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Legendary Pete Seegerreflects on life at 85

Pete Seeger isn't slowing down. At 85, the dean of American folk singers is still recording, still working to leave a better world.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The voice on the other end of the line sounds a bit winded at first, giving his caller momentary pause that perhaps the years are finally catching up on the dean of American folk singers.

But then Pete Seeger explains that he’s just spent the better part of the afternoon outside, building a new fence around his home in the mountains of rural upstate New York.

These are busy times for Seeger, who has far more on his plate than just building fences, or chopping wood, which he also does regularly at 85.

A member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy winner, and the composer of hundreds of songs including such American classics as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn Turn Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” Seeger has never been one to slow down.

He spent his Father’s Day weekend, as he does every year, working at the Clearwater Festival, the annual musical event he formed 36 years ago to help clean up New York’s Hudson River. He has since watched it grow into what organizers say is the largest environmental music festival in the world.

Then there are occasional concert engagements with Arlo Guthrie, his on-again, off-again singing partner since the 1960s and the son of Woody Guthrie. There are more musical genres to study, community sing-alongs to lead and various benefits to support for this longtime advocate of human rights.

AP: So, what was it like to turn 85?

Seeger: I’m becoming just a little bit creaky, like most folks my age. But I get more exercise than most city people do because I’ve got to provide firewood for the house here and right now I’m trying to put up a fence around the garden so that the local deer don’t get in. So I’m in better condition than most people my age. At least from the shoulders down (chuckling). From the shoulders up, I’m only about a quarter there. I can remember lyrics from songs I sung 60 years ago. But what happened to me last week I’d have a little trouble telling you.

AP: Eighty-five probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to you. Your father (pioneering ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger) lived to be, what? Ninety-three?

Seeger: He was 92 when he fell down the stairs, hit his head and went out like a light. Which is just the way he would have wanted to go. I went to close up his little house, where he still cooked for himself. It was still neat as a pin and there was a letter there to someone in some foreign country. He said — how did he put it? — he said, “Now that my cataract operation is a success, I’m out of the doldrums and I’m all set to go traveling around the world again.” He had musicologist friends in many countries and he was planning to go out and visit them again.

AP: You don’t take to the road quite as much as you did.

Seeger: I’m in over my head in local things. We have a local Clearwater sloop called the Beacon Sloop. We take people out for free and teach them how to sail. ... Also, my singing voice is about 95 percent gone now. But I can still get an audience singing because I’m a lifelong song leader. I do what they do in church. They call it lining out the hymn. I tell people, “You know this song” (as he starts singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”). Then I feed them the words: “As I was walking. That ribbon of highway. I saw above me. I saw below me.” I just need to hint at the words and the audience sings.

AP: How did you meet Woody Guthrie?

Seeger: I had been singing for a little left-wing theater group called Action. One of the teachers there was Will Geer the actor. ... I’d met him in New York, and a year later he had a job in Hollywood. He wrote me and said, “I’ve met the most wonderful ballad singer here named Woody Guthrie.” He said, “I hope when he comes to New York you’ll meet him.” Later (in 1940) Will was in the Erskine Caldwell play “Tobacco Road.” The stage was full of red dust and sharecroppers’ cabins, and Will persuaded the producers to let the theater be used for a midnight concert to benefit California agricultural workers. On stage were Leadbelly, Josh White, an American square dance group my wife was dancing in, and a person who was a stranger to everybody in New York, a little curly-haired guy named Woody Guthrie. He had to come back again and again, they wouldn’t let him off the stage. He’d tell a little story, sing a song, tell another little story, sing another song. I sang one song, very amateurish, got a smattering of applause and quickly left the stage.

AP: Are you still working with his son Arlo?

Seeger: We were together in February to have a little tribute here for our fellow manager Harold Leventhal. Harold is two weeks younger than I, and he and I and Arlo have known each other for 50 years or so. ... Woody brought Arlo up here (to the house) when he was only about 3 years old.

AP: Any plans to do any more recording?

Seeger: You haven’t heard my Martin Luther King song? It was recorded this past year. “Take It From Dr. King.” I don’t expect it to be widely sung, but I think on Dr. King’s birthday it will get sung in schools and churches and played on radio stations. It’s a jazzy little song. But I’m not trying to record any more. As a matter of fact, the only reason I made this record was because I had a whole batch of other people to help me do it.

AP: What do you think has kept Woody’s, and your music, in front of the public for so long?

Seeger: Woody set the tone for it well. It’s been a half-century since he went into a hospital and people are still singing his songs. And the most important work I did in my life since then was go from college to college to college and sing some of Woody’s songs. And Leadbelly’s too. And let them know there is a lot of music in this country that never gets played on the radio. Then along came Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Buffy Saint Marie and others, and they carried Woody on farther. And now there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people doing his songs.