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Pete Seeger Remembers Guthrie, Hopping Trains And Sharing Songs

Pete Seeger.
Joe Kohen
Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger believed songs were a way of binding people to a cause. He popularized "This Land Is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome" and wrote "If I Had a Hammer." In the 1940s, he co-founded The Weavers, who surprised everyone, including themselves, when they became the first group to bring folk music to the pop charts — until they were blacklisted. Seeger refused to answer questions about his politics when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. His conviction for contempt of Congress was eventually overturned on appeal. Seeger kept singing and protesting right through 2011, when he joined a march in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests. He simply did not give up.

The singer, songwriter and activist died Monday at the age of 94. In a Fresh Air interview from 1985, Seeger talked to host Terry Gross about his friendship with fellow folk music icon Woody Guthrie, jumping railroad cars and bringing his message to unlikely audiences.

Interview Highlights

On Woody Guthrie

"We all read about music being a part of people's lives, but I hadn't seen it in action until I met him. The words that came out of his mouth and the music he made all flowed together with the life that he had led and I was greatly attracted to it and kind of tagged along after him for several months. Woody showed me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains, how to sing in saloons."

On jumping railroad cars

"Woody said, 'Wait on the outskirts of town and when the train is picking up speed, it's still not going too fast, you can grab a hold of it and swing on.' Getting off the first time I didn't know how to do it and I fell down and skinned my knees and elbow and broke my banjo. Fortunately, I had a camera with me and I hocked it in a local pawn shop and bought a very cheap guitar, didn't have a banjo then. I knew a few chords and I got through the rest of the summer playing the guitar."

On traveling and learning songs from different people

"I got a chance to appreciate the different ways of singing the same song. Somebody will sing a song, it's a good song, here's somebody else singing it — they've got different verses, [a] different tune.

"My father used to say, 'A folk song printed in a folksong book is a little like a picture of a bird in flight in a bird book.' You knew the bird was flying, flapping its wings before that picture was taken and it kept on flapping its wings. Similarly, the song in the book was changing before it was written down and kept on changing after it was written down."

On the 1949 Peekskill Riots at the Paul Robeson concert, where Seeger performed

"We had stones thrown at us. It was a pretty horrifying day. A lot of people thought that this was the beginning of American fascism; this is how Hitler got started. I was just one of ten thousand people there, twenty thousand. It was a huge crowd [that] came to hear Paul Robeson, but the Ku Klux Klan had infiltrated the police force of the county and maybe the state for all I know.

"It was the Ku Klux Klan that initiated the attack and they had the concert surrounded with walkie-talkies like a battlefield and after the concert was over everyone who attended it was directed down one road. There were three roads you could've gone, left, straight ahead, or the right. I wanted to go left, my home was up there, but the police said, 'No, all the cars down here,' and they directed us as though they were going to run the gauntlet and some fifteen piles of stones about the size of a baseball, waist high, these stones, and every car that came by got a stone. Wham! at close range. There was a policeman standing about 80 feet away and I said, 'Officer, aren't you going to do something?' And he said, 'Move on, move on!' And I look around the guy in back of me was getting stone after stone because he couldn't get past me. I was stopped."

On beginning to play nightclubs with his band The Weavers

"That was a-soul searching. In one sense I felt like I was going into enemy territory. Why should I want to contribute to the nightclub scene, which I thought was anathema? I come from old New England Puritans who thought nightclubs were the dens of inequity and [I've] never been much of a drinker myself. But I wanted to reach people. I remember Woody telling me, 'Pete, it's good experience to sing in a bar, you ought to do it occasionally.' So I did. But to take a job at a nightclub and work there six nights a week? But we took it, and it was a very valuable experience. We learned a hell of a lot, and in six months The Weavers were ready to make some records."

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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