- Pete Seeger, San Francisco, 1989With William R. Ferris and Michael K. Honey
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Pete Seeger has long been my hero. As an undergraduate at Davidson College in the early sixties, I listened to his records and learned to sing folksongs from his published works. When we organized civil rights meetings and marches at Davidson, his music and his unwavering commitment to human rights were always an inspiration. "We Shall Overcome" was our anthem, and we sang it often at civil rights gatherings in the early sixties.
During my graduate study in English literature at Northwestern University in 1965, I attended a memorable concert that Pete gave at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. My seat was at the very top of the large hall, and I watched in amazement as he stood alone on the stage with his guitar and banjo before an adoring audience. At the close of his concert, Pete played ten encores before he left the stage. I marveled at how he held the audience with his strong, clear voice. We sang along with his verses and choruses and felt a special bond with him. Then, as now, Pete Seeger inspired a deep belief in human rights that touched me and every other person in Orchestra Hall that evening. The tall, lean figure of Pete Seeger holding his banjo and guitar is familiar throughout the world. His concerts always offer hope and joy to those who struggle to bring civil rights to their people.
While spending a year as a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center at Stanford University in 1989–90, I learned that Pete was coming to San Francisco for a concert. Historian Michael Honey was also a fellow at the Center, and we decided to interview Pete during his visit. I had interviewed Pete's father, Charles Seeger, ten years earlier, and I wanted to follow up on our conversations about Pete and Charles's work in the American South and their ties to the Lomax family. The father-son teams of Charles and Pete Seeger and John and Alan Lomax dedicated many years as they collected, archived, and celebrated American folksong. They are clearly our nation's "first families" of folksong research, and in this interview Pete describes their friendship. His stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, did musical transcriptions of the Lomaxes' field recordings and was herself a major composer.
I filmed our interview with a Sony super-8 camera, and this interview was transcribed from that film. During the interview Pete reflected on his early childhood, his travels with Woody Guthrie, and his role in creating the song "We Shall Overcome." Like his father before him, Pete Seeger indelibly shaped the history of American folksong. His career demonstrates how songs inspire social movements throughout the world and are themselves a force for change. He reminisces about numerous members of his family, including his father and stepmother Ruth Crawford Seeger, as well as siblings Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger, all of whom had musical careers.
During the past year Pete Seeger's career has had a significant revival. The impressive CD and DVD We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006), produced by Bruce Springsteen, and the Library of Congress tribute to Pete and his family, [End Page 6] "How Can I Keep From Singing," in March 2007, affirm the enduring power of his music. His voice and his music are a legacy that touches the hearts of all who love folk music...