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PBS Special Reviews Pete Seeger's Lifetme
At 88, with a lifetime of singing, songwriting, activism and the highest accolades behind him, Pete Seeger has a problem.
“I’ve lived a fairly normal life,” says Seeger, who lives with his wife of 65 years, Toshi, on a rural property near the Hudson Valley town of Fishkill, N.Y. “Now I’ve blown my cover and life is horrible.”
It’s not as if Seeger wasn’t famous before; he is arguably one of America’s best-known singers, a product of the folk tradition that he enjoyed with late colleagues such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. But a new documentary, “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” which debuts Wednesday on PBS and will subsequently be released on DVD, has turned his bucolic, semiretired existence topsyturvy.
“The phone rings all day,” Seeger bemoans. “Letters come in by the bushel — ‘Will you listen to my CD? Will you read my book? ‘Will you play this show?’ ‘Please come to receive an award …’ — all sorts of things.
“I am literally being killed. I don’t know how long I’ll live now.”
But asked if that doesn’t run counter to his longtime mantra urging people to participate in their world, Seeger just chuckles and says “yeah.”
As a singer, songwriter, author and activist, Seeger has certainly given the world at large plenty for any one man, a life rich in both adventure and creativity — including a body of songs such as “Turn, Turn Turn!,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” and a popular arrangement of the traditional “We Shall Overcome” that have been woven into the world’s cultural fabric, mostly via interpretations by other artists. Seeger has won a Grammy Award, as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He has career honors from the Kennedy Center and the National Endowment of the Arts.
He’s even been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received the Felix Varela Medal, Cuba’s highest honor, for “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”
To have those achievements honored, Seeger says, “is a nice feeling, but on the other hand it’s embarrassing, too, ’cause they give me too much credit. They really do.
“There’s hardly a song I’ve written that I didn’t borrow from somebody else. And if people like ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ then thank Peter, Paul & Mary for rewriting my second-rate melody — and the same thing with almost every other song I’ve written, really.”
The New York-born Seeger was the product of a musical household: His father, Charles, was an instructor at Berklee and Juilliard who went on to become a musicologist, while his stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a noted composer who also taught at Juilliard. Seeger chose five-string banjo as his first instrument but also pursued more academic interests, attending Harvard University, where he studied to be a journalist until his sophomore year.
He also picked up his father’s socialist politics and, in fact, became a full-fledged member of the Communist Party throughout the ’40s.
Music, however, became a pragmatic path when a schoolteacher aunt offered Seeger $5 to sing for her classes.
“Five dollars!” he recalls “In 1939, a lot of people had to work a day, two days to make $5, and I could get it for one hour, two hours of having fun. It seemed criminal, shameful. ...
“But I went and took the money and quit looking for an honest job.”
Seeger came to fame primarily with groups such as the Almanac Singers (with Guthrie) and the Weavers, which had hits with versions of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special” and the sea chanty “Pay Me My Money Down.” Seeger was unsettled by the mass attention, however, and went solo — but had his career upended when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He refused to testify and was indicted for contempt of Congress in 1957. He was convicted in 1961, but it was overturned 14 months later.
But more than half a century later, Seeger — who had three children and maintained his political outspokenness throughout — maintains that “the fact I was blacklisted didn’t hurt me one bit. The funny thing is I enjoyed myself greatly. I made enough to feed the family. I had a wonderful time singing with the kids in schools and summer camps and, later on, in college.
“In fact,” he adds, “it was a real victory going where they didn’t want me. I knew I was reaching the future when I reached the kids.”
Those kids repaid him in kind. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez incorporated Seeger’s influence in their own music. The Byrds turned “Turn, Turn, Turn!,” which was based on the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, into a No. 1 hit. Besides “If I Had a Hammer,” Peter, Paul & Mary, as well as the Kingston Trio, popularized “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
In 1998, musician fans such as Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Ani DiFranco contributed to a tribute album, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger.” Eight years later, Springsteen put together a rootsy album of folks songs titled “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” though Seeger good-naturedly chides that “I can’t say that I agree with all his rearrangements.”
Seeger, meanwhile, makes rare public appearances these days, often at festivals and rallies and occasionally with his grandson, Tao, who’s also a performer. He’s particularly active in his home community, having founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an environmental organization, that puts on the Great Hudson River Revival festival each year.
More recently he’s attended weekly rallies for peace in towns near his home.
Besides “The Power of Song” documentary, Seeger has also been working on an updated version of his book “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” which will be published by Sing Out! magazine and feature a new subtitle, “A Singalong Memoir,” inspired by author John Opdyke, a postscript with more songs and an accompanying CD that he hopes will inspire other artists to record the material.
Seeger’s own songwriting is minimal these days. “My brain has stopped working,” he notes, “and my physique is not as good as it was.” But he claims to have no great concern about his legacy at this point.
“My family will remember me, and a few others,” he says. “I’m one of a lot of songwriters. There’ll be more important things to think about.
“Mostly I’d urge people, don’t make heroes out of anybody. I’m sure there were mistakes that Jesus made, and that Buddah made and Mohammed and who knows who else. And I’ve made a huge number of mistakes with my family, in singing and in politics.
“So don’t copy what I’ve done. Please, make your own mistakes. Don’t make my mistakes over again.”
American Masters’ “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” debuts at 9 p.m. Wednesday (Feb. 27) on WTVS, Channel 56 in Detroit, and on WFUM, Channel 28 in Flint.
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