Pete SeegerPete 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 the Rock 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 the Clearwater 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."

Listen to Pete Seeger:
His Spiritual BeliefsHis Main Purpose in LifeOn Religious ToleranceBeing Changed By Civil Rights"Amazing Grace Will Always Be..."On the Afterlife

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.