Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times
I found myself crying when I heard the news of Pete Seeger’s death today. When I was a child, my mother would wake me up in the morning by singing “If I Had A Hammer,” the progressive anthem that Seeger wrote for Peter, Paul and Mary. His music played a central role in teaching me the values of solidarity and love, and continues to do so.
So when I learned last September that Seeger would be giving what might be one of his last public performances, at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, I decided to make the journey up.
Afterward, Seeger conducted a Q&A with the audience. The singer didn’t always answer the questions directly, but he told a number of stories that gave new insight into his long career. Early in the night, he shared what he thought was the most important thing he’d done in his 94 years:
I think the most important single job I did in my life was showing other musicians that you didn’t have to sing in a bar or a restaurant and compete with the alcohol for attention. You could sing in schools. I first started singing in summer camps for children in a small school in New York City. My father’s younger sister taught at the Dawson School in New York City. …. I was trying to find a job as a newspaperman, and failing to get a job, and she said come sing some of your songs for my class, I can get five dollars for you. Five dollars! Most people had to work all day or all week to make five dollars, back in 1939. It seemed like stealing for me to go in and get paid five dollars just for having fun for an hour.
He also talked about a surprising inspiration of his—sailing:
I had a job on Cape Cod once. And at midnight, a teenager took me out sailing. For the first time in my life, I realized why millionaires [go out on] yachts. It's not how fast you go, it’s just the fact that you move it all. And if you use the wave that’s trying to force you back, supposing wind is coming from the north … you can use that great force against you, to move. … Martin Luther King did the same things. He got attacked, got thrown in jail, more publicity, found more contributions and more people listening to him.
I had a question for Seeger: Why don’t we hear as much political music, like his, as we used to? His answer was simple:
There is a lot of political stuff, it’s just not being financed. … The people with money don’t want to.
Later, Seeger told the audience how he witnessed Woody Guthrie come up with the idea for the famous pro-union song “Union Maid,” back in 1940:
We got to Oklahoma City…. I knew a man was trying to organize oil workers to build a big derrick to pump the oil out of it. And this was a small meeting, about 60 people. And there were women and children there; nobody had money for babysitters. So [some union busters] had come to see what this union business was all about, and the organizers said, “Pete, see if you can get the crowd singing. There’s six men against the wall in the back, standing up, and they haven’t taken their overcoats off. They might have clubs under their overcoats and they might be intending to break up the meeting.” Well we got them all singing. And sure enough at the end of the meeting, the six of them came toward us and said, “This meeting was a little different than we were told it was gonna be We were holding baseball bats under our overcoats. We were gonna break it up.”
Then the wife of the organizer said, “Pete, all these union songs are about men this and brother that. This union would have been broken up if it hadn’t been for all the women here and the children here. Can’t you make up a song about the union women?” Next morning in the union office, Woody was there with his guitar and he’d sing a verse, sit down, type it out. I can’t remember but two of the verses, but he had a great chorus.“Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union…”
It’s a good old tune, I don’t know where it came from and he had a great chorus there. And a year later I was recording an album of union songs, with some other people, and one of the songs didn’t turn out any good so they said, “Can you do another union song.” And I said, “What about this one? But I can only remember two of the verses.” ….
And when we got to the West Coast … we sang it for the Labor Day parade. By gosh, it sped up, and we had to sing it over and over again. The whole parade was singing that song, at least the chorus of it.
He went on to say that the information revolution and women’s rights are taking history into uncharted territory:
The agricultural revolution took thousands of years. The industrial revolution took hundreds of years. But the information revolution is only taking decades. And if we use it, and use the brains God gave us, who knows what miracles may be invented in the next few years. Especially with the women’s revolution, now that women are doing things from which they were prevented from doing for so many millennia.
Seeger also shared the story of witnessing the Peekskill Riots of 1949, and what he did with two stones thrown at him there:
Paul Robeson [was an] extraordinary, extraordinary man, not just a great athlete and a great singer, but a great intellectual. He knew six languages, and his idea of a pleasant weekend was to learn a new language. And he was giving a concert in Peekskill, and I call it an inoculation for America. You know when you get a needle inoculating you against smallpox, your arms swells up but your body is alerted and does not get smallpox. That's what happened in Peekskill in 1949. These were fascists who threw stones at ten to fifteen thousand people. Man! I was building a chimney and I put into it two stones, one of them the size of a tennis ball and the other was a piece of tarmac from the edge of the road. It came all the way through our window, every window, except the rear window, was splintered by stones. But two things came all the way through. I cemented them into the front of my chimney so I would never forget.
Well, [afterward] there were signs in Peekskill [in support of the riots]: “Wake up America! Peekskill did.” I remember a friend in England said, “That’s the same kind of sign they had in Germany after Crystal Night.” In Munich, they threw stones through the plate glass windows of store which were owned or run by Jews, and the signs said, “Wake Up Germany! Munich did”—and throughout Germany, stones were thrown through the plate glass windows of Jews.
It didn’t work in America. People throughout America [saw] pictures of women with babies in their arms and blood streaming down. Wasn’t a pretty picture and apparently they didn’t like it.
Toward the end of the night, Seeger expressed his belief in what will save the human race:
I honestly think that participation is what saves the human race. Not just participation not just in the decisions of something, but in our arts. All the different kinds of arts: the visual arts, the musical arts, the cooking arts. … I’m sure there’s other arts I haven’t thought of. Participation is the thing that will save the human race.
Here's a clip of him singing that night:
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