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.
[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.
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.