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


Continued from page 1

Do you have a favorite spiritual song or music?

Being Changed By Civil Rights
I was deeply, deeply changed by the civil rights movement. I’d always liked what they called Negro spirituals and I sang ‘em for the fun of it, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” or “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” or “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.”

I’ve often felt that some of these songs may have gotten European melodies, but all of them have African treatment. For example, it might have been a slave looking through the window oat a dance in the big white house, and the fiddler is playing “The Irish Washerwoman” on the fiddle [sings tune]. Out in the cotton fields the next day the slave is in the field is singing “Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham, rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham.” Obviously just a slowed down different rhythm, but it was basically “The Irish Washerwoman” tune.

However, other tunes are African. Allan Lomax [the folk music ethnologist] taught me some work songs sung by black prisoners in Southern chain gangs, and I heard on a tape recording when they invented tape, around 1950, a professor come back from West Africa with the exact same tune for a song which I’d learned with English words. The song I knew [sings], “He’s long John, he’s long John, he’s long gone, he’s long gone, like a turkey through the corn, like a turkey through the corn, with his long clothes on, with his long clothes on. He’s long John, long gone.” And so on. And that exact same melody was being sung with African words. So there’s a lot more African in American music than most Americans realize.

What’s the origin of “We Shall Overcome,” the hymn of the civil rights movement, which you popularized?  

Nobody knows exactly who wrote the original. The original was faster. [Sings] “I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright, someday….deep in my heart I do not weep, I’ll be alright someday.” Or “deep in my heart I do believe.” And other verses are “I’ll wear the crown, I’ll wear the crown,” and “I’ll be like Him, I’ll be like Him” or “I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome.”

In 1909, some coalminers were on strike and one of them writes a letter in the United Mine Workers Journal of February 1909, “We started every meeting with a prayer and singing that good old song, ‘We Will Overcome’.” So it could have been in the late 19th century sometime that some union people put union words to the gospel song. It was in 1946 that Lucille Simmons, a tobacco worker, liked to sing it very slowly. “We’ll overcome…” it’s called long-meter style. And basses and other voices have time to feel out all sorts of harmonies, so you get a group of people who can harmonize and you just get extraordinary complex harmonies.

Two friends of mine, Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan, started singing, “We shall overcome” in this way, and they liked to so much that Guy taught it to some 70 young people in 1960, at a workshop called “Songs in the Movement.” It was the hit song of the weekend. I was there, in Tennessee at the Highlander Folk School.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, was the founding convention of SNCC, and somebody shouted, “Guy, teach us all ‘We Shall Overcome’!”  Within a month this song was all across the South, Texas to Florida to Virginia, there was not a song, it was the song. Three years later I got the audience singing it at Carnegie Hall, it was my best-selling record I ever had. And the song went around the world.

I confess I’m a little leery of any one song becoming official, because then the powers that be adopt it. And it becomes more of a straitjacket than a regular ballad.

Like “This Land Is Your Land” becoming a car commercial?

Someone wanted to make “This Land Is Your Land” the national anthem. I said, “Please no—can’t you see the marines marching into the next little country singing ‘This land is your land, this land is my land?’”

Do you still believe that the power of music can change the world?

Well, it’s one of the things that will. Words are good, and words help us become the leading species on earth to the point where we are now ready to wipe ourselves off the earth. But I think that all the arts are needed, and sports too, and cooking, food, and all these different ways of communication. Smiles, looking into eyes directly, all these different means of communication are needed to save this world. But certainly a great melody…

One of the world’s greatest melodies was written in 1603 in North Ireland. A blind harper named Rory O’Cahan wrote this melody in memory of his slain kinsmen. The O’Cahan clan had been occupying Castle Derry, and the English conquered Castle Derry, and after the custom of the age the defendants were slaughtered. The melody was called “O’Cahan’s Lament.” Then in the 1890s a woman in London puts out a book called “Irish Traditional Airs,” and she gives it a brand new name, “Londonderry Air,” and an English lawyer named Fred Weatherly wrote the words “Oh Danny Boy.” It’s such a great melody that nobody I know has tried to change it.

"Amazing Grace Will Always Be..."
I was singing in a local prison about 30 years ago, and a young black woman sang Christian words [sings]: “Amazing grace will always be my song of praise./ Oh, it was grace that bought my liberty/. I’ll never know just why he came to came to love me so./ He looked beyond my faults and saw my need./ I shall forever lift my eyes to Calvary, to view the Cross where Jesus died for me./ How marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul./ He looked beyond my faults and saw my need.” Isn’t that interesting?

That’s beautiful.

I went up to her and said, “Where did you get those beautiful words?” She said, “Oh they’re in the new Baptist hymnal, ‘He Looked Beyond My Faults.’” The song is copyrighted by a Nashville publishing company, the author of “He Looked Beyond My Faults” is Katie Rambo. I understand the Rambo family is a well-known gospel-singing family.

Do you have any favorite songs?

At one time I have a favorite song, the one I’m singing. But I find myself as an old man singing “Turn, Turn, Turn” more than I ever did because it does have so many meanings for me.

“Turn, Turn, Turn," which you wrote, is from Ecclesiastes. Do you turn to the Bible for inspiration?

I was leafing through it when I came on that poem. I just leafed through it by chance. Maybe God led me to it. Who knows?

I leaf through it quite often--if only to shake my head in disgust. I quote Leviticus to people who think that every word in the Bible is absolutely gospel and you need to obey every word. In Leviticus it says you must kill a bull if you’re going to really love God. And you must kill it in a certain way, or else you will be killed.

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