Book Sources - Pete Seeger

Peter "Pete" Seeger (born May 3, 1919) is an American folk singer and an iconic figure in the mid-twentieth century American folk music revival. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of The Weavers, most notably their recording of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene," which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Members of The Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960s, he re-emerged on the public scene as a prominent singer of protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, and environmental causes.

As a song writer, he is best known as the author or co-author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)," (composed with Lee Hays of The Weavers), and "Turn, Turn, Turn!," which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. "Flowers" was a hit recording for The Kingston Trio (1962), Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962), and Johnny Rivers (1965). "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while The Byrds popularized "Turn, Turn, Turn!" in the mid-1960s, as did Judy Collins in 1964. Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.

From Pete Seeger’s 2009 edition of his book, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, attributed to his father, Charles Seeger. “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. One can rarely put one’s hand upon it. One can only circle around and point, saying, it’s somewhere in there."

* Pete Seeger, in his musical autobiography, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’ (2009 Revised Edition, page 89), gives some handy advice.

  1. ‘Try improvising variations on any tune you know, or are listening to. Imagine you are
    a musician from a different tradition or a different part of the world. How would they change that tune?’
  2. ‘Try slowing a tune down or speeding it up. Put it in a different “mode”, major or
    minor. Start by changing one or two notes in the beginning, middle or end. Then change whole phrases.’
  3. ‘Play a game in the car – put tunes to words on highway billboards. Pretend it’s a singing commercial you hear on the air. You can play the same game leafing through magazines or newspapers. Sing the headlines.’

Seeger concludes, ‘What you’ll decide is what the world’s best composers have long known: it’s easy to make up a half-good melody. But to make up an unforgettable one takes luck, and for all anyone knows, help from The Great Unknown.’ He adds the oft quoted line from Thomas Edison that, ‘Genius is 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration’ Also his observation, ‘Practice may not make perfect, but it sure as hell makes for improvement.’

In the same book Seeger reflects how many songs, particularly in the folk genre, utilise the same or similar tunes. He quotes Woody Guthrie joking once about another songwriter, ‘Oh, he just steals from me. But I steal from everybody. I’m the biggest song-stealer there ever was.’

I guess the difference with Woody was he usually improved the originals.