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Pete Seeger interview: ‘The greatest people will come forward, after I kick the bucket’

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Pete Seeger was my neighbor, and I interviewed him once in 2007. We were in the Beacon, N.Y., Sloop Club and he was getting the fire going in the woodstove, with a red knit stocking cap on his head and a red bandana in his pocket to grab the stove handle. Musicians were gathering, and he was telling me about a project to put pools in the Hudson River. Here’s some of the transcript. Newsies, note the Twin Towers bit near the end.



Seeger: They used to have swimming pools in the East River 100 years ago. Then the water got too dirty and they were taken out in about 1930. About eight years ago in New York I met a woman architect who was thinking about river pools. I said We can start it up in Beacon. I’m forgetting her name– I’m forgetting everything now. She was Swedish. Then I read one book by the great politician and reporter Jacob Riis, and he was all in favor of river pools. Battle for the Slums. The pool was as big around as a tennis court, with little booths round the outside. For a nickel you could change in there, and women and men swam on alternate days.

Hey we got a lot of good fire wood, here. Meta. Meta Brunzema. That was her name. She had seen them in Europe. One on the Danube, one in Paris. I got her up here and she made friends and now there’s a committee.

What was your contribution?

Just talking it up. I’m an incorrigible talker-upper.

Were you a talker upper as a young man?

No. I was a camper. I was an incorrigible camper. Ernest Thompson Seton was my guru. I read every one of his books from age 7 to 13. I built myself a teepee, I learned how to cook my food on a tiny little fire inside the teepee. Seton lived into his 80s in New Mexico, and the Boy Scouts were started as a result of him, by an Englishman. Baden Powell. Do you know how to start a fire with nothing but a bow stick? Just a bow stick– that is what we need to combat the moral rot of society.

Was that a better education than in school?

Oh yeah. I’m still convinced that a close relationship with nature will save the human race. This log is too wet. This will do it. I’ve heated my house with wood for almost 60 years.

Back in Riis’s day the ghetto of every town was along the water front. Who wants to live by the stinking river? Well clean water changed that. And now when I talk about the Clearwater, they talk about real estate values. I was talking with a local official, and he said, We can make trillions and trillions of dollars with the river, not just billions. I said, We’re growing too fast, we’re doubling population every twenty years. He said, If you don’t grow you die.

I sat up in bed at 2 in the morning, which is when I have my best ideas, and I said, if it’s true that if you don’t grow you die, well the faster you grow the sooner you die.

The quicker you grow, the sooner you die. [Seeger hums that, tries to make a song of it.] 

My guess is the rising of the oceans is going to be a wake-up call for the human race and we’ll find out that we got it wrong, with this grow grow grow stuff. The world is only so big. What are they going to do, send everybody off to Mars or the moon? That was Greenspan’s great invention, keeping the inflation at a stable rate. The greatest invention– that’s why they kept him. You know, we have to raise our prices at a certain rate!

Are you pessimistic?

No. The next few decades are going to be the most exciting this world has ever known. You know how if you throw a tennis ball against the floor, the harder you throw it down on cement, the higher it bounces. These horrible things in Washington will spur on the best things over the next 8 years. The greatest people will come forward.

Like who?

[Seeger thinks I asked, Like you?] Oh no. I’m going to be kicking the bucket in the next few years; my memory really is going.

What did you learn at Harvard?

I learned that professors can be as selfish as anybody else. They’ve got their careers with a capital C.

What about good things?

I learned how to use a library. That was the most invaluable thing. I went down to the New York Public when I came here and looked up l o g c a b i n. I learned how to build a little house for my little family, for $900 and a lot of muscle.

You didn’t last long at Harvard?

I got a little too interested in politics. Me and Arthur Kinoy, we started the Harvard progressive. I got more interested in our little publication than our marks. I lost my scholarship. My family chipped in to help me get there, but they couldn’t chip in any more.

Any regrets?

Not really. It wouldn’t have been that nice. They weren’t teaching anthropology then. How the human race came to be? All my life I have wondered about that. But I got an honorary arts degree from the president before [Lawrence] Summers. Who was very interested in the arts. And I have read the Harvard magazine for most of the last 40 years.

When I walk through the woods near you I can see something painted on the side of your house.

Oh, it’s on the side of my barn. Two teenagers painted it. “I am done with big things and great things and with big institutions and great success, and I am for those tiny invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.”

Did you ever put that to song?

Tried to. Couldn’t. Wait, it’s not done yet [the fire]. That’s from William James. I read it in some little peace magazine. I sent the quote to Harvard magazine and some professor took on the job– a needle in the haystack. It was just about 100 years ago, James wrote it in a letter to Mrs. Whitman. [Mrs. Henry Whitman, letter 1899] It’s a little faded now. I’ll recite it to you.

What are the hardest monuments of man’s pride?

Some times it’s an organization. Sometimes. Well [faltering]– to a certain extent, the Twin Towers were. [Picks up his banjo and calls out to another musician.] Mike Millius — Give me a D chord.

I hear mother nature saying oh my my my my,

The faster you grow, you know, the sooner you die.

Not much music needs to be played. I want you to sing with me.

About Philip Weiss

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20 Responses

  1. just
    January 30, 2014, 10:12 am

    Phil– I am rendered speechless and trembling.

    Many, many thanks.

    “oh my my my my”

  2. yrn
    January 30, 2014, 10:16 am

    Syrian government ‘demolished thousands of homes’
    The Syrian government has been “deliberately and unlawfully” demolishing thousands of homes, a new report by Human Rights Watch says.

    Satellite images appear to show large-scale demolitions with explosives and bulldozers in opposition strongholds in Damascus and Hama in 2012 and 2013.

    Where is Taxi Danna & Co.

    • just
      January 30, 2014, 10:26 am

      yrn– are you more lost than usual? Or are you just plunking stuff wherever you want despite the topic?

      Since you “plunked” it, how many Palestinian homes/lives/farms has the Israeli government destroyed? Isn’t that your bulldozer idling on someone else’s land while you engage in whataboutery? Have some illegal bubbles and get on your way… you have lives to ruin and resources to steal.

    • amigo
      January 30, 2014, 10:30 am

      You are confused yrn.This site is not about the Syrian conflict which is an internal matter for Syrians.In any case, you could care less about the Syrian people.If you did , you would be calling for Israel to get off the stolen Syrian Heights.Hypocrite.

      About Mondoweiss
      Mondoweiss is a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective.

      It has four principal aims:

      1, To publish important developments touching on Israel/Palestine, the American Jewish community and the shifting debate over US foreign policy in a timely fashion.
      2, To publish a diversity of voices to promote dialogue on these important issues.
      3, To foster the movement for greater fairness and justice for Palestinians in American foreign policy.
      4, To offer alternatives to pro-Zionist ideology as a basis for American Jewish identity.

      This blog is co-edited by Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz. Weiss is 56 and lives in New York state. Horowitz is 39 and lives in Atlanta.

      We maintain this blog because of 9/11, Iraq, Gaza, the Nakba, the struggling people of Israel and Palestine, and our Jewish background

    • Citizen
      January 30, 2014, 12:01 pm

      @ yrn
      Have you seen the satellite images of the horror occurring by those foreign forces attacking Assad’s regime? They are not any better! Who interfered in the American civil war, and how successful were they? And was that a good activity? And for whom, precisely?

    • Ecru
      January 31, 2014, 4:49 am

      Yes Syria – very very bad. A truly horrible situation. But exactly how do house demolitions in Syria pardon house demolitions in Palestine?

  3. tokyobk
    January 30, 2014, 10:28 am

    Actually saw some disparagement of PS on Facebook walls, of his politics which were once Red and often dreamy.

    To which my response was:

    “Which of your heroes was fighting for a non-racial society in the 1930’s when he was still a teenager?”

    A true American legend.

  4. Krauss
    January 30, 2014, 10:31 am

    if it’s true that if you don’t grow you die, well the faster you grow the sooner you die.

    Actually, if you don’t grow, you probably contract and that leads to death much faster.
    Sorry to be superlogical, guys, but we shouldn’t overlook Seeger’s declinism, which doesn’t take much to pick apart.
    I think he seemed like a nice person, but if anything, we should avoid the trap of “likeable = good politics”, which is the bane of democratic societies.

    Seeger comes across as a man who has this odd, bizarre and ultimately privileged attitude about nature. Oh, too much development isn’t a good thing. Let’s just live the simple life in the forest.
    Well, the simple life in the forest that he lived was faciliated by industry, research and science and innovation.
    If everyone followed his lead, we’d be back to the dark old days when smallpox could kill you, and often took the youngest among us away from this world in a brutal way.

    If there is one thing I detest with the modern left then it is this fetishism of the pre-industrialized world.
    You see the same kind of bigotry towards the developing world. I’m sure Seeger can easily dispatch poor people across Africa, Asia and Latin America to stay poor, for humanity’s sake, while he lives the “simple life” around the river (while at the same time benefiting from the advantages of living in a rich, Western country if there is ever a serious problem that arises).

    This kind of hypocrisy is disgusting.

    • just
      January 30, 2014, 10:49 am

      You seem angry, Krauss. I hope that your tirade makes you feel better soon.

      I personally feel that Pete Seeger deserves better than you gave.

      • Walker
        January 31, 2014, 11:13 am

        I personally feel that Pete Seeger deserves better than you gave.

        I second that.

        Great, great post, Phil. A real gift.

    • pabelmont
      January 30, 2014, 11:03 am

      Krauss, no offense, but:

      Pete Seeger’s being against too much development (and heating by burning wood) are not necessarily “privileged” but it would require (he may not have understood this or said it) a STOP to population growth and urban sprawl and, actually, a REVERSAL of population growth AND REDUCTION of human population.

      This is absolutely clear — and not something the “growth-enthusiasts” (capitalists) want anyone to talk about. The alternative is a population always growing, always spreading, always reducing arable farmlands, spreading, destroying farmland, forests, plains. And always and almost-everywhere polluting (look at the current craze for “fracking”). And although — in theory — continued growth of population could be accomplished with such a sharp-reduction of rate-of-growth that the total would never exceed (SOME-LIMIT), it won’t happen until STARVATION (for food and water) makes it happen. And climate change is working on bringing exactly that about. Starvation and wars brought on by migration as people move away from unlivable lands.

      Time was, everyone in New England heated their homes by burning wood. Small population among many acres of woodlots. Not any more. In those days, even the particulates were not so bad (still VERY few people). Not any more.

      I think we could have all the “stuff” of modern life with 10% the population, but the economic mechanisms (capitalism, neoliberalism, banks-uber-alles) would have to be revised. tough job. (World per-capita-wealth rose steeply when The Black Death killed 50% of the people without removing 50% of the land and “stuff”.)

      Pete Seeger was visionary, not a social engineer (no-one else is, tho some claim to be), but it doesn’t help to call him “privileged”. what might help is to think about the world’s problems and look for solutions.

      • Citizen
        January 30, 2014, 12:08 pm

        Well, anyway I look at it, Seeger’s empathy was larger than Scarlett Johansson’s is now. It’s true he didn’t think everything out, but went with his gut, but so did Scarlett. It’s just that he had a more universal empathy for all humans than Scarlett–she drew a red line in the sand to show the extent of her humane feelings and thoughts, which he never did. Then again, he will be remembered around the world after Scarlett is lost in human memory. How account for the difference in character? Any takers?

      • tokyobk
        January 30, 2014, 5:19 pm

        Haha classic Citizen post.

        Because Scarlett is a half Jewess operating on her Jew instincts. Got it.

        And there are no Jews who can be favorably compared to other non-Jews, anywhere, ever.

        But, its true we should all have Pete Seeger instincts, which are to prefer the human tribe over all other subdivisions.

      • Citizen
        January 30, 2014, 5:34 pm

        @ tokyobk

        Re your: “And there are no Jews who can be favorably compared to other non-Jews, anywhere, ever.”
        That’s your illogical deduction from what I said, not mine.

        OTOH, re your “But, its true we should all have Pete Seeger instincts, which are to prefer the human tribe over all other subdivisions.” Yes, that’s a logical deduction from what I said. I agree.

      • lysias
        February 2, 2014, 6:44 pm

        My mother (who immigrated into this country in the 1920’s) always said that wood (and coal) stoves were better for baking bread than gas stoves, because they cause greater heat. And electric stoves are even worse in this respect than gas stoves.

        My mother baked delicious bread, even in a gas oven.

    • Ecru
      January 31, 2014, 5:02 am

      To a certain extent Krauss I agree with you. People don’t realise how hard the “old ways” actually were – or are for people in the Developing World.

      However I do take issue with this statement,

      …back to the dark old days when smallpox could kill you…

      We seem to be heading for a world where disease WILL take many more people away anyway as our antibiotics fail through over-use (mainly in industrial agriculture). Now that wouldn’t effect Smallpox, that’s a virus, but imagine another outbreak of Bubonic Plague or something like it and it’s bye bye to a chunk of the human race.

      • lysias
        February 2, 2014, 6:45 pm

        Plague is no danger as long as our antibiotics work.

        Occasionally, it kills people in this country, because it occurs so rarely that the doctors don’t diagnose it in time.

        But no widespread outbreak is possible (as long as the antibiotics work), because in a widespread outbreak it will be diagnosed.

  5. eljay
    January 30, 2014, 11:09 am

    >> pabelmont @ January 30, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Good post.

  6. Citizen
    January 30, 2014, 12:17 pm

    Anyway, Seeger was a visionary who had a musical gift, not only a privileged upbringing and educational opportunities–he never needed a government safety net, but he never took advantage to exploit the lower classes, rather he energized them), and like he said, leaders will come forward after he was dead, and he’s now dead. In keeping with leadership, here are a few things we (Stratfor) sees ahead by 2039:
    The United States will continue to be the leading economic power.
    (Is this good or bad, and for whom?)
    Conflict in the Middle East will continue, but the United States will take a much more hands-off approach in the region.

    (Is this good or bad, and for whom? Doesn’t sound like a recipe for continued Israel doing whatever it wants because the lone superpower funds and diplomatically support it.)
    German and Russian interests will align, trading natural gas and technology, and could potentially threaten Washington’s global strategy.

    (Is this good or bad in your opinion? Why?)

    Mexico will become an industrial powerhouse by taking low-level production from China and monetizing its energy sector.

    (Is this good or bad, and for whom?)

    China will continue to face more internal tension and slower economic growth.

    (Good or bad, and for whom?)

    I guess that’s my way of asking, when the greatest people come forward, what will they give us, given this prediction? You can go to Stratfor’s website to see what data they used to make this prediction.

  7. annie
    January 30, 2014, 5:05 pm

    what a priceless interview phil. just..really, just incredible. what a joy opening this page and finding this here. you’ve made my day.

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