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Pete Seeger talks Beethoven, Bob Dylan, and the end of the world

May 23, 2013

SeegerThe legendary folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger is in town to speak at Peabody’s graduation ceremony, where he will receive the Peabody Medal for his outstanding contributions to music. We were delighted to meet Seeger over lunch, where our conversation ranged widely, as he often broke into song, singing “Anacreon in Heaven,”  from which Key took the melody to the “Star Spangled Banner,” new lyrics he wrote to Beethoven’s “Seventh Symphony,” and several other tunes, in addition to reciting “ The Gettysburg Address” (in its entirety) and a couple poems from memory. He spoke with authoritatively about the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the construction of the Washington Monument,  and Japanese poetry. And, of course, music and politics. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

City Paper: I owe you a great debt of gratitude. When I inherited a banjo about ten years ago, I learned most everything from you.

Pete Seeger: I should have brought down the two books I want to give to Peabody. The small book is my best seller, I wrote it over the course of 14 years and gradually improved it and it’s called How to Play the Five String Banjo.

CP: I know it well. So, how did this Peabody award come about?

PS: I haven’t the faintest idea. They spend much of their time teaching how to read music expertly whereas I purposely stayed away from reading music. I like to be an ear musician, and in school, I had to take a music class but I told the teacher I would really prefer to learn the song from ear rather than from paper. I did put two pages in my banjo instruction book, at the very end, “How to Read Music Slightly.”

CP: I did hear you talking in a concert, from the late ’50s I think, where you talk about different kinds of music borrowing from each other and you say that classical music has stolen enough from folk traditions that we ought to return the favor every now and then. Has classical music been an influence on you?

PS: I’m not unacquainted with it. And actually I’m going to mention tonight  that I put new words to one of the most famous two-part melodies that was ever put down on paper. It’s the opening of the “Seventh Symphony” of Beethoven. The “Fifth” and the “Ninth” are very well known [he hums them]. But the “Seventh” is what they call the Nature Symphony and it is, I think, the most extraordinary two-part harmony ever invented. At four o’clock in the morning about ten years ago I was scheduled to sing at a big demonstration, with about 5,000 people in Bryant Park and we were going to sing in support of community gardens and an idea occurred to me for words to be sung to this melody. So in a magic marker, using my elbow as a fulcrum I made a music staff on a piece of legal paper and I wrote out one of these two parts, the high part, a very simple melody [he sings melody] “We’ll work together, though we work different.” Then on another piece of paper, I wrote out the low part [he hums it]. “We’ll work together even though we work differently.”

CP: And so 5,00 people sang along?

PS: No, no not 5,000. I sent a message up to the emcee in charge and said “are there any women who can read music at sight? Pete Seeger needs help.” I got three altos and three sopranos and we rehearsed it for five minutes and when I got up to the microphone I sang a couple songs to get things warmed up. I invited the three altos to my left and the sopranos to the right and we sang it and they had a very good, loud speaker-system and they sent Beethoven’s “Seventh Symphony” out across the 6th Avenue traffic, hundreds of cars every ten seconds and they all heard Beethoven as they drove down. Well, it was beautiful. It was so interesting that I’ve done it several times since. I announce it just before the intermission so during the intermission I have 15 or 20 minutes to teach it to a group and then we sing it in the second half. And I’m glad to say my words aren’t bad. “We’ll work together, though we work differently/ when we consider all of the dangers/ visions of children asking us to save them/ building our gardens through all the world.” Those are my complete words. And if you know that the high part ends on a high C and the low part ends on a low C–they end on the same note like many Slavic songs do, but an octave apart. Beethoven had probably heard Slavic songs and it was an interesting idea, so he made this end with the high part high and the low part low. An astonishing piece of music. What an extraordinary composer.

CP: One of the things I’ve always admired in the recordings of your concerts is the way you tend to teach the songs to the audience, instead of just performing them. That’s the thing that’s so great about folk music is not having this big divide between the audience and the performer. But as you got more well-known, was it harder to keep that alive?

PS: I gradually developed it and got better at it. When I was 8 years old, my mother gave me a ukulele and I fell into fretted instruments. My mother was a very good violinist and she gave miniature fiddles to my older brothers–but they rebelled and she sadly put the little fiddles away. When I came along five years later, my father said “Oh let Peter find his own way.” She left musical instruments all around the house. A piano and an organ and an auto-harp [here he mimics the sound of the instrument] and a marimba [mimics it] and a penny whistle and several other things. By the age of five, I knew that G and C had the same relation to each other as A and D and then I learned they had names. It was a tonic and a dominant, and then I found out that the dominant had a dominant of its own so when I was playing in G and came to an A chord, I called it a “double dominant” and when I came to an E chord I called it a “triple dominant” and I’d gather the kids around me and go “plunk plunk” and play the popular song. Then somebody told me that I could go around the circle of chords 12 times and then I’d be back at the same chord. Did you knew the circle of fifths absolutely threw Pythagoras for a loop? Pythagoras, when he figured out the famous Pythagorean theorem, God is in his heaven, all is right with the world. But then he tried the circle of fifths and he came out slightly flat. This cannot be! But a circle of fifths does not turn out right unless all the fifths are slightly sharp. And the piano tuner knows this and listens for the throbs, the vibrations. Then he makes the fifth slightly sharp and then it’s throb throb throb.

CP: What do you think the state of folk music is now in the world?

PS: It all depends on your definition of folk music. Because in one sense, I’d say the most popular folk instruments of the 21st century are the electric guitar, the electric bass, and the drums, traps. If you got those three, 99 percent of the people will understand what you are doing.

CP: That’s funny, because 50 years ago people were furious at Dylan for going electric. But now you’re saying those instruments are folk instruments.

PS: Of course, now he just shouts. I can’t understand what he’s singing. Too bad. But he’s actually out there just to say “I am what I am. This is me. If you like it you can like it. If you don’t like it, it doesn’t make a damn to me.” He wrote his best songs when he was young. As did I.

CP: With politics, you’ve been outspoken and engaged over the years. What are issues you’re concerned with now?

PS: It’s hard to say which is the most important. The world population–we’ve got to tell the economists and people with money, they’re simply bringing the end of the world quicker. You may be making more money, but if you tell people “if you don’t grow you die.” it just means the sooner we die. And then you have the people who want to understand. My father used to argue with scientists and said “Do you realize you are the most dangerous religious belief in the world?” and the scientists would answer “No, I don’t have a religious belief.” “Oh no,” my father would say. “You think that an infinite increase in empirical information is a good thing. Can you prove it?” [The scientists replied] “Oh no, it must be obvious.” My father would say “Oh no, it’s not obvious at all. If it’s infinite it means someday it will take a device no bigger than a pistol to shoot off an atom bomb. Is that a good thing? If we don’t put a stop to invention sooner or later, it’s the end of the of the world.” They would stagger off saying “You have no right to ask such questions.” My father would shout after them “Face it, it’s a religious belief.” But then he would turn to me with an ironic smile and say “You know, Peter, if I’m right then perhaps the committee who told Galileo to shut up was correct.”

But I think if the human race is still here in a hundred years, it will be the arts that keep us going, the visual arts, the musical arts, the cooking arts, the humor arts, even the sports arts.


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  • gidtanner

    Old Pete is just so full of himself . He never forgave Dylan for being independent . Pete believes that Pete should be able to control other people’s music .and his tired “now this group sing the high part “, etc. , stuff was boring when I heard it 50 years ago . As to Dylan “he just shouts ” , Pete ain’t done nothing but shout for concerts for 50 years . Pete , you are musically boring .

  • mahir

    Pete is anything but musically boring, let alone musically controlling. He has dedicated his life to teaching people how to make music on their own. There’ll always be naysayers, but most people are able to appreciate his contribution to civilisation.

  • Jordan Clermont

    Dylan is by far my favourite artists, I love just about everything he’s done, and I draw inspiration from his art and his personality, but you seem to be quite ignorant of Pete Seeger. I’m sure Pete’s not the only one who thinks Bob’s voice is a little shot these days (probably because it is) and Pete is not musically boring at all. I love how he gets everyone to sing along with him, it’s not because he wants to be controlling it’s because he knows the power of music and nothing sounds better than a room full of people joining together with their voices and creating music.

  • Pingback: Pete Seeger talks Beethoven, Bob Dylan, and the end of the world « Pete Seeger Appreciation Page

  • Rajan Mahadevan

    While I agree to a large extent that Dylan wrote his best songs when he was young, I strongly disagree that Dylan just shouts these days like on an ego-trip. Too bad that Pete fails to understand or to accept the fact that even to this day, nobody sings Dylan better than Dylan – as the saying goes. As for his music, like it or not, remains creative at least, certainly not just noise.

  • RainingAgain

    This old Stalinist still has learned nothing, and he’s been around long enough. He’d still take an axe to Dylan’s music if he could. He can’t understand what Dylan’s singing because he wouldn’t want to.

  • PhilT Listener

    I agree wholeheartedly. I believe some people think group singing and social interaction are just idealist “Kumbaya” stuff left over from the sixties. They must fail to see the healing and invigorating power of group interaction and participation. We are social animals. Ignoring that and living in a myopic vacuum id destructive to our psyches.

  • Jesus Marx

    Good lord, the Dylan fascists are out in force. Pete is a great man, so is Bob. Relax yourselves!

  • Jimbo

    Saw a Dylan – Willie Nelson show about 6 years ago at a minor leasgue baseball park in Fishkill NY. Looked back at one point and there, just sitting in the bleachers with the rest of us, were Pete and his wife. They stayed for the whole show.

  • smittyiam

    So thats Dylan shouting on Workingmans blues? Elitist folkie commie crap

  • Darkeyez

    Who cares about Dylan’s delivery? We’re lucky he’s still here. He could be farting the phone book and we all should be grateful he’s here to share it with us. As for Seeger, 200 years from now ask a common citizen who he was, then ask them who Dylan was. Seeger is old guard, he’s insignificant now.

  • funisnumberone

    I like Pete and love his love of music and for people. I just don’t understand why he feels the need to take a shot at Dylan like that. I love Bob’s new music and concerts…He doesn’t shout at all, in fact he seems understated and direct in concert, and he’s always been from the “if you can find something to like, great, but I’m doing it for myself” vein. I think this is how all artists should think.