Seeger Session

Article excerpt

Bruce Springsteen's big-band folk extravaganza, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, shone a bright spotlight on pete seeger as an interpreter and popularizer of traditional songs. In an in-depth interview at his home, with banjo and guitar in hand, Seeger shared the stories behind those songs-and much more.

everybody sing it now," says Pete Seeger with a smile, even though he's playing to an audience of one-me-in his own living room. "Blue skies smiling at me," he calls out, picking the chords to the Irving Berlin classic on his fivestring banjo, and soon enough I'm singing along: "Nothing but blue skies do I see ..." Who can resist the world's greatest song leader?

At 87, seeger relies on others to carry the tunes that his own voice no longer holds so well, but he remains remarkably vigorous. Up since 4:30 on the morning of my visit, he spent the dawn hours working on a new postscript to his autobiography/songbook, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and scheming a sequel to his song "We'll All Be A-Doubling," about population growth. "Can we keep doubling forever? Of course not," Seeger says. "All we know is that if we don't do something, we are in trouble. And if we don't admit that," he adds, his voice suddenly surging, "we are a bunch of f-ers who just want to make money and don't care what happens to our grandchildren!" The archetypal protest singer has lost none of his fire.

It's humbling to sit in the home of Pete Seeger, high above the Hudson River in Beacon, New York, and consider the range of his contributions to music and American life. This is a man who collected songs with Alan Lomax in the 1930s, traveled with Woody Guthrie in the '40s, and carried folk music to the top of the charts with the Weavers in the '50s; who laid the foundation for modern lesson books with How to Play the Five-String Banjo (and even coined the terms hammer-on and pull-off); who stood up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955 and was blacklisted for his leftist politics, but went on to lend his voice and formidable energy to the civil rights, peace, and environmental movements.

All these aspects of Seeger's life are captured in the thousands of songs he has shared and taught over the years. Though nominally a folksinger, he plays everything from Tin Pan Alley tunes to cowboy ballads to gorgeous banjo arrangements of Beethoven and Bach. And though he labels himself "not a good songwriter," his catalog says otherwise; both his originals ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "If I Had a Hammer") and adaptations ("The Bells of Rhymney," "Turn! Turn! Turn!") have left an indelible mark.

None of these famous songs, however, figure into the project that has brought so much media attention to Seeger in the last year: Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, on which the Boss revisited mostly traditional tunes from the vast seeger songbook. Who woulda thunk that 2006 would see arenas full of fans singing "Froggie Went A Courtin'" and "Jesse James" and boogying to a 17-piece folk/gospel/Dixieland band led by an icon of rock 'n' roll? Certainly not Seeger himself, who feels he should have been credited in Springsteen's liner notes, not the CD title, and wishes the Boss had included a more serious political song (a wish that came true, belatedly, with an expanded American Land Edition CD/DVD set that featured Seeger's Vietnam-era "Bring 'Em Home"). The Seeger Sessions project served as a springboard for a nearly five-hour conversation with seeger, on a muggy summer day at the rustic compound where he lives with his wife, Toshi, and where he first built a log cabin 57 years ago.

I'd like to ask about your memories of some specific songs on the Springsteen CD.

SEEGER I was always curious about songs. You know, I recorded about 60 LPs for Folkways in a ten-year period. If you figure you can get ten songs on an LP at least, that's 600 songs! I got started through Alan Lomax, and I'd like to give him credit for starting the folksong revival. …