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Tomorrow's Children: A Conversation With Pete Seeger, Plus Chatting With Bill Frisell

09/06/2010 12:10 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Learning how to communicate with people we disagree with is something the whole world has to learn." - Pete Seeger

After years of activism on behalf of the average Joe and Jane, this 91-year-old national treasure still swings a heavy hammer, and his amazingly thoughtful insights are presented here just in time for Labor Day. In this recent interview, Pete Seeger discussed his new album Tomorrow's Children, American history, communism, Woody Guthrie, and more.

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A Conversation with Pete Seeger

Mike Ragogna: I wanted to talk about your new record Tomorrow's Children.

Pete Seeger: This record belongs to a whole lot of people. My name and reputation may help sell it, but the record would never have started without an unusual teacher. She has been teaching for only a few years in the school, but she would start off every September by saying to her students, "Now children, my name is Terry Udell. I hope, next week, I will know every single one of you by your first and last names. But right now, we are going to sing a song. I always like to start off the day with a song, so what would you like to sing." After a minute or two, they would decide whether they wanted to sing "You Are My Sunshine" or "This Land Is Your Land." After they sing their songs, she would say to the class, "Now if we get our lessons done on time, we will have time for more songs at the end of the day." So, her class got to be known as a singing class. The other teachers would say to her that the singing was disturbing their lessons. The poor teacher got in trouble as she did such a good job. Her classes were always passing their tests near the top.

We had them sing at the Clearwater Revival. A local Caribbean drummer has a recording studio in his house, he suggested that they make a record and I am their accompanist. One of the songs on the record is me singing with my very rusty 91-year-old voice. The kids like to sing out, they don't have pearl-shaped tones. These kids are encouraged to sing as loud as they want. As a matter of fact, one of the songs they made up is "We Sing Out Because We Want To Be Heard."

MR: David Bernz is on there with you?

PS: Yes.

MR: You also had Dar Williams with you on "Solartopia."

PS: The studio does a modern way of recording where they will record the voices first and then add the drums, and then another person, and they add other things. I never made a record like this in my life, I couldn't quite figure out what it was all about.

MR: Can you tell us about the live performance?

PS: There is an annual Clearwater festival called The Clearwater Revival, The Hudson River Revival. It's always the third Saturday in June. There are a lot of different things going on with stories here and songs there, and speakers and dancers there. The best part of the festival are the bands on the stage. There could be a Latino or a string band or jazz band, and a whole lot of people dancing. My wife asked the carpenters years ago to make her a crisscross of 2 x 4 beams and make them so they can be propped up and wedged so they are absolutely level and straight and it makes a nice dance floor.

MR: A lot of the folk songs these kids performed have a very deep message. Do you feel that they are getting the root of the message of a lot of the more social material?

PS: I am sure they don't understand everything, but neither does every grownup. (laughs) A song is not a speech, and it bounces back new meaning as it bounces experiences on it. When I first heard the song "John Henry," I thought it was about a very strong man, and then I got the tragedy side of it and then the bawdy side of it. The "shaker" is the man who holds the drill between his legs sticking up for the hammer to come down.

MR: Your song "Take It From Dr. King" is beautiful, and it involves many issues. How good of a job do you think we're doing these days educating our children on fundamental issues?

PS: I am afraid I disagree with people who want education to be mainly about science. I think it should be around history, and science would figure into it. I don't know if you heard of my book called Where Have All The Flowers Gone. It's subtitled A Singalong Memoir, and there is a disk in the back of the book, so you can hear the melodies so you don't have to puzzle out what the heck the notation means. The book came out almost 20 years ago, but it was so full of mistakes, I told this little magazine don't reprint it and I will try and revise it. It took 15 years to revise it, and finally, I did, and it came out with a co-publisher, W.W. Norton. It has 14 new songs in it and a few of the old ones I cut out, so it is really quite a different book. I also corrected hundreds of little mistakes and a few very, very big mistakes. I know you don't get everything in the song right away, but the kids do get a lot of it. And they sing out strong. They don't just mumble.

MR: "Turn, Turn, Turn" is a song that just about every kid knows, and the versus are from Ecclesiastes.

PS: The man's name was originally Qoheleth, and it means someone who pulls someone together to speak. He lived about 250 years B.C.E., so those words are 2,500 years old and I simply changed the order of the versus a little so they would sound better and added six words of my own. The first one says, "Time of peace," and I add, "I swear it's not too late." Those are my additions.

MR: Everyone has heard The Byrds' version, Judy Collins' version, and your version, and you don't think of a recording artist as the song is so eternal and classic as far as its message.

PS: I am very proud that The Byrds made it such a beautiful record and spread it around the world. I don't travel any more or give two hour concerts like I used to, I occasionally go to New York and be part of a larger program and do two or three songs.

There is a new song I helped put together two or three weeks ago, and now, I am singing it everywhere and it goes something like this: "Yes, when drill baby drill turns to spill baby spill, everybody knows what that's about."

MR: The song "Solartopia" with David Bernz and Dar Williams is very relevant to us here in Fairfield, Iowa, because we have a solar-powered radio station, the only one in the Midwest.

PS: Well, well, well.

MR: I wonder why most stations, especially in the Southwest, aren't doing this.

PS: Well, it does cost a little money, and their shareholders say, "We want profits," so if you want to keep your job, you give them some profits. I always thought that President Rutherford B. Hayes was the worst President we ever had because he withdrew Federal troops from the South, and that was the end of reconstruction. During reconstruction, many of the ex-slaves could vote. They were elected to local and national offices, and one became a senator. But, I thought Hayes was the worst President because he withdrew the troops and the KKK took over the South. It seems there had been a lot of scandals in Grant's second term before Hayes. Grant was honest, but apparently, the people around him he appointed were not always. There was one scandal after another after another, and the Republican could not win the next election unless they found somebody squeaky clean. They found it in a three term Governor from Ohio, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. He said he would be willing to run for one term but refused to run for a second term.

I love my wife and family, and I don't want to subject them to this pressure for more than four years. The election was held, and there was a dead tie in the electoral college. The election was thrown into the House, and it was a dead tie, and the Republican found one Democrat that would switch and vote for Hayes if he would withdraw the federal troops. So, they shook hands on the deal and Hayes was told what he had to do. It's very possible that he said I am going to resign right now and they would withdraw the troops anyway. He was a lawyer and thought that this kind of job should be done by talking and not by guns.

He knew the Governor of Louisiana, they both felt that with proper schools, slaves would learn to read and then vote. It didn't work. The KKK took over and was too strong; people who tried to start schools for slaves got lynched. Hayes liked to give speeches, and after he was president, he would jump into that new invention called a "railroad" and go and make a speech.

Eight years after he left office, in 1888, The Supreme Court handed down a now famous decision. They said there is no capital punishment for corporations. Up until that time, a state could hand out a charter to a corporation, but they could take the charter away if they didn't like what the corporation was doing. The Supreme Court said, "No, you can fine a corporation if they do something illegal, but you can't take away their right to live." Hayes made a speech saying, "We no longer have a government of the people, for the people, by the people as Lincoln said at Gettysberg. We have a government of corporations, for corporations, by corporations."

Here was a guy from the establishment saying it. The only other guy to say something like that is Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. He said, "Behind the ostensible government of our country, we have a secret government that owes no allegiance to the people. To destroy this secret government and destroy the connection between corrupt politics and corrupt government and business should be the chief task of responsible Statesmen." Franklin Roosevelt said we have economic royalists--people who inherit their jobs and inherit their power. By and large, the media doesn't say it. They know where the money comes from. Whether it's the print media or the air media, the average American just assumes we have a completely democratic government.

MR: How do you feel about your activism after all these years?

PS: Well, I've done lots of dumb things. It wasn't until I moved up to the country that I drifted out of the Communist Party, and I suppose you know about nine out of ten people dropped out of the party after Krushchev made his famous speech in 1956. He said he knew that Comrade Stalin was a very strong leader who lead us to victory over Hitler in the great patriotic war, but he was also very cruel and he sent millions of people off to Siberia to die without any chance to defend themselves. Then someone from the audience shouted, "Why didn't you speak up?" His entire demeanor changed and he yelled, "Who said that?" There was dead silence. Then he says, "Now you know why I didn't speak up." Then soon after that, the Communist Party in this country dropped from about 100,000 to less than 10,000.

MR: Was Woody Guthrie a member of the party?

PS: Well, he applied and was turned down. He and I weren't regular people who took on assignments. We sang our songs and I guess the party was glad we sang them. We sang peace songs from August 1939 through June 1941, about 2 years. Woody Guthrie had been out West singing songs about the Grand Coulee Dam, and he hitchhiked east because I wrote him a letter and said, "Woody, I am singing with two other guys. We call ourselves The Almanac Singers, and we sang in Madison Square Garden, and I had the crowd singing your song. 'Oh you can't scare me I'm sticking to the Union.'"

So, Woody deserted his wife and kids one too many times so his wife went back to Texas to get a divorce, but he knocked on our door on June 23rd, one day after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. First words out of his mouth were, "Well, I guess we won't be singing any more peace songs will we." And I said, "You mean we have to work with Churchill?" And he said, "Yup, Churchill says all aid to the gallant Soviet Allies." And I said, "Is this the same Churchill who in 1920 said 'we must strangle the Bolshevik infant in its cradle.'" And Woody said, "Yup. If Churchill flip flopped, we get to flip flop." And he was right. A few months later he wrote a song called "The Sinking Of The Reuben James," which is still such a great song. He wrote about twenty verses, and he wanted to put in the names of every single person who had drowned and we said, "Woody, nobody but you is going to sing that song. At least give us a chorus we can join in on." He grumbled and grumbled and it took him a week, and he came back with that great chorus "What were their names, tell me what were their names, did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?" It was a destroyer sunk off Greenland. And he did a good job of shrinking down his twenty verses to five verses. The song is still sung sixty years later.

MR: How do you look at the Pete Seeger who was in The Weavers and before and the man you are now?

PS: I realize I have had some songs that have been good enough to have been picked up by millions and good enough to be translated into other languages. And I have also been a damn fool, enough to make some mistakes. I apologize for some of the songs I wrote. On page 22, I apologize in my new book and I said, "Should I apologize for all this? I think so." At any rate, I will apologize for thinking that Stalin was simply a hard driver. I realize now he was a very cruel misleader. Of course Christians can apologize for the inquisition, Protestants for burning people at the stake, for Crusaders massacring Jews and Arabs. And I guess, of course, Mongolians can apologize for Genghis Khan.

MR: You are apologizing for mistakes, but your contributions to society far outweigh any self-perceived mistakes.

PS: The most important thing is that I did not want to become rich, not become a part of the establishment.

MR: Do you have any advice for young people?

PS: I give out advice all the time, and one is to get as much information as you can whether it's from books or the internet because the information revolution may save the human race.

Nobody knows what the future is going to be. Kurt Vonnegut felt there was a chance of a snowball in hell of the human race being here in 100 years. Scientists do a lot of stupid things and invent things they shouldn't invent. Einstein once said there are two infinite things, one is the universe and the other is human stupidity.

MR: And might you have any advice to new artists?

PS: Sing in front of as many different kinds of people as you can. Old folks, middle age folks, kids, infants, and sing for people you disagree with too. Learning how to communicate with people we disagree with is something the whole world has to learn.

Tracks
1. Quite Early Morning -- with Spoken Introduction
2. We Sing Out
3. There'll Come A Day
4. Solartopia - with Dar Williams & David Bernz
5. Down By The River
6. River
7. Mastinchele Wachipi Olewan (The Rabbit Song)
8. The River That Flows Both Ways
9. I See Freedom
10. Take It From Dr. King
11. De Colores
12. It Really Isn't Garbage
13. English Is Cuh-Ray-Zee
14. River Song (Back And Forth The Hudson Flows)
15. It's A Long Haul
16. We Shall Not Be Moved
17. Turn, Turn, Turn
18. Tomorrow's Children
19. Quite Early Morning

(transcribed by Erika Richards)

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A Conversation with Bill Frisell

Mike Ragogna: You have a new album called Beautiful Dreamers presented as a trio with you on guitar, right?

Bill Frisell: Yeah, Eyvind Kang plays viola, and Rudy Royston plays drums. So, it's a slightly unusual combination, I think, for a trio. It's a group I've been playing with for a couple of years, and guys that I've been playing with for many, many years. We've been playing gigs, and I wanted to do an official CD, make a record to have it be like a real band.

MR: You've been with them since '08 with your first gig being in Eugene, Oregon, right?

BF: Yeah. I've known Eyvind for about twenty years or maybe even more. We've been playing in all kinds of situations, and Rudy I met maybe fifteen years ago. So, the connection goes way, way back. We hadn't played as an actual trio, they hadn't played together before '08.

MR: The first thing one might notice is where's the bass?

BF: If you look at it on paper, without listening to it, that's the first thing people say. "Where's the bass?" But then, if you forget all those preconceptions, it works. I think we're conditioned into thinking things have to be a certain way sometimes. For me, it's more about if the connections are strong between the musicians. It's not so much about the instruments; it's about how strong the communication and the connection is.

MR: Yeah, you have a very fine bottom end on this album, it just isn't coming in the form of "the bass."

BF: Right.

MR: You've embraced progressive jazz ever since your early ECM days. Didn't your recording career begin when you recommended by Pat Metheny to play on a Paul Motian album?

BR: Well, not even an album. He just gave my name to Paul, and that was an amazing moment for me. I'd been living in New York for a couple of years and sort of struggling along, just getting pretty discouraged with things. I had known Pat from a few years before when I was in Boston, at school, and sort of out of the blue, I get this phone call from Paul saying, "Do you want to come over and rehearse at my apartment?" So, I was like, "What?" Anyway, it was an incredible moment. Then we played for almost a year before we actually did a gig, and then we did an album soon after that. I think that's one of the first opportunities I had, where I was really asked to be myself.

MR: And not play a chart?

BF: Yeah, yeah.

MR: You're considered a "beyond jazz" guitarist, as in you play many genres. For instance, you did the Nashville album, right?

BF: Uh huh.

MR: And you played on The Sweetest Punch: Songs Of Elvis Costello And Burt Bacharach.

BF: Yeah, I've just been so lucky. For me, with music, you just enter into it and one thing leads to another. All those categories, I mean they're there, I guess, but when you're in the midst of the music they're not there. For me, it's just an amazing world to be in--to just go wherever I want to go, and do whatever I want to do.

MR: You're also a Grammy winner, receiving the award for Unspeakable in the Best Contemporary Jazz Album category. The Grammys actually seem to get it right when it comes to jazz. One of your contemporaries, Herbie Hancock, has been one of the standard bearers.

BF: Now, that really blew my mind when he won. He actually won for Best Album. That was great.

MR: What I'm saying is it was nice to see you get that Grammy because, for the most part, this is a body of people who are traditionally interested in the most commercial music in the field.

BF: I still don't really understand how that all works or what it means. I don't think anything really changed for me after I got it, I still don't quite know what it all means.

MR: Let's get back to the record. On Beautiful Dreamers, you not only do your own material, but you've chosen some interesting covers. Of course, the title track is a variation of the song "Beautiful Dreamer" by Stephen Foster, and you did "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine" by Blind Willie Johnson, "Benny's Bugle" by Benny Goodman, "Tea For Two" by Vincent Youmans, "Going Out Of My Head" by Teddy Randazzo, and "Keep On The Sunny Side" by A.P. Carter. What went into choosing the covers?

BF: Oh boy. Well, when I knew I was going to have a chance to record this group, I wanted to have a completely new body of material that was just unique to this band. The idea was really to make it something separate from my other projects. So, a lot of the months prior to the recording, I was writing a lot and was actually thinking of maybe having it be all original music. But then I couldn't help but let some of those other songs that I'd been thinking about creep in there, too. I don't know how they appear, they just sort of come up somehow. They're also songs that I hadn't really been playing in any of my other groups.

Some of them were sort of around my whole life, like "Beautiful Dreamer" is one of those songs that I can't even remember finding, and I must have heard it as a baby with my mother whistling it or something. That's just one of those songs, growing up in this country, I think everybody hears it, and it's just kind of in the fabric of things. "Tea For Two," again, is one of those ones that has just been around in my subconscious or something.

MR: You recorded this at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, right?

BF: Uh huh.

MR: Is that the first time you'd recorded there?

BF: No. I'd been there a number of times, and it's just a fantastic place. The history there is so...there's a lot of stuff that's happened there. I'm not sure how much was recorded there from the jazz world, but you walk in and there are all these album covers from things that I've been listening to my whole life. There's a huge picture of The Staple Singers right when you walk into the room we recorded in -- a big, life-size photo of The Staple Singers with Mavis Staples and Pops Staples just right there. It's really inspiring for me there.

MR: Beyond jazz, the company carries the history of the old Stax label.

BF: Right. So, I guess that's where The Staple Singers came in.

MR: And Creedence Clearwater Revival, and so many other acts. Now, I've got another question for you. From your first solo album, which was In Line, right?

BF: Uh huh.

MR: From your first solo album till now, how do your feel you've progressed as an artist?

BF: Oh man, I don't know. I hope I'm progressing. That's what's so amazing about music; every time you start doing it, every moment is like you're at the beginning. In a way, I feel the same way I did when I first picked up a guitar as a kid, you know? It's like, "Whoa, what am I going to do with this thing?" There's all the music out in front of you that you haven't gotten to, and it's infinite, what you haven't done yet, you know? So, in that way it always feels kind of the same. I guess I've gotten somewhere, but I'm just in it. I guess if I've learned anything, I'm trying to be comfortable with that and see it as a good thing. If you think about that too much, it's kind of overwhelming.

MR: Are you happy with where you are now as an artist?

BF: I feel like I've been just incredibly lucky, really, my whole life, with the people that I've come in contact with that have encouraged me with the music. On this new album, that title song, "Beautiful Dreamer," I dedicated to one of my childhood friends who just passed away a couple of months ago. He was one of those guys, when I met him when I was twelve years old, he had an electric guitar and he showed it to me. He sort of stuck with me my whole life, coming to all my gigs and being a kind of cheerleader for me. There have been a lot of people like that around, and I wouldn't probably be playing if it wasn't for all of those people helping me out. I don't think there's anyway you can do this by yourself.

Tracks:
1. Love Sick
2. Winslow Homer
3. Beautiful Dreamer
4. A Worthy Endeavor
5. Nobody's Fault
6. Baby Cry
7. Benny's Bugle
8. Tea for Two
9. No Time to Cry
10. Better Than a Machine
11. Goin' Out of My Head
12. Worried Woman
13. Keep on the Sunnyside
14. Sweetie
15. All We Can Do
16. Who Was That Girl?

(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)

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