|At 90, Folk Musician Pete Seeger Has No Intention of Slowing Down|
12 May 2009
“If I didn’t think music could help save the human race, I wouldn’t be making music,” Seeger said.
Path to fame
Pete Seeger first came to fame in the 1940s, as a member of the Almanac Singers, then of the Weavers, and then went on his own. He was a founder of the Newport Folk Festival, where his performances in the early 1960s were captured by filmmaker Murray Lerner.
Yet Seeger says he never planned to become a musician. The son of classical musicians, he could play several instruments by age five. But as a teenager, he says, he wanted to spend his life in the woods.
“I said I’m going to be a hermit,” he said. “That’s the only way you can be honest in this world of hypocrisy. And I really meant it.”
Music was means to an end
When Seeger took up music, it was to advance his political views, especially for civil rights and social justice, peace and the environment. He believes he made his greatest contribution before 1960, setting an example for younger singers like Bob Dylan.
“I showed a generation of young people, you don’t have to be a hypocrite yourself. You can find people who would like to sing with you and to listen to your songs. And now there are tens of thousands of us,” Seeger said.
These days, Seeger often sings with his grandson, musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, as in a video by the Hudson Valley Music Channel at last summer’s “Corn Festival” in Beacon, New York, where he lives.
It was one of many events to benefit Clearwater sloops – tall ships that are environmental classrooms sailing the Hudson River. Seeger launched Clearwater in 1969 to publicize the need to clean up polluted rivers. Today, the Hudson around Beacon is safe for swimming.
“If there is a world here in a hundred years, it will be because hundreds, millions of people used the brains God gave us,” Seeger said. “And they may do a simple little thing every day, like putting the trash in the right place, or finding a way not to use a car.”
A simple life
Seeger still lives on the mountain where he and his wife Toshi built a log cabin in 1949. And he still chops wood almost every day.
They were living there in 1955 when, as a radical and former Communist, Seeger was called to testify about his political beliefs and associates before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused, saying the demand violated his First Amendment right of free speech.
Six years later, he was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison – although the case was later dismissed.
As an old man, Seeger is at home in his country.
Some of his songs have become akin to national anthems – like his version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which he performed at the Lincoln Memorial concert to celebrate President Obama’s inauguration.
Seeger led the huge crowd in a sing-along, as he does wherever he goes.