This week PBS will debut Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, which traces the eighty-eight year-old folk legend’s life from his time with the Weavers through the Joe McCarthy witch hunts to his days as elder statesmen of the folk community. It’s loaded with archival footage of Seeger singing such classics as “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “If I Had A Hammer” and interviews with fans such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks. Seeger called into Rolling Stone recently to chat about the documentary, his memories of Bob Dylan and Lead Belly — as well his thoughts on the presidential election.
What do you think of the new documentary?
Well, it’s too much a eulogy if you ask me. It didn’t tell all the stupid things I’ve done. I’ve done hundreds of stupid things.
Tell me one.
Not realizing that I had an extraordinarily talented wife, and there were things that she wanted to do sometimes. But she put them aside to help me do the things that I wanted to do. She was an artist and projects that she undertook ended up having to put aside because my projects took precedent.
The film also has the nice things that I’ve done. I’ve had some good songs if I say so myself. The best songwriting I did was to think of three new words for an old gospel song, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The old song used to end “Soldiers of the cross,” and I wanted to sing it for all sorts of people, whether they were Christians or Jews or Atheists or what. And now I simply sing ‘Brothers, sisters, all,’ and then after a couple of verses, I say, ‘Sisters, brothers, all.’ It sings well, and they have a nice shot in the movie of the whole crowd joining in with me on it.
Were you opposed to the idea of a documentary when they first approached you?
Well, it’s created problems that I never foresaw. I usually joke that I was protected all my life by my left wing reputation. Now, the telephone rings every five minutes and the mail comes in by a half bushel a day. “Mr. Seeger, will you please sign autographs for these pictures? Will you come to our school and speak to the children? Will you accept this award?” Just answering the mail takes up most of the free time I used to have.
What did you think of Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions album?
Oh, it was a great honor. He’s an extraordinary person, as well as an extraordinary singer. He told me that he got one of my records and was playing it at his house, and his 10-year-old daughter said, “Hey, that sounds like fun.” And all of a sudden, he says, “I pricked up my ears.”
You met Bob Dylan right at the beginning of his career. Were you surprised just how far he went?
He’s an absolute fantastic songwriter and thinker. He put out that John Wesley Harding record, and I used to put it on the outdoor speaker and play it over and over while I was skating in the backyard.
What’s your first memory of Dylan?
It was down in Greenwich Village. I knew a lot of people down there and they said you got to hear this guy. I heard him once, and I asked him to be on a Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall. I remember sitting down at a long table with a batch of other people who were going to be on and said, “Folks, we only have time to sing three short songs because we all have about ten minutes a piece.” I had asked too many people to be on the program. And this skinny guy raises his hand with a wry smile, I said, “What is it?” He says, “Well, one of my songs takes ten minutes.” It was, “Where have you been my blue-eyed son? Where have you been my darling young one? And it’s hard, hard. Hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” What a song!
What comes to mind when you think about your time with Lead Belly?
Extraordinary physical strength, yet he spoke very softly. I was nineteen and I was visiting Alan Lomax in New York where he was briefly studying anthropology at Columbia. This man of a little more than medium height came in wearing a suit, and Alan said, “Oh, Lead Belly, you should meet Charlie Seeger’s son, Pete.” I shook hands with him. And I got the impression of a very strong man, but keeping himself politely in reserve. He walked light on his feet, like a prizefighter. When he sang out, it came out in this extraordinary strength, a very strong tenor. He sang “Irene, Good Night” way up in the key of A. And people had to reach to make those notes, but it was right in the center of his range.
What do you think of Obama?
I guess if I had my choice, he’d be the one. I would’ve liked Kucinich. However, what I am for is I.R.V. Most people don’t even know what it is: Instant Recount Voting. When you vote, you vote for your first choice, your second choice and your third choice. I went to a school where we had proportional voting and that’s the way we voted for the student council. If your favorite already made it onto the council, then your second choice counted.
So you’d vote first for someone like Dennis Kucinich first?
That’s right. And if he didn’t make it, I’d vote for Obama and if he didn’t make it, I’d vote for Hillary. If she didn’t make it, I’d vote for Huckabee. Huckabee is a good speaker! He’s the most radical speaker of any of them.
Do you think America is on the verge of leaving these dark times with the impending election?
I’m absolutely convinced that the extraordinary tradition in America of speaking your mind has saved us decade after decade after decade. Right now I’m more optimistic than I was after Hiroshima. I felt then that surely it would only be 20 or 30 years until another of those bombs would be dropped and if we weren’t killed, we’d be poisoned by the fallout.
So you think the pendulum is going to shift back after eight years of Bush?
Well, I describe it this way. You know, if you bounce a ball on the sidewalk, the harder you throw it down, the higher it bounces. So, we may have some very good things happening. But who knows? There could be dirty tricks still tried.