so powerful. Take off his shirt, his muscles looked like iron bands.

BILL MOYERS: Both of your friends, your early-


BILL MOYERS: -your early comrades died of- in sad ways.

PETE SEEGER: Well, death is always sad, I guess. But they were- they left their songs behind. What more immortality could anybody want?

BILL MOYERS: What, do you think, of your songs of the ’50s and ’60s might- might have that- I don’t mean to make you immodest, but-

PETE SEEGER: I wouldn’t know, I wouldn’t know. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is the best-known song I’ve ever written, I think, maybe, along with “If I Had a Hammer.” But all those might be forgotten. What might be remembered is the story about Abiyoyo, about the boy who got the giant dancing. Might be one of the river songs I made up. Made up lots of songs about the river. Might be one of the children’s songs. Might even be a love song.

BILL MOYERS: Which is your favorite love song? I mean, love songs in the folk tradition- didn’t they used to be sin songs, songs of sin?

PETE SEEGER: [singing] Going to sing me a love song just in hopes you might be passing by Going to sing me a love song just in hopes you might be passing by And if you’re not too busy, perhaps I might catch you on the fly. Won’t you come along with me, down by the spring? Won’t you come along with me, down by the spring? To see the waters gliding, hear the nightingale sing? Now my song is over, but the melody lingers on Now my song is over, but the melody lingers on And should I ever leave you, remember when I’m gone. Kind of a love song for overly busy people. I think technology is unbalanced; the ecology is unbalanced; the economy, it’s unbalanced. Our individual lives- half the world is too busy and the other halfs unemployed. I don’t know what to do about it. All I can do is sing a blues about it.


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Back in what he calls the “dirty ’30s,” Pete Seeger did more than just sing the blues about social injustice. He joined the Young Communist League. His left-wing politics eventually got him hauled before the House On-American Activities Committee in 1955. He was charged with contempt of Congress when he refused to answer their questions.

PETE SEEGER: I said, “You have a right to your opinion. I have a right to my opinion, period.”

BILL MOYERS: And you refused to invoke the 5th Amendment.

PETE SEEGER: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: You kept referring to the 1st Amendment.

PETE SEEGER: I didn’t even refer to that. I simply said, “These are questions that no American should be forced to answer, especially under threat of reprisal if they give the wrong answer.”

BILL MOYERS: You got a year for that.

PETE SEEGER: I was sentenced to a year in jail, but I only spent four hours behind the bars while my lawyer got bail.

BILL MOYERS: You- you started to tell the committee that your life, in your judgment, had been a contribution to this country. He cut you off. You wanted to sing a song. He wouldn’t let you sing. What song would you have sung that day?

PETE SEEGER: Well, it was [singing]

Wasn’t that a time

Wasn’t that a time,

a time to try the soul of man-

It goes back to Washington at Valley Forge. It goes back to the battle of Gettysburg, and so on. Oh! Perhaps I was protesting too much. One can only try. I’m not sure if I’ve done everything- I’ve tried- I know I haven’t done everything I’ve tried to do. But I believed it, that when I was- I opposed the On-American Activities, I think my great-grandfather, the abolitionist doctor, would have approved.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In his new autobiography, Pete Seeger says he drifted out of communism in the 1950s, but his troubles with the House On-American Activities Committee and his continuing talent for controversy got him black-listed by the major television networks. He wound up producing his own program for a local public television station. In 1967, he finally broke the black list.

DICK SMOTHERS: [“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”] Ladies and gentlemen, meet Pete Seeger!

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Smothers Brothers invited him to perform on their CBS series. But when he sang his powerful anti-war song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” the network censors cut it.

PETE SEEGER: The Smothers Brothers are still good friends of mine. They’re wonderful people. And they wanted to have me on early, but Columbia says, “Oh, no. You’ll get in trouble.” Around October, their show was just at the top of the success. The ratings were great and their bosses at CBS said, “What can we do for you?” They said, “Let us have Seeger on.” “Well, okay.” I flew out there, recorded some old folk songs and I also sang [singing]

Waist deep in the Big Muddy,

the big fool says to push on-

[“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”] You know, a song can mean a thousand different things to different people. And when people ask me, “What does this song mean?” I said, “Whatever it means to you. It means- but I’m not going to tell you what it means to me, because that’s my- well, it might mean I might destroy your illusions.

Well, it got scissored out of the tape. It was an obvious cut. [“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”]

[singing] Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time passing-

Well, the Smothers Brothers took their case to the printed media, that Seeger got his best song cut. “They censor our best jokes.” Finally, in January, CBS said, “Okay. Okay. You can have him.” On one week’s notice, I flew out and recorded. This time the whole country heard the song.

[”The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”] [singing]

It was back in 1942,

I was a member of a good platoon

We were on maneuvers in Louisiana

one night by the light of the moon.

The captain told us to ford a river,

That’s how it all begun

We were knee deep in the Big Muddy,

the big fool said to push on.

Well, 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 slogging,

We’ll soon be on dry ground,”

We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool said to push on.

All at once, the moon clouded over,

we heard a gurgling cry

A few seconds later, the captain’s helmet was all that floated by.

The sergeant said, “Turn around, men.

I’m in charge from now on, ”

And we just made it out of the Big Muddy

with the captain dead and gone.

Well, I’m not going to point any moral,

I’ll leave that for yourself

Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking,

you’d like to keep your health.

But every time I read the paper,

them old feelings come on

We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy,

the big fool says to push on,

Waist deep in the Big Muddy,

the big fool says to push on!

BILL MOYERS: I keep asking you these questions about what does song really do? You know, does it change anything? And you keep saying, “Well, it doesn’t- it doesn’t matter whether it changes anything.”

PETE SEEGER: Well, you can’t prove anything. Oh, it matters, but I just can’t prove a thing. All I know is that throughout history, the leaders of countries have been very particular about what songs they want sung, so some people must- beside me must think songs do something.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I also think of that story you tell about seeing the kid in Times Square-

PETE SEEGER: Oh, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: -the young man.

PETE SEEGER: I’ve told that to many people. It’s true. Around 1951 or ’52, I think, one of these peace demonstrations that had a few lonely people holding up a sign. And this Quaker kid was holding up a sign around midnight. Person said, “Do you think you’re going to change the world here at midnight with that sign?” And the kid says, “Well, I suppose not, but I’m going to make sure the world does not change me.” Now, when people all around the world say that, that’s when the world will be changed. Imagine a big see-saw. One end has got a basket of rocks. It’s down on the ground. The other end’s half full of sand and there’s some of us got teaspoons. We’re putting sand in that basket. But most people are laughing at us. They say, “Don’t you see it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in?” We say, “There’s more people with teaspoons all the time. One of these days, you’ll see that basket full and that whole seesaw will go just like that.” And people say, “Gee, how did it happen so quickly?”

BILL MOYERS: You know, when I hear you talk, I think of that song- I don’t know who wrote it- “How can i”-

PETE SEEGER: Oh, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: -“Keep From Singing.” You know that one. Is it one of yours?

PETE SEEGER: No, I was taught it by a woman who’s now in her 80s and she learned it from her grandmother. Song is in Christian hymn books back 100 years ago, but my friend wrote a new verse for it back in the days of Senator McCarthy and it really- oh, to me, it makes the song. [singing]

My life flows on in endless song

above earth’s lamentation

I hear the real, though far-off hymn

that hails a new creation

Through all the tumult and the strife,

I hear that music ringing

It sounds an echo in my soul.

How can I keep from singing?

But though the tempest round me roars,

I know the truth, it liveth

But though the darkness round me close,

songs in the night it giveth

No storm can shake my inmost calm

while to that rock I’m clinging

Since love is lord of heaven and earth,

how can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

and hear their death knells ringing

When friends rejoice, both far and near,

how can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

our thoughts to them are winging

When friends by shame are undefiled,

how can I keep from singing?

I don’t have any voice anymore, but that sure is a good song.

BILL MOYERS: Pure Pete Seeger.

PETE SEEGER: [singing]

We will love or we will perish

We will learn the rainbow to cherish

Dare to struggle, dare the danger

Dare to touch the soul of a stranger.

This transcript was entered on April 27, 2015.

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