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Where Have All the Flowers Gone
a talk with Pete Seeger about his singalong memoirby Ross Rice

It’s one of those delicious spring days you just want to somehow capture and replay at will; t-shirt temperature, mellow breeze puffing in from the Hudson River waterfront, birds wheeling and calling, the ting-ting of lines flopping against aluminum masts of small sailboats, the sun glint on rippling water. My 16 year-old son and I are lounging in the shade at the Beacon Sloop Club, which once was an old diner next to the train station. It now serves as a monthly meeting place for members of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the educational environmental organization that has been on the cutting edge of the battle against the pollution and degradation of America’s waterways. Later, the group will hold a potluck supper and meeting, then there will be a sing-along pickin’ party.

Soon, a small blue car appears and parks in the lot. Its occupant disembarks and walks over to us, apologizing for being (very slightly) late, and unlocks the door. Folding chairs need to be set up for the meeting, so my son and I grab a few, take them outside, arrange them in a semi-circle. The gentleman takes a seat, and asks me if I have any questions. And here I am, suddenly gifted with one of the world’s most precious substances (in my opinion, anyway): One hour of Pete Seeger’s time and full attention.

It’s hard to know where to even start; the length and breadth of the man’s life and career could fill the pages of this magazine many times over, and still fall short. But we’re in luck, as we now have Pete’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir (Sing Out!/Norton, 2009). It’s a stunning achievement: a combination of autobiography, song book, music history, and instructional guide—with an accompanying mp3 CD, containing three CD’s worth of musical examples of the songs, many recorded by Pete himself, some even the classic original recordings. Though it originally came out in 1993, it has since been fully corrected and improved for the new edition.

As a musical resource, it’s extremely rich with information: origins of songs, tablature, picking techniques, beautifully written music “charts”, detailed lyrics and translations. And Pete’s humor and generosity permeates it with wonderful recollections and observations, and even some great photographs and illustrations. If you’re a Pete Seeger fan, or simply a lover of folk music and its history, this is a must-have book; one you should buy two of, just in case you lose one, or a friend really needs it.

Reading Where Have All the Flowers Gone and talking with Pete Seeger are both very much like sailing: it may take a tack or two, but you’re going to get where you’re going, you’re gonna make some progress. And you’re sure going to enjoy the ride.

Your recent book Where Have All the Flowers Gone is really two books in one: a memoir and a music book, chock full of some of the most essential folk songs of all time. When you had the notion to write it in the early 90’s, did it start as memoir and become more music book, or vice versa? Or was it always intended to meld the two?

It started as a music book, and then I got telling how I made up the song, or how I changed the song, something like that. And pretty soon it was more of a memoir. But even the last pages….the postscript has some of my best songs in it.

The accompanying CD is amazing, allowing the reader ready access to examples of the songs that you provide sheet music for in the book.

Well, of course not everybody knows how to use it, they don’t have a computer, and they say: this doesn’t work on my CD (player)! I’m going to try to persuade the publisher to change the wording opposite the CD so that people who don’t know what an mp3 is will know what to do.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone starts with some personal history, recollections of his upbringing in a leftist musical family, with both parents finally securing work in New York City, teaching at the Institute of Musical Art, now Julliard. Like many precocious kids, Pete learned music naturally, picking up one of several instruments around the house, just having fun. But unlike other kids, Pete later had access to the deep roots of American music, securing a job at 17 working for music historian Alan Lomax, who had famously collected music and field recordings of unknown and often rural “folk” songs and singers. Listening to Hudie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland, and others inspired Pete musically and politically.

But then, at 20, he met, as he put it, “the most prolific songwriter of them all,” Woody Guthrie. Lomax put the two together to help him out; Pete transcribed the music and lyrics, and Woody provided the introductions for the collection that became Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. After hitchhiking around the country, performing whenever and wherever possible, he returned to New York and formed the Almanac Singers with Woody, a group that pulled no punches with its anti-war pro-union stance. As Woody put it, they played “songs with teeth.”

At one point in the book you describe the process you and Woody Guthrie had of recycling melodies with new lyrics, often subconsciously. You’ve also been very generous, personally making sure the originators of songs you adapted or covered got credit and royalties. With music ownership becoming murkier lately thanks to technology, what are your thoughts on this? Should music be free?

When you think of all the problems that money has caused the world, sometimes you just wish everything could be free, like it was 10,000 years ago. But it’s a handy tool, and you see that even in those days, someone made a beautiful arrowhead, and somebody (else) says, I can’t make an arrowhead that good…I’ll go get you some wampum. What’s wampum? Well, you have to make that. And so they started using money way back in tribal communism.

I only had a little paragraph (in the book) about that campaign for public domain reform. It may catch on, because it’s quite obvious that if a tune comes from a certain country, why shouldn’t that poverty-stricken little country get a little money? In the case of “Abiyoyo” I was able to get them $15,000, which was a lot of money for that little part of Africa (at the time). And every time “Abiyoyo” gets played on the radio somewhere, another seven cents comes in. This could be done with other songs…

(My son Dylan had a question for Pete…)

We’ve all grown up on your songs, often singing them in school—‘If I Had a Hammer,’ ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone,’ ‘We Shall Overcome.’ What tunes did you listen to as a kid?

Frankly, all my life I have listened to phonograph records as rarely as possible. I really believed that quote—I read in a book somewhere—that quote from John Philip Sousa. He said “what will happen to the American voice now the phonograph has been invented?” I like to make music.

I thought my older brothers were foolish, they would get records like the hit of the week, stupid songs. Even then I was aware that the rulers of the country wanted to control what the people heard.

I read Thoreau when I was 12. And then my father took me to a mountain music festival in North Carolina, and I just fell in love with the long-necked banjo. The tenor banjo was shorter, and you just played chords: ploom ploom ploom ploom. Kind of boring. There’s a famous track called “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington, you can hear that plink of the banjo.

When they invented electrical amplification, music was never the same, I guess. But I don’t listen to records…

The music has started up nearby, guitars and banjos, and Pete keeps looking over at the informal groups, occasionally giving a quick halloo. He calls to one of the banjo pickers to check out his long-neck banjo hanging up in the doorway of the Sloop Club. Folks of all ages are showing up with food and instruments; my son and I are already wishing we’d brought ours.

When it comes to songwriting, do you find that you write better under pressure, or not?

I’m not a quick songwriter. But some come to me all of a sudden that I don’t expect, I don’t know why. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on,” (classic anti-Vietnam War tune that caused a ruckus when he played it on the Smothers Brothers show in the 60s-ed.) that line came to me all at once. And, I thought of the tune for “Turn, Turn, Turn” just off the top of my head.

I hope you noticed the story where I thought I had written a tune for children. (Pete sings “Creepy Crawly Little Mousy.”) For 30 years I thought I wrote that tune! And then I remember it was Frank Warner who collected folk songs in New York and New Jersey. And waaaay back forty years ago in New Jersey he found a family whose great great grandfather had been in Washington’s army, and as they walked through New Jersey they sang (to the same tune):

Doodle doodle doodle dandy
Cornstalk rum and a homemade brandy
Indian puddin and a pumpkin pie
That will make those Yankees fly!

So all I did was slow it down!

Here are just a few of the great moments in the book, if you’re just skimming, and not singing (for now anyway):

—Woody Guthrie’s advice to hitchhiking Pete on how to make traveling money in a Western bar, after teaching him half a dozen sure-fire favorite country tunes: “Pete, you go into a bar with your banjo on your back and buy you a nickel beer. Sip it real slow. Sooner or later someone will say, ‘Kid, can you play that thing?’ Don’t be too eager. Say, ‘Maybe. A little.’ Keep sipping your beer. Finally someone will say, ‘Kid, I got a quarter for you if you’ll pick us a tune.’ Now you swing it around and play something.”

—a full discussion of the “folk” process that Pete employed in adapting an old Xhosa (South African) lullaby with a new story to create his signature “Abiyoyo,” and how he made sure the subsequent royalties made it back to the people who inspired him. A later story details how Pete did the same for Solomon Linda, the originator of “Mbube,” later adapted as “Wimoweh,” a big hit for the Weavers in 1950.

—a wonderful recollection of an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in the 70s, with James Brown and astronaut Frank Borman. With the show nearing its end without getting to Pete, Cavett suddenly realized the time, and called out: “Pete, do you have a very short song?” So Pete obliged with an eight second song that went: “Here we are knee-deep in garbage, firing rockets at the moon,” and promptly sat down. With the sudden extra time, Cavett asked him what he thought of the space program, and Pete replied “It seems to me kind of silly to say that we can spend $60 billion going to the moon then say we don’t have enough money for schools or hospitals or job training.” Borman was not amused, but at the show’s end James Brown reached across the astronaut, and pumped Pete’s hand vigorously.

—a lengthy discourse on “This Land Is Your Land,” one of the most loved yet misunderstood folk songs of modern times, complete with extra verses in several languages. And a photocopy of Woody Guthrie’s handwritten original words for the song, originally titled “God Blessed America”…with those lines lightly crossed out.

—the famous moment where Pete took an axe to the power cable at Newport in 1965? Turns out Pete liked the electric guitar! He was mad at the sound system; Dylan was singing “Maggie’s Farm,” and Pete was upset that the vocals were distorted, and that he couldn’t understand the words. Hence the axe.

What’s not in the book is much about Pete’s defiant appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and subsequent indictment for contempt of Congress, for which he served a year in jail. Also missing is any bitterness for being blacklisted and its detrimental effect on his career, or any animosity towards some of the others who sold him out during those turbulent times. In retrospect, losing his group the Weavers—who broke up due to lack of work from the blacklist, despite their huge hit in 1950 with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”—and having to go back to playing for kids in schools probably helped soften the public image of him as an angry Communist sympathizer, allowing him a second wind as a beloved singalong troubadour.

When the 60s folk explosion hit with the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, they needed somebody to look to as an example of integrity, honesty, understanding of the rich musical legacy. Pete Seeger was the man; his “If I Had a Hammer” became a huge hit with Peter, Paul, and Mary; the Byrds later covered his “Turn, Turn, Turn” and rocked it out (Pete mentions he likes the ringing electric guitars). Though consistently modest about it, Pete was a major avatar for that brief, but potent, movement, and still is even now.

But that was all prologue to Pete’s next bold move: The Hudson Sloop Clearwater. And as with everything he does, music plays a big part with it.

Let’s talk a little bit about Clearwater. It’s safe to say that without the Clearwater project, the Hudson River would be in a horrible state…

Well, there might have been other organizations that picked it up. But we lucked into an idea because of this book that was written right here in Beacon, about a hundred years ago—1907. The Sloops of the Hudson! I got a little publisher in the Catskills to reprint it, though it’s now a big 8½” X 11” thing like this (holds up a Roll Magazine). It used to be a cloth-covered book, about 6” X 8”. This man here said these are the most beautiful boats we ever knew, and they’ll never be seen again. And he had a few pictures of them. I wrote this letter to the man who loaned me the book, and said “….if we got enough people together we could raise enough money to build a life-sized replica.” (Which, of course, they did; see the full story in the book-ed.)

My early idea was simply to have maybe 25 sloop clubs up and down the river and each would rehearse how to sail it, and they’d get one week to sail it. It was a rather impractical idea, and it was soon forgotten. Because we just raised money wherever we could, and got sailing. And then we found the schools would pay as much as $800 (for us to) take 50 kids out for three or four hours. Found the best age seems to be early teens, 11-14, middle-school age. But we’d take out any age; sometimes little teeny kids, sometimes college students.

But we faced a crisis here. We realized that only the middle-class schools could afford the $800. Down in New York there were hundreds of schools of kids who’d like to go out, but didn’t have the money. So now we’re trying to raise money for that, and that was what that Earth Day (note: Pete’s aforementioned 90th celebration/DVD) party a year ago was all about. And if we can raise enough money, and show people how to raise enough money….

And so, we lucked into a beautiful river, a beautiful boat. Now there are eleven of the boats around the country, doing the same thing. And they all use the Clearwater system of teaching.

Typical Pete Seeger modesty. Hudson Sloop Clearwater became one of the first, most influential environmental groups in the nation; General Electric is presently dredging out PCB’s from the Hudson River as a direct result of Clearwater activism. And elsewhere in Flowers, the reader is enjoying a pleasant anecdote about a friend of Pete’s who was curious about the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act, only to realize that one is reading about how the 1972 Water Pollution Amendments were added to the Clean Water Act.

But if there’s one thing he makes abundantly clear in the book, it’s this: people need to sing together, play music together. If you’ve ever seen Pete perform live, you know it’s not going to be just some guy up onstage singing tunes at you. He’s going to have you singing back; you had better not say no. And you will be glad you sang, that you shared that moment with your fellow human beings, joined in song, a member of the greater human choir.

But it’s getting late, and Pete has to go pick up his amazing wife Toshi—they’ve been married since 1945, kids and grandkids galore—and their pot-luck dish in time for the supper. A few more questions then:

A very close friend who is a lifelong fan wanted me to ask: do you and Toshi live by a daily routine, or invent each day as it comes along?

My life now is very different from my life in the old days. That movie (Pete Seeger: The Power of Song) got me too much publicity, and frankly, life is not much fun now. I wake up to more mail than I can possibly answer, I have to have somebody come and help me, yesterday she addressed about 30 letters that I’d prepared for her. And, I got back home…big pile, about this high (shows with hand), another fifteen letters there which I should prepare for her for next week.

I don’t get the exercise that I used to, I used to be in good physical condition, but I don’t get enough exercise, been lying down, going through paper, pausing for telephone calls. I’ve turned down requests for interviews and so on…the only way you got this interview is because you were willing to come here. And, I corralled you into getting some chairs.

Having been around for some time now, you’ve seen some pretty drastic changes occur to humanity; some good, some not so. And though you occasionally use the acronym ITAHRSH—If There’s A Human Race Still Here—in your book, you seem to still be optimistic about the human future. Why is that?

Well, the happiest people I have ever known are those who are struggling, even against odds.

Still don’t believe in the power of song? Here’s a story that Pete tells us that’s not in the book:

“Oh, here’s a good story you should know. You know the singer Tommy Sands? He lives in Northern Ireland, married to a French girl. But he remembers that when he was a kid, if his family could save up enough money for a barrel of beer, they’d invite all the neighbors in and sing all night long, that was their idea of a good time. Well, Tommy—remembering that thought—said ‘why couldn’t we have a songfest and invite Ian Paisley of the North, and Gerry Adams of the South, and other leaders?’ They’d been assassinating each other, murdering each other.”

“’We told ‘em come to a songfest, told ‘em no politics at all, we just sing all night, and we got some good singers there.’ I think it was in Stormont Castle, several hundred people—spoke to him just a couple of weeks ago on the phone. Well, at the end of the evening they started talking to each other. They still won’t shake hands—that implies they’re friends—but they are talking. And it’s been: ‘OK, maybe we can compromise on this, settle on that.’ But they have not been murdering each other since that.”

“Tommy had to leave the castle for a moment to get something; when he got back the policeman says ‘you can’t come in! This is a private affair!’ Tommy says,’ well, I got it together!’ ‘Oh, you’re the songmaker!’ the policeman hollers to the other ‘let this man through, he’s the Songmaker!’ Tommy was so proud of the title, he used it for the title of his book: The Songmaker.”

I know it’s terribly presumptuous of me, but I think the Sermon on the Mount could use an addendum: Blessed be the song makers, and blessed are we who hear their songs, and sing along together in harmony. Full disclosure: I have music in my life directly thanks to Pete Seeger, with two banjo playing uncles and a brother picking one too. I’ve been singing his songs my whole life, and thanks to this book, I’ll be able to sing a bunch more. Life is good. Thanks, Pete.

Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir (Sing Out!/Norton, 2009) should be available at a locally-owned bookstore. Please contact your nearest one, and if they are without it, be sure to order one through them. Support your local bookstore!

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