Pete Seeger

National Medal of Arts Recipient
Pete Seeger

Photo courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives

Pete Seeger—Podcast Transcript

Pete Seeger: Lee Hays was the son of a Bap---Methodist preacher.  And he'd sung in black churches and white churches and knew that some of the best songs just changed one word and you had a new verse.  So he sends four verses to me once and says, "Pete, do you think you can make up a tune for this?"  I tried to make up a tune but it wasn't as good a tune as it should've been.  And it did get around a little bit.  But Peter, Paul and Mary really improved my tune.  They did some remarkable things.  And their version of that tune went all around the world. When I sing it now I sing their version. I don't try and sing my version of the song.

Jo Reed: That’s Pete Seeger talking about the evolution of the song he co-wrote with Lee Hays, “If I Had a Hammer.”

Welcome to Arts Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host Josephine Reed.

Last week, we heard from folk legend and National Medal of Arts recipient, Pete Seeger as he shared his memories of fellow musician and good friend Woody Guthrie. This week, it’s Pete’s to turn to talk about himself and he opens up about his music and musical roots. Born into a family of classical musicians, Pete discovered folk music through Alan Lomax and he never looked back. With the banjo as his instrument, Pete went on to perform with Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, Lee Hays and many others.  He was a founding member of The Almanac Singers and of The Weavers. A prolific songwriter, Pete is credited for igniting the folk revival in the 1950s. But for Seeger, as for Guthrie, music was a critical way to affect social change. And throughout his life he put his music to use for the labor movement, the struggle for Civil Rights, the peace movement, environmentalism, and most recently, Occupy Wall Street. Pete Seeger has traveled the country and the world singing his songs.

As he recalls, he had a very early start to the musical and peripatetic life he would lead.

Pete Seeger: My father was a musicologist by profession. he'd persuaded my mother to take their classical music down South. And over a year and a half he built one of the world's first automobile trailers. I was a baby at the time.  My cradle hung from one of the hoops. It was a small trailer by modern standards but it seemed big to me then. It was four-and-a- five-and-a-half feet wide, 14-and-a-half feet long.  And my two brothers had little bunks at one end.  At the other end he had kind of a shelf that folded outside 'till it was horizontal; and now he had a seven-foot bed for him and my mother. They started off.  But the trip was a disaster. Average speed 20, 25 miles an hour; bump, bump, bump in good weather; slush, slush, slush in other weather. And nobody came to hear their concerts of Mozart and Hayden. My mother was a very good violinist; although she had to change had to wash my diapers in an iron pot over an open fire. And then came a day when it was raining all night and it was raining during the day, and the puddles got deeper and deeper until it was one puddle.  And my mother said, "How do you there's a road there?"  He says, "Well there's fence posts on either side.  So there must be a road in between."  She says, "Can't you turn around?  We're gonna be drowned."  He says, "I can't turn around, the road is too narrow." She said, "I can carry Peter.  Can you carry the two boys?"  But he said, "I'm sure it's going to- it's going to let up.  It can't get that deep."  But as he told the story, he had sheep swimming in the sheep pasture; and later on cows were swimming. And my mother was getting hysterical. Then finally in the distance it looked like the road was rising out and sure enough they didn't drown.  But my mother put her foot down and she says, "We're going back to New York.  We can get jobs teaching back there." But meanwhile they went to sleep, but in the morning six serious white farmers with guns were standing around the trailer saying, "We don't want no gypsies 'round har."  It was in North Carolina.  And my father, in his New England accent: "We're not gypsies, we're musicians."  "You're what?"  And they bring out the org- pump organ, where my father accompanied my mother.  And the farmers, "Well I'll be gall-derned." And my father said, "Actually we need a place we can camp out for a few months because the roads are so bad we can't get back to New York until spring." And one of the farmers said, "Well I got a big woodlot.  You can camp out there if you want."  And they did; for three months. One night they took their classical music up to the farmhouse and they played a short concert for the McKenzie family-- that was their name. And then the McKenzie's said, "Oh that's very nice.  We play a little music too."  And they took down banjos and fiddles and played up a storm.  And my father said, "For the first time in my whole life I found out that people had a lot of good music.  They didn't need my good music as much as I thought." 

Goodnight, Irene up and hot

Jo Reed:  My mother gave miniature fiddles to my two older brothers, but they rebelled.  And when I came along, five or six years later, my father said, "Well let Peter enjoy himself and he'll find his own way."  And she left musical instruments all around the house.  So by the age of four or five I could bang out a tune on a piano; if it was a simple tune.  Although I can remember once trying the "Blue Danube Waltz": Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom; boop boop, boop boop.  And not just piano and organ, but a marimba and a pennywhistle, an autoharp, brrrm, brrrm, and a squeezebox, an old-fashioned kind where go: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. And so I- I had a good knowledge; uh.. and occasionally I learned a few words like 'dominant'.  And then I invented the term a 'dominant of the dominant'; and then a 'triple dominant'. When I went away to school at age eight, I was given a ukulele and I took it with me and I would plunk out any pop song and get the kids singing with me. One summer somebody had a book of sea shanties, and we sat around the piano.  Somebody else played the accompaniment and we went and I got to know the songs.  And when I was in this school, my first year there, I found my roommate liked to sing too, and we, I went through the book with him.  And then I said, "Why don't we sing it for the rest of the school?"  And we made a poster: An Evening of Sea Shanties with Pete Seeger and Bob Clayborn, my roommate.  He became a well-known writer later on.  And oh we got a classmate to stagger around the stage with a bottle when we sang "What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?" 

This Land is Your Land up and hot

Pete Seeger: Well I played the banjo for the fun of it; but I wasn't very good.  It was a tenor banjo.  However my father had gotten a job in Washington and made the acquaintance of Alan Lomax; the same age as my older brother. And they hit it off well.  And Alan said "Peter should hear some of this music by people who really know how to play it."  And I was taken one summer to a festival in Chapel Hill. A local lawyer was Bascom Lunsford, and a good banjo player, and he got the use of the local baseball park.  I learnt some lessons from him.  He didn't waste time talking much on stage.  He- he introduced the first band; and he had made- made sure they were in tune and knew what they were gonna play.  "The moment the spotlight goes on you, start playing." So he had a fast-moving show.  Not a lot of talking or re-tuning of where do we stand or anything.  They were already in place <laughs> and they started playing.  And so he had a fast-moving show for 3000 people sitting in the stands of the local baseball park. And I heard some wonderful musicians there. And this was a revelation to me. I heard what I thought was the best music I ever heard in my life. Bascom gave me one short lesson.  He says, "Now you pick up on a melody string, one of the middle strings, and then you pick up on the top string.  And right after that, you pick up on that little thumb strings."  Bumtity-bumptity-bumptity-bumptity-bumptity.  <Chuckles>  And then he showed me you can make some notes by coming down on the string with your left hand.  I met Woody Guthrie just a few years later.  And that's when I really learnt how to pick a banjo; he taught me how to hitchhike and how to raid- ride freight trains.  And I went up and down the Appalachians.  And every time I found a banjo picker, I watched him closely. 

Where Have All the Flowers Gone up and hot

Pete Seeger:  If somebody hears a song and they think they can put different words to it, add a verse, change it a little.  I've done this with many a song.  The song "Where Have all the Flowers Gone" I came across in reading a Russian novel in translation, and it describes the Cossacks galloping off to join the Czar's army.  And three lines were written: "Where are the flowers?  The girls have plucked them.  Where are the girls?  They're all married.  Where are the men?  They're all in the army."  And I added a few lines of my own and had a song. Years later I found a Yiddish song with the same general plot.  It could be a thousand years old, the analogy of flowers with girls and then men going to war.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone up and hot

Pete Seeger:  Oh there's one song.  I thought I'd made up the tune; for 30 years I thought I wrote the tune.  And then something happened; I found I'd just speeded up the melody of a marching song of George Washington's army.  I read the words of a nursery rhyme, an English nursery rhyme: "Crawly creepy little mousey, from the barney to the housey, in the pantry, under the shelf, he found some cheese and helped himself; nibble, nibble, nibble."  And I made up this tune: "Crawly creepy little mousey."  You walk with your fingers up a two-year-old's leg.  And then you walk up the kid's back: "From the barney to the housey."  And then you walk over the kid's shoulder: "In the pantry under the shelf."  And then you end by tickling under its chin: "Found some cheese and helped himself.  Nibble, nibble, nibble."  And I thought I'd written a pretty good tune.  Thirty years later somebody said their ancestor had sung this song when they marched through New Jersey at the end of the war to take over New York.  "A doodle, doodle, doodle dandy, from cornstalk rum and a homemade brandy.  Indian puddin' and a pumpkin pie, that'll make those Yankees fly.” Pump-rah-rah-rump go the drum.  Rump-rump-rump."  <Laughs>

Yes the folk process goes on.  And pop songs and you don't have to go to school to learn it.  And it can be dangerous to speak it.  But you can sing it and get away with it.

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Pete Seeger: I've often quoted, Plato said: "It's very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music in the Republic."  And he was a conservative.  He did not want uh.. the wrong kind of song to be sung.  And there's an old Arab proverb: "When the king puts the poet on his payroll he cuts off the tongue of the poet."

Pete Seeger: The lyricist Yip Harburg was a Lefty. And it was Harold Arlen who in 1938 was asked to write the melodies for Yip's lyrics for a lot of songs.  They were making a movie of The Wizard of Oz, a musical version of The Wizard of Oz.  And when the two of them sat down to start their work together, Yip says, "Harold, get me a melody for the phrase "over the rainbow."  And Arlen says, "There's no rainbow in the- in The Wizard of Oz.  I've read the script."  And Yip says, "I'm putting it in." Yip knew that the rainbow was an ancient symbol for people getting along with each other. God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water or fire next time. I sometimes get audiences singing because I line out the hymn.  This is a church phrase. If you give the words to the congregation for a hymn, you don't need to have to hymnbook; and you- you give it to them a line at a time. I line out the hymn for lots of songs, and I- I do it for this song.  Say, "You all know the melody of this song, I'll give you the words."  I got 80,000 people singing it at a- at a peace demonstration in New York.

Now I do something which maybe Yip would not have approved of.  I said uh..- I say, "Yip I'm changing two words right at the end of your song."  Because if I had been there when Little Dorothy uh.. said, 'Why can't I?" I would've told her: You know why you can't Dorothy?  'Cause you only ask for yourself.  You gotta ask for everybody.  'Cause either we're all gonna make it over that rainbow or nobody's gonna make it.  So I'm saying why can't you and I?  And somewhere up there I can hear Yip say, "Pete, you can futz around at the old folks' home but don't you touch 'Over the Rainbow'."  "Yip I have to.  Wherever you are, I'm going to change those last two words."  So I give them to the audience. "Someday I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me."  Where troubles melt like lemon drops.  Where troubles melt like lemon.  Way above.  Way above the chimney tops, that's where you'll find me.  Somewhere over the rainbow.  Somewhere over the rainbow.  Bluebirds fly. Bluebirds fly.  Birds fly over the rainbow, why can't you and I?  Birds fly over the rainbow, why can't you and-- why then can't you and I?

If there's a human race here in 100 years, it'll be the arts which will save us.  Because I'm thinking of the dancing arts, the cooking arts, the arts of humor; visual arts of course. Well, my mantra is the Agricultural Revolution took hundreds of years. The Industrial Revolution took hundreds of years.  Now the Information Revolution is only taking decades; and if we use it, and use the brains God gave us, who knows what miracles may happen in the next few decades? And I quote everywhere I go a great biologist who said: "Think globally, act locally."  Who knows, who knows? 

We Shall Overcome up and hot

Pete Seeger: We Shall Overcome. This is very interesting.  Many people think they've uh.. had something to do with it.  But I think this is the one which makes most sense to me.  In 1907 the United Mine Workers Journal printed a letter saying: At our strike last year we sang that good old song 'We Will Overcome'."  Now there was a gospel song saying "I'll be all right."  Second verse is: I'll be like Him"; capital H-i-m.  And the third verse: "I'll overcome some day."  I'll overcome, I'll overcome, I'll overcome some day.  And union folks put union words to it: "We will overcome, we will overcome."  And it was probably fairly fast.  But 30 years later- 33 years later a woman, an African-American woman in Charleston, South Carolina liked to sing it slowly.  Now you can sing a gospel song up tempo or you can sing it what they call long meter; and she liked to sing it very slow.  They said, "Oh here comes Lucille.  Now we'll sing that song slower than anybody ever heard it."  We will overcome.  And a white union organizer, Sylvia Horton, heard it and it became her favorite song.  She had a beautiful alto voice; and taught it to me, up in New York.  She was raising money for a little union school, a wonderful place called The Highlander Folk School.  And I printed it in our little magazine, People's Songs. However, my version wasn't really that good.  However a friend of mine, nine years younger than I am, liked to sing this song in what musicians call 12/8 time.  He'd been learning gospel songs with a friend of his, and Guy Carawan told me he was gonna have a weekend workshop at the Highlanders School, on "Singing in the Movement"; and this was the Civil Rights Movement, 1960.  And the Highland had about 50 or 60 or 70 kids there; it was crowded.  And this version of "We Shall Overcome" was the hit song of the weekend.

And five weeks later Guy Carawan was in Raleigh, North Carolina at the founding convention of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee-- SNCC for short; S-N-C-C and they pronounced their name "Snick".  Somebody shouted from the stands: "Guy, teach us all 'We Shall Overcome'."  And he taught them this new way of singing the song.  Well a month later all through the South, from Florida to Texas and up to Maryland, it was not a song, it was the song. And now it's gone around the world.

We Shall Overcome up and hot

Pete Seeger: I had a memory; in those days I could remember all 267 songs in a book which I brought out.  The first edition was not as good as the second edition.  It had lots of little mistakes in it.  But I sent a copy of it to John Updike, the great writer.  And he wrote back a little postcard that says, "Thanks for the sing-along memoir."  <Chuckles>  So I use his phrase as a subtitle. Where Have all the Flowers Gone is the main title of the book.  But the subtitle is: A sing-along memoir.  <Chuckles>  Right now I'm trying to remember some of the songs in it; because I- I once knew them all by heart.  For example, I read a book called Crazy English by a man, Richard Lederer.  It starts off: English is the most widely used language in the history of the planet.  One out of seven human beings can speak or read it.  Half the world's books are in English.  It has the largest vocabulary, perhaps two-million words.  But face it-- <sings> English is crazy."  And I come to that: "You help me sing that."  Uh.. there's no egg in eggplant, no pine or apple in pineapple.  A writer writes, but do fingers fing?  Do grocers groce?  Quicksand works slowly.  A boxing ring is a square.  English is crazy.  "I didn't hear you; want to hear that again."  English is crazy.  If the plural of 'tooth' is 'teeth', shouldn't the plural of 'booth' be 'beeth'?  It's one goose, two geese.  Why not one moose, two meese?  The plural of index is indices.  Shouldn't it be one Kleenex, two Kleenices?  And if a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?  English is crazy.  <Chuckles>

To Everything Turn, Turn, Turn…

Pete Seeger: Well the original didn't rhyme quite as well as it should.  So I changed a word here and a word there.  And then I found that if I repeated the word 'turn' three times it could be used as a refrain for the- for the song.  And uh.. it was short enough, not too long a refrain.  And uh.. then I found some quite unusual rhymes.  Then I found one rhyme I wanted to repeat two different ways.  So I repeated it: "A time of peace, I swear it's not too late."  And this has pleased me by becoming memorized by people who can't remember any of the other words but they can remember those six words: "I swear it's not too late."  And so the four verses turned out to be one of-- probably my best song.  Oh my wife, when I was writing it, got the idea of making up some children's verses.  She said…

A time of work, a time of play; a time of night, a time of day.  A time to sleep; a time to wake.  A time for candles on the cake.  To everything turn, turn, turn, turn.  And then another one: A time to teach, a time to learn; a time for all to take their turn.

But she had five very nice verses.  And if I had a chance to practice, I wouldn't know all five.  Because I now sing this song with the four verses that I put together; and the five verses my wife took-- it's a long song now.  But it gets better and better as the audience gets to know the refrain. 

To Everything Turn, Turn, Turn…

Pete Seeger:  Children want to hear their parent's voice.  And whether they're reciting an old nursery rhyme or telling an actual story, they often will want to hear the same story over and over and over and over again.  "Little Red Riding Hood."  My father told stories to me and after six months he got a little bored with the first story and made up a second; and I heard that for six months.  Then I found he could make up stories; and I demanded a new one every night.  And eventually this led for a book coming out, the storytelling book. He was a musicologist by profession.  But he made up stories; when I was four and five years old.  And I demanded a new one every night.  And I now think that stories, along with songs, are among the things which will save the human race. Who know, who knows?

And thanks who, whoever it was in the government started a thing they called the National Endowment for the Arts; and finds the money to keep it going year after year, decade after decade.  Wow. 

Jo Reed:  That was folk legend and National of Medal of Arts recipient, Pete Seeger. You’ve been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

All excerpts from the album, The Essential Pete Seeger, used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

“Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Big Muddy,”and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone written” by Pete Seeger

 "If I Had A Hammer" co-written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays,


"We Shall Overcome" co-written by Guy Hughes Carawan Jr, Frank Hamilton, Zilphia Horton, and Pete Seeger.

"Goodnight, Irene" which was written by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter and John Lomax Sr.

“This Land is Your Land” written by Woody Guthrie.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, 2013 NEA Jazz Master Lou Donaldson.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

All songs used by permission of The Richmond Organization except for "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" which is used by permission of Bicycle Music Company.

Pete Seeger returns to talk about his music and its roots. [31:50]