From riding the rails with Woody Guthrie to campaigning for a cleaner
reluctant folk hero Pete Seeger tells it like it was, is, and could be
by Warren Berger
PETE SEEGER HAS STORIES TO TELL, amazing ones. And he doesn't have to make them
up. Sitting in front of a crackling fire at his home in upstate New York,
the legendary folk singer
can regale you with tales of being on the road with Woody Guthrie, as the
impromptu tunes for striking oil workers in Oklahoma. He can talk about
leading a crowd of civil rights marchers, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
right up front, in a rendition of "We Shall Overcome," a song that, thanks
in large part to Seeger, became the anthem of a movement that changed the
world. He has stories of war, with men "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,"
preparing to die. Or about life at the top of the pop charts (a place
Seeger never wanted to be), or about the wonder of seeing little ditties he
created with modest expectations"If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the
Flowers Gone"begin to spread, inexorably, to villages around the world,
becoming part of musical history. He can also tell you the flip side of
that story: What it's like when the broadcast networks ban and censor you;
or what it feels like to be surrounded and pelted with stones, and then to
stand trial and face prison, just for singing songs.
But the eighty-one year old's agile mind is also filled with other types of
stories, ones that have nothing to do with his remarkable life as a
musician and social activist. These are stories about foolish frogs, a
magic comb, talking light bulbs and a giant named Abiyoyo. Some are stories
his father told him in the dark when he was a small child and which he, in
turn, has shared with his own children and grandchildren through the years.
To Seeger, sharing stories is a near-sacred tradition. And he believes it
is an endangered art, which is partly why he co-wrote Pete Seeger's
Storytelling Book with Paul DuBois Jacobs, a young carpenter and first-time
author (and a grandson of Walter Lowenfels, who co-wrote songs with Seeger
years ago). The book encompasses everything from classic bedtime tales to
stories derived from the Bible and American history. But it is more than
just a collection of stories. It's a plea to preserve the practice of
everyday storytelling and a challenge to all of us to participate in this
"I wanted to write a how-to book on storytelling," Seeger explains. But
aren't there lots of people who already know how to tell stories? What
about all the writers, the singers, the creators of movies and TV
shows? That's part of the problem, he insists. "Today, we sit back and let
the professionals do all the storytelling, and we don't participate in
that. Parents rely on television to put the kids to sleep instead of
telling stories themselves," Seeger says. He maintains that anyone can be a
good storyteller, and that rich source material is "all around us, in a
movie you've seen, or something you've read in the Bible." But to really
bring these stories to life, he says, we must make them our own, changing
and adapting them along the way. "You make the story fit your life, your
times, your own kids."
In effect, Seeger is advising his readers to do what he and some other folk
singers have always done, taking old songs or tales and giving them a fresh
spin and a new life. Through the years, Seeger has found material for his
songs all around: For example, the inspiration for "Where Have All the
Flowers Gone" came from an old Russian song about Cossacks going off to
war; Seeger latched on to a couple of phrases in the original, then rewrote
it with new lyrics and music. He found the words to "Turn, Turn, Turn" in
the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, adding only the music and one
powerful closing line ("A time for peace...I swear it's not too late").
Roger McGuinn, who turned that song into a hit record with his rock group
the Byrds, says Seeger's storytelling approach to music influenced a whole
generation of musicians who, like Seeger, began to share tales with their
audiences, both within and between the songs they sang. "When he sang, Pete
always shared with people the folklore and the history behind the song,"
McGuinn says, "and that inspired a lot of other folk musicians to do the
Seeger's book has an overarching message that goes beyond storytelling:
It's about participation. From his earliest performances, he has always
believed that the audience should join in the process of music-making
rather than sit back and let the professionals have all the fun. In fact,
according to Arlo Guthrie, Seeger's longtime friend and sometime
collaborator, Seeger is uncomfortable with the very notion of a
"professional" musician who stands apart from the audience. "If you think
about it," Guthrie says, "Pete's life spans the distance from when songs
and storytelling were part of people's everyday lives, on through to the
technological revolution, at which point people began to get their stories
and songs from records and CDs. But Pete has always tried to get everyone
to sing along and tell their own stories, and he reminds us that you don't
have to be a professional to do it. These traditions of story and song
belong to everyone."
Read all about song-writer Pete Seeger's life, from his birth in New York
1919 to his involvement in left-wing politics, in "American Storyteller,"
March/April 2001 issue of BOOK.
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