Pete Seeger's Session
A Beliefnet interview with the great folk singer on God, religion, and whether music can change the world.
BY: Interview by Wendy Schuman
Pete Seeger, America's best-loved folk singer, has lived long enough to go from being jailed and blacklisted in the 1950s for his political beliefs to receiving Kennedy Center honors and induction into theRock and Roll Hall of Fame
in the '90s. His message-filled songs ("Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," "If I Had a Hammer," among hundreds of others) have been a fixture of every progressive social movement, from labor and civil rights to peace and environmentalism. Now 88, Seeger lives on a mountain in upstate New York where he chops his own firewood and takes part in the Beacon Sloop Club, a branch of theClearwater organization
he spearheaded in 1969 with the aim of cleaning up the Hudson River. Though in a Beliefnet phone interview he occasionally spoke of a failing memory and a worn-out voice, he was eloquent as he defined his life's purpose: "trying to raise people's spirits" and "urging all religions to tolerate talking with each other."
A whole new generation was introduced to your songs with Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions." Was there any song you would have added?
“Walking Down Death Row…” I was going to write a letter to Bruce about it...if you ever do any other record of songs I made, put in one serious song like that song. Or maybe the one “Quite Early Morning,” which people like the tune of--“You know it’s darkest before the dawn/ this song keeps me moving on/ if we could heed these early warnings/ the time is now, quite early morning.”
What was your upbringing like?
I came from an intellectual family. Most were doctors, preachers, teachers, businessmen. My grandfather was a small businessman. His father was an abolitionist doctor, and his father was an immigrant from Germany. My mother was a mixture. Her grandfather came over from France and ran a preparatory school in New York. My mother was a very good violinist, my father was a musicologist and spent most of his life in academia. I came along and was a teenager in the Depression and nobody had jobs. So I went out hitchhiking, when I met a man named Woody Guthrie. He was the single biggest part of my education.
If you were to choose an organized religion, what would it be?
My mother was briefly a member of the Unitarian Church. I actually joined the Community Church [a Unitarian-Universalist church] on 35th Street, in New York, because I had a chorus and we needed a place to rehearse. [My wife] Toshi thinks it was very dishonest of me to join a church simply because I needed to rehearse the chorus. But I’ve been on good terms with them ever since. And sung for them occasionally. And if I ever sing at all now, I would do it down there.
What are your religious or spiritual beliefs?
|His Spiritual Beliefs|
I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. 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.
I’ve had preachers of the gospel, Presbyterians and Methodists, saying, “Pete, I feel that you are a very spiritual person.” And maybe I am. I feel strongly that I’m trying to raise people’s spirits to get together.
Does writing a song like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” come from somewhere spiritual?
Songwriters can’t explain. You get an idea and you don’t know where it’s come from. And if you’re lucky, you have a pencil or pen and can write it down. I was in an airplane, and leafing in my little pocket notebook where I write down ideas, I came across three lines which I had read in the translation of a famous Soviet novel about the Cossacks and the river Don. Mikhail Sholokhov wrote it in the ‘30s and it was published here in a book called “And Quiet Flows the Don.” And the three lines the translator gave were, “Where are the flowers? The girls have plucked them./ Where are the girls? They’re all married./ Where are the men? They’re all in the army.” Sitting in the airplane I rephrased it and added to it two lines that I made up, “Long time passing” and “When will we ever learn?”—the intellectual’s perennial complaint.
Do you think creativity is spiritual?
I’m sure some people would call it that. And if there is anything such as spiritual, maybe that is it. Arlo Guthrie thinks there’s a stream of songs flowing past you all the time, and you just have to know when to stick out your hand and get one. Then he adds, “I’m lucky that I don’t live downstream from Bob Dylan.”
When people sing together in community, is there a spirit that takes over?
|His Main Purpose in Life|
I’ve often thought, standing onstage with 1000 people in front of me, that somebody over on my right had a great-great grandfather who was trying to kill the great-great grandfather of somebody off to my left. And here we are all singing together. And wouldn’t it surprise all those great-grandfathers if they could see their great-grandchildren singing together? They’d probably say, “Why did we fight so hard?” Good question!
We all go to different churches or no churches, we have different favorite foods, different ways of making love, different ways of doing all sorts of things, but there we’re all singing together. Gives you hope.
What is your definition of God?
I tell people I don’t think God is an old white man with a long white beard and no navel; nor do I think God is an old black woman with white hair and no navel. But I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe that something can come out of nothing. And so there’s always been something. Always is a long time.
This would be my argument with most religious people. They think of God as being mainly concerned with what goes on in our Earth. God has got many things to think about.
What do you say to religious people?
|On Religious Tolerance|
And I talk to religious people whenever I can, I say, “When you come to a curb at the edge of a street and do you look up in the sky and say, ‘God please save me. It’s dangerous crossing the street, I trust that you’ll save me.’ No, you don’t do that, you look to the left, you look to the right, you use the brains God gave you, and if there’s no car coming, you cross.