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Pete Seeger

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McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: Pete Seeger
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: Kashawn Hernandez
Date of interview: 25 July 2009; 8 December 2009

(Start of Interview)

PS: The whole chapter will be off the press in November.

SM: Very good. And who, who is printing it? What company?

PS: WW Norton Company. Good company.

SM: Yep.

PS: And we will go to actually go to press in a few weeks. And I hope to get an advanced copy sometime in September, October.

SM: Super. And it will be hard back too?

PS: Both. Oh, I think hardback. Like, I do not know for sure.

SM: All right I guess ̶

PS: $25. $24.95

SM: All right.

PS: Okay. All right.

SM: Ready?

PS: Remind me what your name is?

SM: My name is Steve McKiernan. I booked; I know Peggy. Peggy came to our college at Westchester University and performed and then I interviewed Peggy over the phone. Peggy is the one that called you right away and said, you need to talk to Steve and then I called you and then I sent you the questions and everything. And this book is basically a book on the boomers but it is also a lot of the things that you were involved in (19)60s and (19)50s/(19)60s and (19)70s. So, I am looking at the boomers from different aspects and getting people's opinions. First question I want to ask is, when did you think the (19)60s began? What was it, what do you think was the watershed moment from the (19)60s?

PS: I would say in the (19)50s there were extraordinary things happening, the civil rights movement ̶ started in colleges throughout the north. There were people who went down to help, there were white students who went down to help Dr. King. Freedom summer was officially 1964. But before that they were going down there to help out. And, my guess is Woodstock made a big, big change because people who did not go to Woodstock saw the movie Woodstock, right? And I tell people, the most popular song in America was "123 What Are We Fighting For?" The (19)60s were over then. It was 1970 when the movie was out, but (19)69 was Woodstock. There were things before this, like the Newport Folk Festival. The Clearwater started in (19)69. See what could be the (19)60s, offhand, I just cannot think.

SM: Do you think there was one event? When you look at the boomers ̶ they were the people born between 1946 and 1964. What do you think in their eyes was the most important event that happened in their lives ̶ that may have shaped them the most?

PS: Well, I do not know. I cannot think of any one thing. It is a lot of little things. Because this is me ̶ I started singing in colleges in 1953. Up till that time I sang at little left-wing camps and an occasional lefty hotel or some place called Music Inn up in the Berkshires. At concerts I gave or in the Boss Circuit, that would be a place I would sing, so I do not think if any one thing. For some it might been a festival, who knows. But it could have been lots of little things.

SM: Lots of little things, not a little thing, not one specific thing. How do you feel when you hear people like George Will or Newt Gingrich or individuals, look at the boomer generation, blame all the problems of American society on this group of people, that they love them say that the breakup the American family, the drugs, that values went down? How do you feel when you hear those people say those things about that time?

PS: The poor people do not know what they are talking about. There is a drug problem, incidentally, did you ever hear of Kurt Vonnegut?

SM: Oh yeah.

PS: Statement about says, if people ask me, what do you think America's greatest cultural contribution to the world has been many would say jazz. I love jazz, jazz is good, but I would say Alcoholics Anonymous. It showed a way to help people who are alcoholics without having to spend a lot of money. They just get together and they admit, they have all got a problem. And they talk over their problem with each other and said, with God's help, we are going to kick this habit. It was a truly great cultural invention.

SM: So those individuals that do kind of do broad based attacks on a group of people, you think they were way out left field?

PS: You know, people who think that passing a law against it is the way to solve a problem. They just they did not take learn from prohibition ̶ prohibition just created a whole lot of gangsters who made a lot of money out of prohibition and people could get drunk by paying money to the right gangster.

SM: When you performed in the say in the (19)60s and through the middle (19)70s and you saw these students, well, and nonstudents who were in the in your audience and then of course, a lot has been written on them since. What do you think of the strength of that group of young people? Because you have been performing for young people since the (19)40s and (19)50s. And, but when you are getting specifically into those people that were born after World War II, raised by parents, oftentimes people that fought in the war and went through the depression and tried to give their kids as much as they could that they did not have, what would you say would be the strengths and the weaknesses of that generation?

PS: These are interesting questions. I think it is the interesting thing that it was a middle-class movement in many ways. These were not ignorant sharecroppers who had not barely gone through the third grade in school. These were ̶ they had the good education. And they could see the hypocrisy of the ruling class. Maybe I could be looking at my own experience. I came from a family of teachers. My grandfather was a small businessman and a Republican from old New England. My grandmother was a, his wife, was a member of the Mayflower. But as a child, I read the books of Ernest Thompson Seaton, he wrote about American Indians. I do not know if you ever heard of heard of Seaton. He wrote, he was sold widely to teenagers in the first two and a half decades. His first best seller was in the 1890s. I read a book called Ralph in the Woods when I was eight years old. It was written for twelve or thirteen years old, but I was eight. I was a good reader. And that is the story of a thirteen-year-old being beaten by a stepfather and he runs off into the woods. This is the year 1810. And there has a wigwam in the woods of Indian, whose tribe had been massacred. His wife had been sold into slavery. And he is living in this wigwam trapping a few animals and exchanging their skins for a few things at the corner store that he needs. Ralph says, Can I stay with you overnight, my stepfather is going to beat me. And the Indian says, Sure roll up in the corner. In the morning, the stepfather arrives. Oh, you will with Indian, I am going to get my gun. Now that both are in trouble, they flee up the Hudson Valley to the Adirondacks and work for a local Dutch farmer. Worked for local Dutch farmer for a month and earned enough money to buy some traps and other tools they need. Now they hit into Adirondacks and build a cabin. And the next few years, every chapter of the book is another nature lesson. Some of them are funny when the dog meets a porcupine. Some of them are almost tragic. Ralph, the boy fit now a fourteen-year-old or fifteen. He sees two male deer with an Atlas hook that cannot escape, and one of them is dead and the other trying to free himself but he cannot get free and Ralph goes up and frees the live deer but now the live deer is crazy and he charges Ralph and pins roll to the ground. You know Ralph is going to be ̶ the dog is well known about dogs can sense things from afar they no one knows how they do it. You know, they make a long trip and they know which direction to go and so, and the dog whines the Indian says when something has gone wrong lead me to the dog leads the Indian to where Ralph is. And the Indian shoots the deer and saves Ralph's life. Another chapter is a French Canadian in the neighboring valley is trapped by his own bear trap and cannot get out. But they free him and the French Canadian in broken English says, I will never forget you if you ever need help, call on me. Now. The next year is the war of 1812 is broken out and they are hired by the US Army to be scouts and the carry messages from east to west along the frontier. Once Ralph is running through the woods alone, and he suddenly hears a cry, “Halt.” And there is a gun pointed at him, and that is a French-Canadian soldier and it is the trapper. And he says, "Run Ralph I will shoot over your head" so well friends, the man shoots over his head, and Ralph gets away. It is an exciting novel. I got into every one of Seaton's books. I read that [Cross, Gracit and Dunlap] sold for $8 some seven books. And I persuaded my parents to invest let me buy all eight of them seven, "[Lives regrets], Lives of the Hunted. Seaton did not die till his (19)80s in the 1950s in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He had gone down there to capture [Logo] the wolf. I got into the big criticism that the American Indian has of whites was our hypocrisy.

SM: Do you think that some people say the very same thing about the boomer generation, that they are hypocrites, they felt they could change the world when they were young, they protest against, or 15% of them did. And then they have gone on to become materialistic and make a lot of money. Do you think that is true?

PS: Well, some of them did give up. I do not think that was a very wrong criticism though. They were basically protesting the hypocrisy of the ruling class. Incidentally when you speak the ruling class. Marx gave it that term. But did you ever hear of president Rutherford Hayes?

SM: Oh yeah, he was a nineteenth. President 1877. Yeah, well ̶

PS: 15:11
He was a very honest president. He only agreed to run for four years because he loved his family and did not want to subject them to that pressure for more than four years. After he was president, he liked to make speeches. He had jumped into this new invention called a railroad to go somewhere and give a speech. And in 1888, the Supreme Court handed down a famous decision ̶ there was no capital punishment for corporations. Up till that time, the state could handle it charter to a corporation. And if they did not like what the corporation was doing, they could take it away. But now, after 1888 the Supreme Court said that you can fine a cooperation if they do something wrong, but you cannot take away their corporate status. Rutherford Hayes, says face it, we no longer have a government of the people by the people for the people- we have a government of corporations by corporations, corporations and in 1891 when he met Cornelius Vanderbilt, he said we have a government of the rich by the rich for the rich. Now this was rarely said by the ruling class person, it was said by farmers or workers and squatter Eugene Debs said when he started the Socialist Party, but this is being said by people at the top. Theodore Roosevelt said it in 1906. I think I keep in my pocket pictures - this is Theodore Roosevelt.

SM: Could you read it to me? Or you want me to -

PS: "Behind the ostensible government of our country there exists a secret government not beholden to the people. To destroy this secret government, it should be the chief task of responsible statesmanship to destroy the link between corrupt business and corrupt politics.

SM: That is a beautiful quote.

PS: Well, the unholy alliance, the first task statesman, of course Franklin Roosevelt said something similar. He said, we have running the country, economic royalists. He said that in the 1930s.

SM: So, a lot of the things that the boomers were doing on college campuses in the (19)60s and challenging, again, we were talking 15 percent of people that were that age ̶ they were challenged in the universities and because they were becoming too linked to the corporations.

PS: In 1955, I was sixteen years old. And my mother drove me to Connecticut where she was teaching violin to a Jewish family. And the teenagers were studying violin. And over supper, they were asking what I was going to do with my life. I was sixteen. I said, I am going to be a hermit. That is the only way to be an honest person in this hypocritical world. I will have little to do with the world as possible. And they jumped on me ̶ if that is your idea of morality, you are going to be nice and pure yourself and let the rest of the world go to hell. And they posed my New England Thoreaulite way of thinking to their traditional Jewish sense of social content, social consciousness. And I decided they were right. So, I started getting more involved. And I, when I went to college, a year later, I got involved in student, what do you call it, the student, oh, my memories, the Harvard Student Union, the American Student Union, was the name of the organization. Actually, they had their annual meeting at Vassar because there was a liberal president at Vassar. And then I was editing the little monthly magazine for the Harvard Student Union, called the Harvard Progressive. And I did not pay attention to my marks, the high marks slipped and I lost my scholarship. So, I had to leave. I did not have enough money to go to Harvard if I did not have a scholarship. I also worked; my brothers’ help pay a third of that money. And I worked for a third of the money and the scholarship took care of a third of the money. But I was also disgusted with what I felt was the hypocrisy of some of the professors. Professor Sorokin was a social democrat. He was a friend of the guy that the Bolsheviks kicked out in Russia. And he said, do not think you can change the world. What you can do is study it. And that was trying to persuade us not to try and do some changes ̶

SM: Do you think that may have been happening in the (19)60s and (19)70s? What college students today, you know, do not you know, do not make waves just study it ̶

PS: And I decided I did not want to bother going to college, if that was the kind of people teaching here. Now, the people like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, are the exception that proves the rule that the average teacher will tell you, you do not want to get thrown in jail, study it, and when you learn a lot, then you can do something and get in a position of importance, and you can do something.

SM: What is it about your music ̶ and I read your books. Your music is something that your dad taught you when you were young, that music was supposed to have a social content, that it was supposed to have meaning and the most important thing is writing music. It is not really the performance, but it is remembering the words. So, the impact will be lasting in the lifetime of a young person as they grow older and sharing it with their young people. What is it about your music that is so important to the boomer generation because it is, you really, you have had a lot of impact your words, in your music?

PS: I try not to lose a sense of humor. But occasionally in every program, I do something deadly serious. "Walking down death row, I sang for three men destined for the chair. Walking down death row, I sang of lives and loves in other years. Walking down death row, I sang of hopes that used to be. Through the bars, into each separate cell, Yes, I sang to one and two and three. If you had only stuck together you would not be sitting here! If you could have loved each other's lives, you'd not be sitting here! And if only this you could believe, you might still, you might still be reprieved. Walking down death row, I turned the corner and found to my surprise; there were women there as well, with babies in their arms, before my eyes. Walking down death row, I tried once more to sing of hopes that used to be. But the thought of that contraption, down the hall, waiting for whole families, one dozen, two or three, if you had only stuck together, you would not be here! If you could have loved another child as well as your own, you would not be sitting here! And if only this you could believe, you might still, you might still be reprieved." The last verse. “Walking down death row, I concentrated, singing to the young. I sang of hopes that flickered still, I tried to mouth their many separate tongues. Walking down death row, I sang of hopes that still might be singing, singing sing in down death row to each separate human cell, one billion, two, or three, if we would only stick together, we would not be here! If we do not really stick together, we would not be here. If we could learn to love each other's lives, we would not be sitting here! And if only this we could believe, we still might, we still might be reprieved."

SM: Okay, hold on one second. Are you excited about the anniversary of Woodstock?

PS: Not particularly. Not in favor of big things. I think the world will be saved by small things.

SM: You know, before we start, I went into Barnes and Noble bookstore. That is the place where I bought your books. And I noticed that Mr. Dunaway, his book, the paperback book, also the book the Protest Singer, which I have read them both ̶ now I have read both of them, I have underlined them. And then a book that had the CD in it with our music. It was, I forget the name of the guy who wrote it. It was up ̶

PS: Yeah, orange cover.

SM: Yeah, so the great things, and then of course your CDs are very strong at Barnes and Noble and I bought the one when I spoke to you briefly down at Beacon New York ̶ you had recommended that CD of all your music, I think it was about thirty songs and I have that too. So, but what is interesting before we start the interview, I went into the bookstore yesterday and I was kind of shocked. They have had a couple books out on Woodstock, and I know that, but you know, two or three hardbacks, but they got a whole table full of items. It has become such a commercial event. It is sometimes sickening.

PS: Yes.

SM: All right, you are ready for some questions?

PS: I was going to ask you if you did not have fun in the bookstore. The book I wrote years ago, I guess cool. Everybody says Freedom was not there.

SM: That was not there. And I think you mentioned ̶

PS: What about the storytelling book?

SM: Oh, I have that too. Yes. But I brought that with me, but I forgot to have you sign it. That is a very good book.

PS: You should know that WW. Norton will have out in November, a book called Where Have all the Flowers Gone? And the first edition came out fifteen years ago, sixteen years ago but it was so full of mistakes I told the [saying out], do not reprint it, do not reprint it. It took me thirteen years to get the job done. It finally went to press and now has a new publisher rather, co-publisher and called Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Musical Autobiography.

SM: Very nice. Well what that will come out in November?

PS: Yes.

SM: I will definitely have to get a copy and send it to you, and have it signed.

PS: Okay.

SM: All right. Well, here is my first question. When you think of the boomer generation now that is the young people born after the war ̶ and the people that actually came to a lot of your concerts in the (19)60s and (19)70s. What does the (19)60s and the youth of the (19)70s mean to you?

PS: Well, it was a significant breakthrough in the control of the country by the powers who have the money. Probably know that not just lefties but both sorts of quite well-known respectable people knew that shortly after the Civil War, corporations and business controlled the country and controlled the media, newspapers and so on. It is true that there were opposition from those who were aware of this, but they were small and weak. I mean you have the farmers movement and the union movement of the late nineteenth century and you had the socialist movement and the communist movement. 99 percent of the people got their news from the newspapers and places like the radio and TV. And the exceptions were rare. Well for example, songs that were on the radio during the 1930s during the Depression were all love song. And there was never a song which even mentioned the idea there was a depression on. Herbert Hoover said to Rudy Vallee a popular singer, Mr. Vallee, if you can sing a song that will make the American people forget the depression, I will give you a medal. The exception proves the rule. On Broadway, there was a very popular musical show. And the hit song of the show was called "Brother Can you Spare a Dime." Because in the show there was a breadline and the guy say he spent my life building the country. Now, I am out of a job. Brother, buddy, can you spare a dime? Did you ever hear the song?

SM: Oh, yes.

PS: Then you know it, it is a famous song. The exception to the rule. The rule was a Bing Crosby's song “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away)". I knew because [I was in my period], so I played in this cool jazz band and it was one stupid song after another ̶ well we were clever and sometimes had a good tune. But it was all forget your troubles. You cannot do anything about your trouble so anything you can do is forget. So, let me give you a sample of the opposite opinion. I always thought that Rutherford B. Hayes, who was president after General Grant was the worst president we ever had because he withdrew federal troops from the South. That was the end of reconstruction. Up until then, blacks, ex-slaves had been able to vote, and they sent several people to Congress, one became a senator, iron rebels. After troops were withdrawn from the south, the Ku Klux Klan took over the south. Rutherford B Hayes actually was not a bad president because he was forced into this. The deal was made behind his back. But he was a very honest president. And after he only told Republicans he only be willing to run a one term. He loved his wife and family. And this one is subject to that pressure for more than four years. Well, eight years after he was president, the Supreme Court handed down a decision saying there was no capital punishment for corporations. Before that states could hand out a charter to a corporation. And if they did not like what they were doing, they can take it away or not after 1888 find a corporation if they do something illegal, but you could not take away their charter. And Hayes says, face it. We no longer have a government, of the people by the people for the people. As Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, we have a government of corporations by corporations. for corporations. Way back then he said it. Then President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1906 ̶ behind the ostensible government of our country with there is a secret government, which shows no allegiance to the people; to destroy this secret government should be the chief task of responsible statesmanship. And he has, you know, tried with the antitrust laws and the income tax. But then he was voted out. Woodrow Wilson came in however, Woodrow Wilson before he left office said, I am filled with unhappiness. So, let me read you exactly what he said about it. Here is Woodrow Wilson around 1989, I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. The great industrial nation is controlled by a system of credit or a system of credit is concentrated the growth of the nation Therefore, all our activities are in the hands of the few men. We have come to be one of the worst rules, one of the most completely controlled and dominated government in the civilized world. No longer government, by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction, the vote of the majority, but a government of the government by the opinion and duress of a small group, of dominant men which under administration the Federal Reserve was created. So, and you know, probably Franklin Roosevelt said we have economic royalists in our country. In other words, not just the lefties said we should get rid of the rich people. Some rich people are extraordinary. You know, George Soros is one and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. ended up giving away most money, which is probably less.

SM: So, when you look at the ̶ comparing this history and you mentioned Rutherford B. Hayes, at least he had the integrity to serve one term, even though he may not have been the greatest president in the world. But when you look at the leaders that were in charge of our government when the boomers were young, and continuing through today, you are looking at people like Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and obviously, Bush again. These are the people that have ̶ when you look at the leaders that the boomers have had lived through, what are your thoughts on them?

PS: Well, life is compromises. And maybe one of the things you learn about politics is the compromises necessary. One of the mistakes often people think, oh, we just get rid of those rich people, and everything will be hunky dory, and they have not learned how to compromise. I think one of the most important things about, if you read the book about Lincoln called Team of Rivals ̶

SM: Yes, I have Doris Kearns Goodwin,

PS: A very, very important book. And I rather suspect that Barack Obama has read it too,

SM: Yes, he has.

PS: But the boomers made the mistake of thinking, we will get the young people in charge and everything will be hunky dory. I remember arguing with Jerry Rubin. You got to work with the old people as well as the young people. That is one of the lessons in the civil rights movement. Yes, the middle age people, people in their (19)30s and forty were cautious. But their kids and their grandparents were the ones who carried through Dr. King's great change. Civil Rights, evolution if you want to call it, a peaceful revolution. My own life, my own way of thinking was turned around by King. My best song has been written about him, my best new song. Have you heard, "Take it From Dr. King"?

SM: I do not believe I have.

PS: I wrote it right after the Twin Towers were bombed.

PS: No, I have not.

SM: It is the last chapter in my new book, “Take it from Dr. King”. And so, I argue with young people who think that world change is going to be done by one group, if I think it was the mistake of Marx, thinking that the working class would be the only group that would make change. I think there was a collective thought back then, and I think some of the boomers still have it even as they approach old age, because they are leaving middle age of the early boomers, and that is that they were the most unique generation in American history, that they were going to change the world bring peace, love, end conflict. And you know, and create kind of a new world order, which I do not know really has happened. But that is, your thoughts on that attitude that used to be very prevalent in the 1960s and some of them still have it today as they are approaching, as they reach sixty.

PS: Oh, yes, I get letters from people in their (19)60s thanking me for coming in and singing at their college back in the 1950s. I went from college to college to college during the late 1950s. I started in Oberlin in 1953. Went to Antioch but by 1958/ (19)59, I was going to all sorts of certain colleges and by 1960, I was going to the state universities. And it was the most important job I ever did in my life. I could have kicked the bucket in 1961. And my job was done. A raft of young songwriters came along, who could sing better than I did and make up better songs. They took over people like Bob Dylan and Bill Oaks and Buffy St. Marie and Joni Mitchell. And now there is not dozens of them. They are literally hundreds if not thousands.

SM: When you look at the ̶ explain a little bit more what it was like going to college campuses in the 1960s. I recently saw on television and I think you may remember that you went to Great Valley High School near outside Philadelphia. Do you remember that?

PS: No, I do not.

SM: Well, it was, it actually was on there ̶ it was quite a few years ago and they had it on their little TV station of your visit there once. What was it your feeling of going from campus to campus in the 1960s and even into the 1970s. Did you feel ̶

PS: I really delighted in it even though occasionally there were a bomb threat and but I'd sing a song and there would be a loud boom in the middle of the song because I said something they disagreed with and then the guy who made a boo was thunderstruck because at the end of the song, it was a thunder of loud cheers and the guy who booed said what is happening to our country with traitorous pops like that are, actually, given [out] from the stage.

SM: Is there any way ̶ you mentioned that you have done thousands of concerts. But obviously there may have been one or two that stood out. Is there one or two concerts that you did on a college campus that stood out and what year was that?

PS: I told you, my voice started to give out. I wanted to have a concert where the audience could be heard so I had it especially miced with microphones over the audience. And if you go to Smithsonian Folkways Records, ask for a CD called Sing Along. It was made at Harvard College. Harvard had a medium sized auditorium with thousand seats, a nineteenth century wooden auditorium, Sanders Theater. Had wonderful acoustics. I had microphones placed all through the audience. So, my microphone might be tuned up during the first when I was singing the first but when it came to the chorus, they tuned me down and tuned up one from the audience around we did when we mastered it, right. We had sixteen microphones. Get that record and I will and show you what I did back then.

SM: When you ̶ when did the (19)60s begin in your opinion and when did it end?

PS: Oh, I do not know it depends on your definition of the (19)60s, would not be fine. What happened at Oberlin ̶ some kids I have talked to in high school or grade school in Manhattan now they are in Oberlin, and they wrote me a letter that we have got the Oberlin folk song club, and we have got the basement of the art school such and such a night. Can you take a bus out here, we will pass the hat, and I am sure we will make the bus fare and we did? We got about $200 a little over two-hundred people. Well, the next year I went back to Oberlin and sang for five hundred in a chapel. And the next year I came back and sang for thousand, in the large auditorium, which took the whole college could get to and I used to go back there every year until I got too busy and could only go back there occasionally.

SM: What were the qualities you most admired in the young people of the world? They grew up in the (19)50s, (19)60s, (19)70s. And how are they different than any of the other youth of the other eras that you performed in?

PS: Well, they joined in. So, I did well. They stood up to the - they stood up to the authorities if they tried [yes]. Allegheny college ̶ I sang there once, and the students want me to come back.

SM: Oh, wow.

PS: They tried to stop it ̶ he said, I am trying to raise money for this college. Seeger coming here makes it very difficult for me to raise money. So, I suggest that you not have Seeger come back. And the students put up a big fight, they said it was academic freedom. What do you mean that we cannot have him come back? We want him to come back. And finally, the president of the college had to back down. And he said, the alumni I am sorry, it is academic freedom. I could not stop them. I tried.

SM: What year was that?

PS: That was around 1958.

SM: Oh, my gosh. I you know, that still continues today in higher education. Oh, my God.

PS: Goes on all the time. President Gideon, Brooklyn College said that I would not sing on the campus as long as he was president. And I did not. When he finally retired in 1965. I went to sing on the campus, the very next year (19)66.

SM: If there is one event that you feel personally ̶ now you are ninety years old and I really admire you for your longevity and your continuation of giving back and influencing young people to do good. And the question ̶ which is, you know, sometimes so many young people are afraid of that to do that or to do that for there might be a price one has to pay. But who, what if there is a specific event that happened in the (19)60s in the (19)70s, or even when ̶ what had the greatest effect on the boomer generation, what do you think that might be?

PS: It might be the fact that I did not get on TV. I broke the blacklist one or two times when I had written this song called Waist Deep in the Big Muddy ̶ getting out of Vietnam. The song did not mention Vietnam. It did not mention president Johnson by name, but everybody knew what I was singing about. I told in the allegory–
“It was back in 1942, I was a member of the good platoon. We were on maneuvers in Louisiana. One night by the light of the moon. The captain told us to ford the river. That was how it all began. We were knee deep in the Big Muddy, But the big fool said to push on. The song went on until the captain is drowned. Well, I am not going to point any moral, I will leave that for yourself. Maybe you are still walking, you are still talking You would like to keep your health. But every time I read the papers, that old feeling comes on; we were waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on.” It was censured out of the show. And I was on the Smothers Brothers program. They took their complaint to the to the press, paper printed media. The CBS is censuring up the best jokes and censuring Seegar's best song and finally after three months CBS said it okay you sing it and this time, I sang it for seven million people.

SM: I saw that, I watched the Smothers Brothers and what was your thought on not just what they did toward you in on television but what they were trying to do to the Smothers Brothers, the show.

PS: Well I think what they learned and what I learned is you do not have to reach millions of people if you could reach some. And I am completely convinced that if there is a human race here in hundred years, it will be because of millions of comparatively small things. I really mean this. You know, the great praise the great Du Bois, the biologist, said think globally, act locally. You have heard that yes. And Schumacher said small is beautiful. Margaret Mead said never doubt that a few committed individuals can save the world and the fact that the only thing that ever has. Who knows, I say God only knows but I put it this way. This is my mantra. The agricultural revolution took thousands of years - the industrial revolution took of hundreds of years. The information revolution is only taking decades. Use it, use the brains God gave us. Who knows, what miracles may happen in the next few years.

SM: Very good point that two different words I want to say, the word healing and the word trust are often linked to the boomer generation, the era of the seventy-four million that were born after (19)46 up to (19)64 - issues of trust because the lack of trust in the leaders that they saw lie to them in many respects and number two, healing because of all the unbelievable divisions that were in America back in the in the (19)60s ̶ some people said that we might even have another second Civil War. Your thoughts on the influence this may have had on this entire generation and how do you think they are dealing with it today?

PS: [This man you are talking about thing?]

SM: No, I am talking about the boomer generation, the whole issues of trust and healing within this group because of the ̶

PS: My own feeling is that often radicals are overconfident that they that they know all the answers, whether they are anarchists or socialists or communists or whatever they call themselves. And I think the big mistake in the in the communist movement was mistaking Lenin. He said, in 1905, we lost the revolution of 1905 because we were not disciplined. If we are disciplined, just like an army is disciplined we will win the next revolution, and it is true, they took power in 1917. But they believed in discipline. I often quote, a German communist Rosa Luxemburg, who said, wrote a letter: Dear Comrade Lenin, I read that you have censorship of the press, and you restrict the right of people to freely meet and discuss their opinions. Do not you realize that in a few years, all the decisions in your country will be made by a few elites? The masses will only be called in to dutifully applaud your decision. And I think if it had not been Stalin, it would have been somebody else. But the thing which has saved our country, generation after generation is that extraordinary first amendment constitution.

SM: The presidents that had the greatest influence on the boomer generation are John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and probably Ronald Reagan. How would you ̶ what are your thoughts on them?

PS: Well, of course, they are very different. But all of them made compromises. As I say, sometimes the compromise worked. Sometimes they did not. I think probably president, ex-President Carter probably regret some of the compromises that he made.

SM: Okay, final part of the interview is just basically responding to a couple terms, words. You do not have to give very long responses, but just your overall gut level feeling when you hear these words or terms. Watergate.

PS: You make a compromise you can regret.

SM: Kent State and Jackson State.

PS: I am increasingly convinced that the world will not survive unless we learn from Dr. King.

SM: Go in greater detail there.

PS: Well, way back at the beginning ̶ he said various times in his life, the most important speech he ever made was the speech he made at the very beginning of the bus boycott. He said, we will win this boycott if we are nonviolent. Non-violence is it is ascending spiral, with violence you can murder the hater, you just increase hate. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, it takes light to do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, it takes love and I think I would say respect.

SM: So basically, Kent state was the result of certainly a lack of communication, Jackson State too with the loss of student lives. But what was those were monumental events for that particular era because you saw violence. A couple of other things, the Vietnam Memorial, what does that mean to you?

PS: For violence, you might consider this, according to anthropologist and I think they right, all of us are descended from good killers. The ones who were not good killers did not have the descendants. This was for hundreds of thousands of years. And then in more recent times, we learn how to use words, we use learn how to use the arts. I compare a song to a basketball backboard, and it bounces back new meanings when life bounces new experiences against it. So, the song John Henry might have simply been about a strong man. Later I realized there is a tragedy to it, even humor to it at times. And so, a song can mean different things at different times. And the arts, all of them are important including the art of cooking. And Tommy Sands, the great Irish singer brought back Ireland together by song fest when he was a child. You should read his book. Tommy Sands, S-A-N-D-S. The book is called Song Maker. Came out about five years ago, four years ago. And when he was a child, he came from a family where their idea of a good time was to get some beer and invite the neighbors and sing all night long. And they saved up their money, they could get a barrel of beer. And now they invite the neighbors in, and it did not bother them that their neighbors are mostly Protestant. They were Catholic, but they just sing all night long. So, Tommy, some six years ago, rented some theaters and in different parts of Ireland he invited the leaders of the south and the leaders of the north in for a song fest. And he let them know they are both going to be there. But he says, “It is not politics at all.” We were just going to sing all night. No politics, no politics, just singing. And they sing all night, not just one or two hours, but three or four or five hours. And then, at the end of the day they started talking with each other, they still will not shake hands. They cannot that we cannot do it, but they are no longer trying to shoot at each other. Tommy Sand has brought an island together with singing.

SM: I got to get that book too. You are very well read.

PS: I am a readaholic.

SM: Well so am I, I got about ten thousand books, I am constantly reading. But you are able to really grasp the meaning of all the books and ideas that you have read and be able to put some dots to them and linkage. A couple other things ̶

PS: Two recent books, have you read the book, Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawkin?

SM: No, I have not.

PS: Hawken is a small businessman, but he is an [economist]. He is spoken at like thousand places in the last fifteen years. And the words blessed unrest was spoken by Martha Graham to the young dancer Agnes de Mille ̶ and all of us artists are filled with a blessed unrest, trying to reach the infinite and of course never making it but never giving up trying. Paul says, how is it that the largest movement in the world is taking place and nobody predicted it ̶ what is the largest movement ̶ all the little things that are going on in small business, the smallest nonprofit groups, small religious groups, all artistic groups, all sorts of small things, often locally, in my hometown of Beacon, fourteen thousand people. There was a race riot thirty years ago and some women started a block party they call the "Spirit of Beacon Day. It is always the last Sunday in September. And they send invitations to every church, black churches, white churches, synagogues, Muslim mosque, and in recent years, a Hindu temple, the Latino Pentecostal, and every service club, the Lions, the Kiwanis, the American Legion and so on. And everybody has a table on the sidewalk. Usually a piece of paper telling when they meet what they believe in. And they often have food and serving ̶ this drink it is only fifty cents. This sandwich is only $1. People walk up and down Main Street, sampling the food from different places and listening to different kinds of music, hear music. It is a big group from a few hundred to thousand to two thousand to four thousand. Now it is up to ten thousand in a town of fourteen thousand. Of course, there are probably still four thousand saying, they are going to hell.

SM: Well, I just might trip up to Beacon to see you that day and see all the people that the swim across the Hudson.

PS: If you ever come to Beacon do come on the last Sunday in September, it rains. It is the first Sunday in October.

SM: Well, maybe I will. Just in my one trip to Beacon I fell in love with the place. I fell in love with the people because of the fact ̶ and I love the cause of saving the Hudson. Just seeing that ̶ it just ̶ may
be that is a very positive that in things that you have done, and maybe it is the smaller things that we do not often recognize that are making great impacts. And maybe the boomers are a lot of them are involved in this. A couple of terms, the Vietnam Memorial. Jan Scruggs wrote the book, To Heal a Nation. What do you think the Vietnam Memorial in Washington has done? Is just basically healed our veterans or has it done anything with respect to healing our nation from the war?

PS: No one thing could change everything, but I think it changed a lot of people's opinion.

SM: All right, and also your thoughts on the Students for Democratic Society, and the Weathermen and Vietnam Veterans Against the War ̶ those very big anti-war groups?

PS: I, myself, [aware of bigness] even big organizations. I would like to deal off small organizations. I was against that big thing in Madison Square Garden. I have to admit, they handled it very well. They had very good sound, and very good lights and so on. And a wonderful singing audience. But when they put it on the air, August 1, they did not show you how beautifully the audience was singing. All you could hear was the soloist.

SM: That was your ninetieth birthday. Yeah, well, that was an honor. That must be. A couple more people here just to respond to ̶ these are personalities now. Tom Hayden, just quick thoughts on each of these individuals.

PS: Way back thirty years ago, nice guy.

SM: How about Jane Fonda?

PS: Likewise, I met her even before then when she was hardly out of her teens, briefly married to some guy in Russia.

SM: Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, so the Yippies.

PS: Well, I met Abbie, late in life. And we got along very well. In the beginning, I was arguing with both Abbie and Jerry, that the things you are going to do everything with young people. I think you got to work with all ages. I work with little kids now if you are in my hometown.

SM: You know what is interesting, Pete, is that it was Jerry Rubin that coined the phrase do not trust anyone over thirty. Did you ever talk to him about that? Because what is interesting, when I read his book, Do It ̶ he was twenty-nine. He was one year away from being thirty. So, I never understood that.

PS: Well, I laugh at that, you have to laugh at slogans.

SM: Timothy Leary.

PS: I never knew him. I never met him.

SM: What you think of him?

PS: Well, I mistrust him, trying to solve your problem with anything you eat or drink.

SM: What did you think of the Black Panther leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, that group.

PS: They were very brave, but I believe in the slogan, it was an anarchist I knew, who he said, wait a minute, I am trying to remember- love, truth, bravery. You need all three. Oh, no, of course my memory is going I cannot remember this anarchist. He was a wonderful guy. This is the way back in the 1950s, he said this, "Love, truth bravery.” Love alone is sentimentality. As in the average churchgoer. True alone is, oh gosh I have it written down ̶

SM: Yes. Okay. Couple other names here ̶

PS: Oh, wait a minute, all three. Okay when it comes to bravery, bravery is foolhardiness. As in the average soldier. Need all three. And so, I think this was the problem that Malcolm had and the others. Bravery is not enough. You need the truth and you need love.

SM: How about your overall comment on Richard Nixon.

PS: I cannot remember.

SM: Richard Nixon?

PS: I thought he did not have truth.

SM: How about Spiro Agnew?

PS: I guess there he lacked truth and love.

SM: Eugene McCarthy?

PS: Well, I think the state he made was in again, not working broadly that you might not see, I would put in addition to truth, love truth brave, humor. Humor is one of the most important qualities the world needs. We may be saved by humor.

SM: Well, that brings me to the Kennedy brothers, John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and certainly, John Kennedy, your thoughts on those two brothers?

PS: Well, it was an extraordinary family, an extraordinary mother. The mother had nine children. And she lived into her nineties.

SM: And she lost her ̶

PS: Her husband's infidelity. Put up with all her various children's different ways of working ̶

SM: How about George McGovern?

PS: George, wait a minute ̶

SM: George McGovern. He ran for president in 1972. Senator from South Dakota.

PS: Oh, I thought I spoke about him earlier.

SM: That was Eugene McCarthy.

PS: You need all these different things. Of course, you need instant recount voting. Know what that is? Clinton turned down money with air. I was shouting obscenities ̶ that was his greatest chance to introduce America to proportional representation. I went to a school where we voted for the student council by proportional representation. We voted our first choice, second choice and third choice. And we had a good student council. And if Lani Guinier been kept in the cabinet, she would have brought this idea to the American people. Most people do not even know what IRB stands for, or proportional representation. But when I did not meet Clinton once about four years ago, he was at a meeting, and I tried to speak about it and he just clammed up.

SM: How about Lyndon Johnson?

PS: Well, he did one, some very good things. Voting right act. Voting right act, 1965 I guess it was.

SM: How about Robert McNamara?

PS: I have not read his book. I would like to say ̶

SM: Well, he wrote, he has actually written five, but his last two would be the one you would want to read. He, the first one was ̶

PS: I am willing to bet that his children got him to write the last one because they said, Dad, you cannot go to your grave without telling what you know.

SM: Right?

PS: Finally came out.

SM: In Retrospect came out in (19)95. It is called In Retrospect. And then he wrote another book, that followed and those were his last two. So, those were good reads. Just a couple more names and we are done. The women, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, the women leaders who kind of led the women's movement Still there. Hello? Pete you still there?

PS: Well I think I have told you more than you need to know.

SM: Okay. All right. Well, I am going to conclude with this. I will not ask any more names. But what is your final thoughts on the boomer generation, those young people that you have performed before? If you were, if the history books fifty years or hundred years from now or writing about them, giving an analysis, what do you think they will say, and your final thoughts if you were writing that book?

PS: Writing what book?

SM: Well, if you were writing a book hundred years from now on the boomer generation, what would be your final thoughts on them? What do you think history is going to say about them?

PS: I do not know enough about it to write. To you, I will say, I think they made the same mistake that many of us make when we have some success. Oh, we now know, we have the key to the future. Because we have won some successes. I mistrust the word t-h-e. I really do. The solution, the origin, the destiny. So, I would say that they made some made up the wonderful things done, but they made similar mistakes too many others.

SM: Do you think they had been a good influence on their kids and grandkids?

PS: My guess is yes, probably most of them. I get letters from now that I have got too much publicity. My own problem now I got too much publicity and life is very difficult, mail comes in by the bushel. And I have to add to it form letters.

SM: Okay, I want to thank you very much for talking to me today and it was an honor to meet you at Beacon a couple of weeks back. And all I can say ̶ I will be sending you a waiver form.

PS: I cannot remember when you were here ̶

SM: I was here when the swim across the Hudson. And I interviewed you on the bank but then they kind of pulled you away to perform. And so, thank you very much. I will send a waiver form and certainly the transcript sometime in the next three months. And then I will get back to you for final okay. And also, I think I owe you a lunch.

PS: Oh no.

SM: Pete you have been you have been more than gracious. And of course, your sister is unbelievable as well because I interviewed her. So, you have a great day.

PS: Oh, my sister was born in (19)35. So, she is ten years older than the boomers.

SM: Yes but she still ̶ she came to our campus and she is the one that called you originally after I interviewed her on the phone to say talk to Steve. So, I really appreciate this Pete.

PS: Okay your first name is Steve?

SM: McKiernan M-c- K-i-e-r-n-a-n. And it was my grandfather was the minister of the first Methodist Church in Peekskill, New York. He died in 1956. He was only sixty-one years old. He had a bad heart, but he was the minister there from 1936 to 1954. And of course, I wish I could ask him about that Paul Robeson incident because, you know, I was too young he died when I was only eight years old. So, I you know, I just remember going to the church and of course the church burned down on - an arsonist burned the church down after my grandfather had passed away. So now they got this ugly looking, one level church in Peekskill, but first Methodist Church, but ̶

PS: Did they burn it down because of his preaching?

SM: Oh, no, he had died and, but it was where my ̶ it was a beautiful church. And ̶

PS: Why did they burn it down?

SM: Well, they wanted a new church. And I remember this whole issue after my dad, my grandfather is at ̶

PS: That is kind of a dangerous way to get rid of a church.

SM: Yeah, well, my dad was very upset. In fact, my dad cried and drove into Peekskill after it burned down because they would just, they knew, they never caught the person who did it. But my dad grew up there, you know, as a young guy and he went off to World War II and everything. But you know, but the Paul Robeson in the news were involved in that incident as well. So, I would have liked to have talked to him about that. If I am in ̶

PS: September fourth, sixtieth anniversary, the big Paramount Theater will have a program. I will be singing a couple songs, saying a few words on September 4,

SM: At what theater?

PS: At the Paramount Theatre in Peekskill.

SM: I am going to try to go, is that an evening event?

PS: It may be an all-day event, for all I know.

SM: Oh, wow.

PS: Go take a photo.

SM: Yeah, I have definitely had ̶ of course, grandfather's at Ferncliff. Along was his wife and kids. So, all right, Pete. Well, thank you very much. You have a great day and carry on.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Stephen McKiernan


Seeger, Pete, 1919-2014

Biographical Text

Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 - January 27, 2014) was a folk singer and a social activist. In addition, to being a folk singer he also wrote his own songs as he performed them to people. He wrote songs throughout the different time periods of history. For example, he recorded an album in '78 called "Songs of the Lincoln Battalion" with Tom Glazer, Bless and Baldwin Hawes.





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Binghamton University Libraries

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Interview Format


Subject LCSH

Folk singers;
Human rights workers;
Seeger, Pete, 1919-2014--Interviews

Rights Statement

This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: McKiernan Interviews, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.


Rolf in the Woods: The Adventures of a Boy Scout with Indian Quonab and Little Dog Skookum (Book); Ernest Thompson Seton; Theodore Roosevelt; Eugene V. Debs; American Student Union; Woodstock; The Great Depression; Jackson State; Kent State; Songs; Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Pete Seeger.jpg

Item Information

About this Collection

Collection Description

Stephen McKiernan's collection of interviews includes more than two hundred interviews with prominent figures of the 1960s, which were collected between the mid-1990s and 2010s. The collection provides narratives of people who were actively involved in or witnessed events in the 1960s, an era which spurred profound cultural and… More

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“Pete Seeger,” Digital Collections, accessed June 10, 2023,