R.I.P. Pete Seeger
Last May, I had the chance to spend a couple hours talking to Pete Seeger at George’s in the Peabody Court hotel. He was in town to speak at Peabody’s commencement. Later that night, I happened to be back in George’s. A man approached me. “Who was that man you were talking to this afternoon?” he asked.
“Pete Seeger,” I said.
“I knew he must have been some kind of genius,” the man replied on the basis of overheard snippets of our conversation alone. For, as I wrote at the time, “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.”
It is with great sorrow that we mark his passing, of natural causes at the age of 94, in New York last night. Below is an excerpt from our 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.