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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 7, February 8, 2014

Tribute to Pete Seger

Monday 10 February 2014


Pete Seeger, 94, the legendary US folk singer, passed away at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital on January 27, 2014. A week earlier he was admitted there as he was suffering from ailments associated with advanced age.

According to AFP, Seeger, with a career spanning decades, was credited with popularising the hymn of the US civil rights movement, We Shall Overcome, and was known for renditions of songs like If I had a Hammer and Where have All the Flowers Gone.

According to the New York Times, he was an ardent social activist and his career mirrored the concerns of the American Left. He was a mentor to folk and topical singers in the fifties and sixties of the last century, among them Bob Dylan and Don McLean. At a Madison Square Garden concert to celebrate Seeger’s ninetieth birthday, Bruce Springsteen introduced him as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along”. Seeger inspired a generation of folk singers and musicians including the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez.

Seeger came to India twice—in 1963 and 1996. During his stay in New Delhi in 1996, S.C. interviewed him. We are reproducing the following piece on Seeger and his interview (which appeared in Mainstream

Annual, December 14, 1996) on this occasion as a token of our tribute to his abiding memory.)]

Mirroring the “Other America”


Thirtythree years ago—in 1963—he sang at Park Circus Maidan in Calcutta and we were moved beyond words. He was here in India last month—after a gap of 33 years—and once again enthralled us with the unforgettable songs he presented in his inimitable voice—“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Sailing Up, Sailing Down”, “One, Two, Three—What Are We Fighting For?”, and of course “Guantenamera” and “We Shall Overcome” (the two songs that have become popular across the globe thanks to him in a large measure).

Yes, it was Pete Seeger. Whichever city he visited in this country—he performed at Thiruvananthapuram, Delhi, Bangalore, Calcutta and went on a sightseeing tour of Varanasi—he was given rousing receptions. Not only were those of us who had the privilege of listening to him either in India or the USA in the sixties attracted towards him. What was remarkable was the response of the younger generation who had not been exposed to his music earlier. As Anees Jung wrote in The Pioneer,

On a cold winter night in Michigan I first heard Pete ringing out We Shall Overcome to a massive student crowd. The same voice and the same man brought the Delhi audience to its feet as they all stood up and sang with him the old Black American ballad, as true today as it was 30 years ago. I felt as young as my niece. Her clap was louder than mine but not our voices that rang with the same fervour along with Pete. Only calendar time had changed. Not the singer nor the song. Nor the ear of all those who had gathered to hear the song. Like an anthem it soared stirring age-old longings for freedom realised and unrealised. I saw my niece, more free than me, wiping away a teardrop. Like her were so many young people in the hall, vibrating, clapping, feeling one with the 77-year old singer.

Predictably, the maximum response was in Calcutta, the city which had exuded exceptional warmth when he first visited this country. He had two public concerts there besides partici-pating in a workship organised by a local organisation Rampart and interacting with school children at a different function. What is more, the Rabindra Bharati University conferred on him an Honorary D. Litt. degree.

This time he came not only with his wife, Toshi Aline Seeger, who had accompanied him the last time as well, but also with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez, with whom Pete performed everywhere. Tao effectively helped his grandfather sing old and new songs since, according to Pete, “my voice is 50 per cent gone”. [That, however, is an overstatement as those who had heard him sing in the past were struck by the extent to which Pete, despite his advanced age, has been able to retain that memorable and extraordinarily melodious voice.]

It was also a plesant surprise to find that the normally drab cultural environment of the Capital was suddenly enlivened by Pete’s arrival. A highly receptive audience sang alongwith him when he performed at the jampacked Siri Fort Auditorium. He had an interesting and lively interaction with music-lovers and activists as well. That took place at Azad Bhavan, the headquarters of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, at whose invitation he came here this time. Even if Doordarshan in its wisdom chose to ignore his concert in Delhi, he received wide publicity in the media in general with the AIR broadcasting his Siri Fort programme live.

Let us not forget that for all its espousal of democracy and human rights the world over, the US Administration had, during the McCarthy era, persecuted Pete Seeger for being “Un-American”, sentencing him to a one-year jail-term. He had been blacklisted and denied appearances on television and radio, and that lasted till 1968.

But the same Pete Seeger, who was hounded by the authorities during the insane anti-communist wave in the United States in the fifites, won “official recognition” in the nineties. It was of no mean significance that while presenting to him the prestigious Kennedy Centre Award, President Clinton paid strikingly rich and eloquent tributes to Pete Seeger:

His (Pete’s) songs spoke for the human spirit in troubled times. For workers on picket lines. For those oppressed because of race.... He was an inconvenient artiste who dared to sing things as he saw them. He was attacked for his beliefs, he was banned from television. Now that’s a badge of honour.

In a feature on Pete in The Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta had the following to convey:

“I don’t know whether songs really change things,“ Seeger adds in his usual self-effacing manner. “All I do know is that through history, leaders have been particular about which songs they want sung.”

And then the balladeer sings of a youth who was asked the same question in 1951. “I don’t know if I can change the world,” he’d replied through his song. “But I’ll make sure the world does not change me.”

“That was a good song,” says Seeger. “When people around the world say that—that’s when the world will be changed.”

So recognition or no recognition from the authorities. Pete Seeger remains steadfast in his essentially humanist outlook standing by the poor and the oppressed and upholding the ideal of peace and brotherhood. Only his concerns have widened to cover such a major global problem as ecological devastation affecting humankind as a whole. No wonder Pete played and is still playing a pivotal role in cleaning up the Hudson River.

In the following wide-ranging interview in New Delhi on November 4, 1996 (just before the US Presidential poll) Pete gives an idea of his present-day thinking that reflects his hopes, aspirations, concerns and provides sufficient evidence that the “changing world” hasn’t “changed” him in the least. But more than that, the interview itself is a testimony of the fact that the “other America”—of which Pete Seeger, like Langston Hughes, remains one of the finest representatives—continues to survive the vicissitudes of our times. S.C.

S.C.: You have been singing for so many years in defence of humanity in general. Could you spell out your philosophy of life?

P.S.: It cannot really be put in words, it can be expressed through actions.

My family and I try to live as simply as possible. My wife has a garden and we heat our house not with oil but with firewood from the hillside where we live.

But I realise that in this modern world all of us are involved with trying to create a peaceful future. So I use whatever songs or words that I have to try and reach people not just in my own town where I live or in my own country but people of any part of the world that I visit to point out that we are really all one family and we will have to learn to live together or there would be no human race.

S.C.: Since you came last, that is, 33 years ago, in India, there has been a sea-change in the world. Do you feel somewhat betrayed or defeated by the developments?

P.S.: I am very glad that the Berlin Wall came down so peacefully. A lot of people thought it would take war to bring about that. I don‘t talk in terms of crimes. I talk in terms of mistakes—mistakes made by everybody. I don’t believe in capital punishment, it’s silly to talk of revenge. I do believe that if there is a world here in a hundred years from now it will not be because of any one political party or any one Church or any one government or even any one United Nations, it will be because of millions upon milliions of small organisations all doing some job wherein they live.

That’s why most of my work is now in my home town and the river valley where I live. I don’t travel to California much or to the South or the North as I used to. I spend up and down the Hudson River and try and reach people there.

S.C.: How do you review the present state of affairs in the United States? Don’t you get the feeling that the end of the Cold War and the demolition of the bipolar structure has led to a kind of euphoria there as the US has become the sole surviving superpower?

P.S.: (Laughs) Oh, it’s true that some of the corporations are very confident that now there is nothing to stop them from gaining complete economic power. But most of the corporation do not realise that they are caught in their own trap. We call them growth maniacs. However, neither economic growth nor any other kind of growth can go on forever. We’ve got to stabilise the planet. At the moment politics is controlled by money. And you probably know that only about 50 per cent of the American population will vote in the Presidential election tomorrow. [Actually it was less—according to American University professor and political analyst Allan Lichtman, who spoke to an international audience on Wordnet “Dialogue”, the television service of the US Information Agency, the voter turnout “plummeted” from 55 per cent of the 18-year and older eligible voter population to an estimated 49 per cent; Lichtman conceded that “ordinary people in the United States are not nearly as involved as they should be in the political process”—S.C.] I wish that more voted.

S.C.: What is the reason for this apathy among the people?

P.S.: Great masses of people feel that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats really answer their needs. I wish we had many small parties like you have in India. It may be confusing but I think that more people would then participate (in the political process).

In some parts of America this is happening. In small places they are now starting what they call preferential voting. Tomorrow they‘ll vote in San Francisco on the new way of electing the City Council so that minorities of many kinds can have some kind of voice in the City Council of San Francisco. It’s called Proposition H.

Day after tomorrow I’m going to look at the newspapers closely. It would not matter that much to me whether Dole or Clinton get elected, it will matter to me about what happens to Proposition H which represents progress.

Needless to say, I’m glad that the Gingrich gang has by and large lost the support they had two years ago, I’m worried though because it’s always possible that some talking genius would seize a microphone the way Adolf Hitler did and build upon people’s discouragement, saying—oh, we just need a strong leader to get things done!

A friend of mine, a singer in Belfast, Northern Ireland—Tommy Sands—has started a move-ment for people, Catholics and Protestants, to start talking with each other. I think that’s the most important thing: people with widely differing viewpoints starting to talk with each other—instead of talking in terms of power, talking in terms of compromise, in terms of trying to eliminate the fear.

The Cold War thankfully is over. That was built on fear. But this can arise anywhere. As we know, it’s in Africa, and probably in many other places where people are murdering each other out of fear.

S.C.: In 1994 when the Kennedy Centre award was given to you, President Clinton made a very moving speech. And we were quite surprised by the way in which he honoured you by saying that it’s a badge of honour to have been denied access to TV and radio for one’s views. But how do you reconcile this kind of a statement with the policies, both domestic and foreign, that he (Clinton) has been adopting? It‘s very difficult to distinguish him from the extreme Right, isn’t it?

P.S.: (Laughs) That’s right. Well, you have to take all statements with a grain of salt, as they say. I’m naturally amazed that anything gets done in Washington D.C. Wherever there is a power-centre all sorts of bad things happen.

I was on television recently interviewed by somebody who is supposed to be a very Right-wing man. I had to point out that actually I was probably more conservative than he was. That’s because while some people would just like to turn the clock back to the days when there was no income tax, I told him that I would like to turn the clock back to when we lived in communities, small communities in villages and took care of each other.

S.C.: We hear quite often that the world has been turned into a global village. And you speak of small communities. The whole concept of internationalism—what happens to that? Doesn’t it sound very hollow then?

P.S.: No. It’s true that on the Internet people are now talking with each other all around the world. We have small organisations of scientists, small organisations of artists—a wide range of people communicating with each other. And this is a hopeful thing. I would like to see villages in Africa and villages in Asia able to use the Internet.

S.C.: You said at your press conference today that you had been to the former Soviet Union several times. Apart from asking you if you had any inkling of the enormous changes that eventually took place there, may I know from you how you view those developments? Are they something for the better or for the worse?

P.S.: It’s only better in the sense that one learns a lesson. One doesn’t get rid of racism by passing a law. And what’s happened in the Caucasus, you see, the deaths, and also in the Balkans with people thinking of revenge rather than in terms of learning.

But I also saw many interesting things. For example, during my last visit there, I went to Lake Baikal of Siberia. It’s one one of the deepest clear-water lakes in the world—one of the biggest. And there was that scientist who saved Lake Baikal from the engineers who thought the only important thing was to set up a new factory on the banks of the lake.

And there are people like him all around the world. They may not be able to stop the construction of the dam you talked to me about earlier (the dam on the Narmada river—S.C.), it may be too late for that, but then they stopped the dam on Yangtse, didn’t they?

S.C.: At your press conference you also said that to say that you sing protest songs is to take a very narrow view. Would you like to elaborate?

P.S.: Well, a song that gives people courage to go on may not on the surface be a protest song. It may refer to some old symbol of past years, it might have a gentle melody—for example, I have been singing a well-known pop song that was in a Broadway theatre, a Hollywood movie some years ago, The Wizard of Oz.

“If plucky little bluebirds fly over the rainbow

Why can’t you and I?”

The point is not to ask for yourself alone, one has to ask for everybody: either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it. And that’s how suddenly what had been a song about the greens becomes a song that takes a step forward.

This is what I call the folk process. If there’s a human race here in 500 years, who knows some folklorist may come back and say: I’ve discovered a new version of over the rainbow from the mountains of Antarctica.

S.C.: In the present situation in the United States—and not only in the US—the kind of acquisitiveness, consumerism that has gripped the minds of the individual, isn’t that alienating the individual from society on a much larger scale than before?

P.S.: Yes, I agree—and it’s shameful. It’s also very bad that people think there’s nothing they can do. I tell them that it’s not hopeless.

There’s a very wealthy man named Sir James Goldsmith who quit business, he was a billionaire who bought and sold corporations. Six years ago he quit business and ran and got elected to the European Congress. He wrote a book The Trap one-and-a-half years ago. You should look it up. There was a long interview with the economics editor of Le Figaro. He said: How is it that afer 200 years of miraculous inventions there are more hungry, desperate people in the world than ever? We have to face up to the fact that unless we change our ways of doing things, our nations and peoples will be wiped out in the same way that the early factories used to wipe out villages.

He proposes this—it would be interesting to see what Europe does with his proposal—that individual trade agreements can undoubtedly be done between two nations since both’ll benefit from such exchanges. But beware of international trade where the only deciding factor is: how much money can we make? It will continue to do more and more bad things. So even though my grandson and I had a satarical song about Ross Perot, I was very glad to see him against NAFTA. There’s bound to be rethinking.

And actually as a result of one disaster after another it’s going to force unions to become international. Instead of being just national unions we’ll have unions which will reach across the borders.

S.C.: That’s important. Technology is getting globalised, capital is getting globalised, but not labour. Which means the liberalisation process itself is flawed.

P.S.: I’m hoping that the example of Bhopal, rather places like that, will get people active to demand to know what chemicals are exactly being used. Many unions in America now put in a clause called the Right to Know clause. No longer can the boss say—go ahead, use that chemical, it’s safe. Right in the union contract, the unions say: we have to know what the chemical is and we will decide whether it is safe or not.

S.C.: What about the peace movement in the United States?

P.S.: During the Vietnam war, millions of people demonstrated in Washington. I think the core of the peace movement is still there. And if Washington was to try anything as foolish as a long war again, there would be millions of people once again in Washington. The trouble is that they have learnt their lessons, they are more clever now. They have a very quick war like the Gulf war or like Grenada or Panama—zip, zip, zip and it’s all over before anybody can mobilise.

However, I am singing peace songs wherever I go, still—and the audience sings with me. And I’m not the only one. There are literally thousands of people like me. Some of us sing in schools, in summer camps, some of us sing in churches, some of us sing in unions, some of us sing in what we call coffee houses once a week and the people who gather there sing old and new songs.

S.C.: As far as India is concerned, where do you place its society, art, folk music and the Indian people in general in the context of the world?

P.S.: Well, most of the world has not realised what a wealth of culture India has, how many different languages are spoken here, how many different kinds of music and dance there are. It’s as though the world knows only the tip of the iceberg. There are many things which have not been heard. I urge people in India—do not let your citizens forget their own traditions. They may learn English but they must not forget their own languages. They may listen to jazz sometimes, but they must also listen to the lulllabys their grandmothers sang.

S.C.: At your press conference today you defended the Indian position on the CTBT. Would you say something more on that?

P.S.: Frankly, I don’t know much on the subject. In fact I would like to know more on that. But as I said, it appears to me that the Indian demand to link the CTBT with a clear-cut time-bound commitment to eliminate all nuclear weapons is quite legitimate. It’s entirely logical that if nuclear arms are not destroyed within a specific time, a nuclear test ban would not have much value.

S.C.: What kind of hope for the future do you nurture in your mind?

P.S.: Well, I keep saying that there are little things going on which give you hope—little victories here and little victories there that give you hope to struggle for bigger victories. I also believe that with new tools of communication like the Internet, we can get quicker communication although it’s a crazy world that’s so dependent on the English language!

(Mainstream Annual, 1996)

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