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At 80, Pete Seeger Still Practicing What He Preaches

By Joe Heim
Washingtonpost.com Staff
Thursday, November 25, 1999


    Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger. (File Photo)
Raising funds for a cause is in Pete Seeger's blood. When it comes to benefit concerts it's difficult to imagine anyone who has done more than he has. One of America's most legendary folksingers, Seeger has offered his efforts to myriad causes over the past 50 years, and at 80 years old is not about to change his ways. He joins musicians including his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Geno Delofose, Alan Jabbour and Hazel Dickens at the State Theatre on Wednesday, December 1 at a benefit for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Proceeds from the concert will be used to create the Henry Reed Fund for Folk Artists and the Archive of Folk Culture.

Reached by phone at his home on the Hudson River 60 miles north of New York City, Seeger talked about the value of the folk music archives, the state of the world in 100 years, rap music, and the untapped potential of block parties.

I've heard that one of your first jobs was as an intern for the Folklife collection at the Library of Congress.

Well, not officially… In 1939 Alan Lomax (then director of the Library of Congress's Archives of American Folksongs) received a collection of what were called hillbilly records or race records that were going to be thrown away by Victor and Columbia and Brunswick. He needed someone to go through them and he got teen-age me to listen to them. I didn't know what the hell I was listening to and I don't know how much assistance I was. Alan paid me $15 a week out of his own salary and I was overpaid at that. But it was a real ear opener to me to hear all this music which I had never heard in my life.

Why is it important to do this benefit and why are these archives so valuable?

I think people who allow their history to be forgotten are making a mistake. Whether it's family history, or local village history, or national history, or cultural history of any kind or scientific history. People say, 'Oh who's interested.' Well, you never can tell. The older it gets the more valuable it gets.

What's your definition of folk music?

To some people, a folk song is a song sung with an acoustic guitar by somebody standing in front a microphone in a coffeehouse… My own father, a musicologist who was a big piece of my education, said don't get into a big argument of is it a folk song or not. Just realize that the folk process has been with the human race for thousands of years. It's most obvious in traditional music, but it also exists in many different kinds of classical music and many different kinds of popular music.

So is rap folk music?

It's a mixture. The folk process is very strong there, on the other hand, as commercial music, it comes and goes. The music of the marketplace will change whenever the dollars change.

Do you listen to rap?

My grandson knows all about it. But most of my life I have not listened to records of any kind. Except when I'm ice skating in my back yard in January. Then I'll turn on steel drum music which is my favorite. I've tried skating to classical music, some of it's ok. I once spent a month skating to Bob Dylan's record "John Wesley Harding." But by and large I don't listen to the radio and I don't listen to tv and I don't listen to recordings.

You've received a lot of awards…

Too many

Well, you've been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and you're a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. What do you consider the greatest achievement of your career?

I don't really think I have a career. I'm not looking for fame or fortune. There are just jobs that need doing. I'm very proud that one of those jobs, encouraging young people to make music even if they know they're never going to make a living at it, has partially succeeded. There must be thousands of people around the country, making up songs, singing them, performing in coffeehouses. Sometimes they even get paid (laughs).

Throughout your life you've written songs about social and political issues. What issues concern you today?

I really think it's one huge crisis the human race faces. And we'll either solve it or it will solve us within a hundred years, I believe. And it's a crisis of poverty amidst plenty. It's a crisis of different ethnic groups not getting along, whether you call it racism or whatever you call it. It's a crisis of alienation of people. It's a crisis of what we're doing to the earth. And it's a crisis of sexism.

So whether it's city against country, or young against old, or black against white, male against female, or Catholic against Protestant or Arab against Jew, they are all one huge crisis that we've brought upon ourselves. So when people ask me what should I work on, I say work right where you are. Don't go to some far off glamorous place to work. Start in your neighborhood. I'm right now trying to encourage people to put on block parties wherever they live. I'm absolutely convinced that block parties will be one of the things that's going to save the world.

That sounds pretty hopeful. Are you optimistic for the future?

I tell everybody I think there's a fifty-fifty chance there will be a human race here. Now that's an optimistic thing.

A human race here when?

A hundred years from now.

That doesn't sound very optimistic.

Well, we don't have forever to solve our problems. How many years do you think it will be when any angry young person can find out how to make a bacteria that will wipe out anybody with a dark skin? Or wipe out anybody with a light skin? Or wipe out everybody? That's not too far off.

Hmm. That still doesn't sound optimistic.

Well, I think we have a fifty-fifty chance because with the new methods of communication, the entire world is going to learn the danger were in. It'll take a few more accidents perhaps but if the media did its job right they would realize right now the danger we're in.

There are a few exceptions, but on the whole there's not much political music being made today. Why do you think that is?

Well, it all depends on your definition of politics and protest. You might say someone singing an unrequited love song is protesting un-requition. (laughs). There's plenty of political music that doesn't get written about or played on the air. I just got back from Fort Benning, Georgia where I listened to a whole batch of great songs. People sung songs trying to stop the School of the Americas. We had 10,000 people there singing along with us.

You turned 80 this year. It seems like you haven't slowed down a bit.

I'm afraid I'm busier now than I've been in my entire life. Benefits and writing songs and books keeps me busy. And winter's coming on so I've got some wood chopping to do and leaf raking and road mending. We live up a very steep hill and if I don't keep that road more or less OK, why, it gets washed out.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company


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