Pete Seeger

The voice of America

Sometime around 1968, when I was about 18, Pete Seeger and I did a concert together at Carnegie Hall, a tradition we continued pretty much up until last November. That first time, I remember watching how he handled the audience. I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of me. I wouldn’t have used the word master in those days, but he had an authority over the audience. He would just wave his hand, and you could hear them singing. It was almost as if he had some extra sense that allowed that kind of audience response. There’s no one else I have ever seen who has had that, in any country, on any continent or in any city. Nobody came close.

Pete was quite a music scholar. Whenever I wanted information on a song, he was the first guy I’d ask. He’d say, “You know, back in 1782 there was a guy …” He knew the names of the people who wrote the songs and where the songs originated. He was fascinated by all that. And every once in a while, as the occasion permitted or demanded, he would just come up with lyrics of his own, write something and try it out. That’s how he gave us the great songs he wrote and co-wrote, like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and, with lyrics drawn from the Bible, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

Above all, Pete loved the idealism of a nation founded on the principles he thought were important, and he spread that idea wherever he went. This is why he refused to answer questions when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. To be asked about his religion or his political beliefs was such an insult to him because it was insulting to every American. But he had a way of understanding and talking about these personal events so as to make it clear that they affected everyone. If that episode had affected just him, he wouldn’t have written about it; he wouldn’t have made a big deal. But because it affected everyone, he was involved. I think that’s one of the things that motivated him about the environment, the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement. Whatever was going on, he was there, because he had a sense of how it had an impact on everyone. Sometimes he was right; sometimes he was wrong. But he was right most of the time, and he set out to make the country what he imagined it could be. It was not just personal. It was America.

Guthrie is a folksinger and songwriter

This appears in the February 10, 2014 issue of TIME.
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