Singer-songwriter, banjo-slinger, former Communist and lifelong activist Pete Seeger has released an album to celebrate his 89th birthday called, well, “At 89.” He spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Brian Braiker. Excerpts:
How‘s your health?
My usual answer is “If I could remember I’d tell you.”
Why this album now?
It’s just a batch of new songs. Some funny. Some horrifying. My voice isn’t much anymore, so I got some other people to help me sing them.
You ‘ ve had some impressive help in the past. You‘ve played with Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie —
I was singing peace songs when Stalin had the nonaggression pact with Hitler. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941, Woody Guthrie had hitchhiked east to join me as a member of the Almanac Singers. I had hardly opened the door before he said, “Well I guess we won’t be singing any more peace songs.” I said “You mean we have to work with Churchill?” “Yes,” he says. “Churchill said all aid the ‘gallant Soviet allies.’ This the same Churchill who in 1920 said ‘strangle the Bolshevik infant in its cradle’.” Churchill flip-flopped!
Do you have any regrets or are you still proud of your affiliation with the Communist Party?
[Sings] “Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt/ We damn near believed what he said/ He said I hate war and so does Eleanor/ but we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.” Should I apologize for that? I think so. Of course, I drifted out of the party in the early 1950s when I moved up to the country. In 1962 the Appeals Court acquitted me [for having been found in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955].
A little later, you wrote “ Waist Deep in the Big Muddy “ as an allegory about the Vietnam War. It ‘ s also on your new album. Is that a comment on Iraq?
What is music for? Is it for entertaining, teaching, activism?
My father was a bureaucrat in the New Deal and he signed musicians to a development project. He said the important thing is not “is it good music?” but, “what is the music good for?”
Do you still chop wood every day?
Especially in the fall, because I have to get several cords of firewood to get through the winter. Frankly, it’s a recreation. It’s fun to split wood.
You are a perennial optimist. After 89 years, how?
The idea of you interviewing me would not have been approved 30 or 40 years ago by a publisher. They’d have said “let these lefties go to hell by themselves.” We played a program in Brooklyn last week. It was raining. They put up a tent and we had 2,000 people! My gosh did they sing.