Pete Seeger Talks Dylan, the Byrds and His Electric Guitar Fascination
Icon, legend, American institution. Pete Seeger is worthy of all those descriptors. Writer of such classics as "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," the folk-song pioneer remains vibrant even as he approaches his 90th birthday.
Seeger's latest CD — titled, simply, Pete Seeger at 89 — was recorded with friends and musicians who live near his cabin-home on the banks of the Hudson River. In the following conversation, he talks about his apprenticeship with Woody Guthrie, his feelings about electric guitar, and what really happened when Bob Dylan went electric at Newport.
"Turn! Turn! Turn!" is one of your best-known songs. Do you remember writing it?
Well, I got a letter in 1959 from one of my publishers, saying, "Pete, can't you write another song like 'Goodnight, Irene'? I can't market these protests songs that you keep writing.' (laughs) I was a little angry. My first thought was that I needed to get a different publisher, since that was the only type of song I knew how to write. But then I pulled these words out of my pocket, where I had copied them onto a piece of paper, and improvised a tune off the top of my head. I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I recorded it and sent it to him. A week later I got a lovely letter saying, "This is just what I was looking for. Thanks." It was that same publisher who got the song into the hands of the Byrds. They made a few slight changes, and came out with that terrific record.
Do you remember your impressions the first time you heard the Byrds' version?
Well, they changed one or two notes. Originally I thought, "Did they have to do that?" Later, though, I felt they were right to have done it.
You and Lee Hays also wrote "If I Had a Hammer." Did you sense at the time that that song would become a classic?
No. We knew it was a good song, and a good idea. Lee wrote the four verses, and mailed them to me in the last days of December 1948, I believe. I sat down at the piano and worked out the tune. The Weavers had just gotten together. We sang it at various places, but we were just a bunch of lefties back then. We recorded it for a tiny little company, and I think it sold about 500 copies. Our tune never caught on as widely as it did when Peter, Paul, and Mary re-wrote the melody. My melody was slower and lower-pitched. Actually my favorite version is the one done by Sam Cooke.
Woody Guthrie was of course a great mentor for you. What was the most important lesson you learned from him?
He was a genius at simplicity. And a great lyricist. He rarely made up melodies, although occasionally he did. There's a story involving the song "The Sinking of the Reuben James." When the American destroyer ship, the Reuben James, was sunk off Greenland in October 1941, Woody wrote about 20 verses. He wanted the names of every person who drowned to be in that song. We said, "Woody, no one except you is going to sing a song that's this long. Can't you at least give us a chorus, that we can join in on?" He grumbled, but within a week he had pared the song down to five verses, and written a very strong refrain. [sings, What were their names / Tell me, what were their names / Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?] That song is still being sung today. It's a great song, and it attests to his ability to write something simple and powerful.
People still talk about the controversy occurred in 1965, when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. You allegedly threatened to pull the plug on his performance. What really happened?
Dylan was singing a wonderful song — "Maggie's Farm" — but you couldn’t understand a thing he was singing, because they had the sound system so distorted. I ran over to the guy managing the controls, and said, "Fix the sound, so we can understand the words." And he shouted back, "No! This is the way they want it!" They wanted it loud enough that all these folkies would "boo," because this was Bob's chance to show them he's bidding "Bye Bye Baby Blue" to them. I was so mad, I said, "Damn it, if I had an ax, I would cut the cable." I wanted the lyrics to be understood. That's my main complaint about a lot of singers. I hear so much of the accompaniment, I can hardly understand the words.
What are your feelings in general about electric guitars?
I don't know how to play the electric guitar, although I'm fascinated by it. I'm fascinated listening to people like B.B. King, how he can make a note sing out. It's a relatively new instrument, and quite different from an acoustic guitar. If there's a human race 200 years from now, the electric guitar might well be remembered as the most popular instrument of the folk music of the late 20th century.
All your life you've been an advocate for social causes and the environment. Do you feel songs have a special power to bring attention to these issues?
If there's a human race here a hundred years from now, music will have been one of the many things that saved us. Other arts will help, whether it be dancing, or cooking, or painting, or sculpting. Sports may help as well. I'm reading a book right now that discusses how Nelson Mandela used the love of rugby in his effort to pull South Africa together. All South Africans came together to cheer on their team. Communication is good, and we need to encourage our tradition of talking. That's why the human race has survived as long as it has.