Pete Seeger, 94

Posted in Rock 'n' Roll, Uncategorized at 4:09 pm by George Smith

I interviewed him once for the Allentown Morning Call. His was a gentle soul of great accomplishment and generosity.

From February 1990:

There was a time not too long ago when Sing Out! magazine was in such dire straits that one of its founding members, folk hero Pete Seeger, had to sell the rights to his best-known song, “If I Had A Hammer,” to an English tea company, to keep the quarterly afloat.

The tea company wanted to use the song in an advertising jingle. “I don’t normally do that kind of thing, but there was a need and the money was used to pay off some of Sing Out!’s outstanding bills,” Seeger recalled wistfully during a telephone interview last week from his home in Beacon, N.Y.

That low point came in 1982. Sing Out! was $35,000 in debt. Things were so bad that during the summer, the magazine closed its New York City office. The office’s contents were loaded into a U-Haul truck and taken to Easton, where old copies of Sing Out! and files were stored in the basement of a sympathetic bicycle dealer. The publication’s future was uncertain.

Now, however, financial turmoil is a distant memory, a sour note whose sound has been drowned out by ringing chords of revitalization. The South Side Bethlehem-based magazine started in New York City by Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays is enjoying a banner year as it celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Sing Out! circulation is at an all-time high of 10,000. The quarterly currently employs three full-time workers. After recent remodeling, the magazine occupies about 1,800 square feet of office space at 125 E. Third St., plus another 900 square feet of basement storage.

In May, the Sing Out! Resource Center will open in the publication’s Bethlehem office. The center will give the public access to an extensive collection of books, manuscripts, reports and recordings relating to folk music, folklore and folk songs.

There also is a news-style radio magazine in the offing for the last quarter of 1990. (“It will be sort of the `All Things Considered’ of folk music,” said Sing Out! editor Mark Moss.) In addition, Sing Out! will stage four festivals this year. The first will be May 18 in New York City and feature Seeger, Dave Van Ronk and other folk artists. Others will be held in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., throughout the year.

Along with those projects, Sing Out!, in conjunction the C.F. Martin Guitar Co. in Nazareth, has designed and produced a limited-edition commemorative instrument. All 40 guitars are signed by Seeger and the rest of Sing Out’s board of directors. The guitars never reached stores; demand was so great that the instruments were sold before most were made. The guitars reportedly listed for about $3,400 …

Seeger, Sing Out!’s sole surviving founder, was enthusiastic as he reminisced about the magazine’s shaky financial history. “The publication actually started just after World War II in 1945 under the name People’s Song Bulletin — Songs Of Labor And The American People. I had been in the service; Woody (Guthrie) had been in the merchant marine. Along with Lee Hays, we thought that our good contacts in the labor unions would be very beneficial for a magazine dealing with music for and by the people.

“Well, the Cold War came along and dashed our hopes for that. So People’s Songs folded in 1949.”

For one year, Seeger put out a mimeographed newsletter, which he continued until 1950, the year Sing Out! — essentially a reborn People’s Songs — was started.

“Sing Out!’s circulation eventually rose to a high point of about 10,000 during the great false folk boom of 1964 — thanks to The Kingston Trio,” Seeger recalled. “The magazine, however, was always on the brink of bankruptcy.

“By 1982, the editors had said to me, `We’ve tried everything. We can’t continue working without being paid. There’s no hope.’ ”

Seeger then produced a Sing Out! newsletter which asked the readership what should be done to revitalize the publication. In the meantime, he sold the rights to “If I Had A Hammer.”

Moss, then on the Sing Out! editorial board, remembered, “The ’70s were a difficult period for us. Sing Out! was seen by its subscribers as moving between being an eclectic music magazine and a magazine with a more political bent. And it was seen as not doing both particularly well by readers who favored either camp.

“The seed money that Pete raised was used to hold us over while we polled the readers on what they wanted and ran fund-raisers to bring in more revenue.”

It turned out, said Seeger and Moss, that readers wanted the magazine to refocus on folk music. There wasn’t a need to beat them over the head with all things political. Nor was there a need to continue three-color layouts and standard magazine size.

“The readers wanted a return to a smaller size which better matched our print size,” said Seeger. “It was relaunched with the idea that the editor needed more support from his board of directors.”

In August 1982, the magazine’s supporters began in earnest to pay off the $35,000 debt. Through benefit concerts and donations the debt was eradicated by the end of the year. Enough money also was raised to re-start the magazine, and in 1983 Sing Out! began publishing from a vacant warehouse on 4th Street in Easton. The first issue went to press in April. Sing Out! moved to Bethlehem in December 1987, when the Easton building was sold.

Seeger believes that, in part, Sing Out!’s rejuvenation can be attributed to the quality of the writing. “Most of the arts publications I’ve seen aren’t very well done. The mural painters’ newsletter and one devoted to ceramics are good examples. Obviously, some artists aren’t very good with words.

“But Sing Out! seems to be better than most. It should be . . . folk artists deal in words, so they should be halfway decent at writing, don’t you think? They remake songs; they know how to cut and paste.”


  1. Tom Paterson said,

    January 28, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    Of course Pete was a sailor with a yacht just like old Tom Perkins:



    *Seeger will long be remembered for his music but he will also be known for his love of the Hudson River. In the 1960s, Pete and his wife Toshi started an organization whose goal was to bring people back down to the Hudson River, which had become heavily polluted with industrial waste. They decided to “build a boat to save the river.” In 1969 the organization launched a replica of a Hudson River sloop, the once ubiquitous sailing cargo vessels that had plied the river a century before. They named the sloop, Clearwater, and began sailing up and down the river giving concerts and talking about the environment. Forty five years later, the Clearwater is still sailing the Hudson, introducing adults and school children to the river and the importance of conservation and the environment. Every year, the Clearwater organization also hosts the The Great Hudson River Revival, often referred to as the the Clearwater Festival, a music and environmental summer festival and America’s oldest and largest annual festival of its kind.*

  2. George Smith said,

    January 29, 2014 at 9:20 am

    I recall him talking about how he had wanted “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie to replace the national anthem or “God Bless America.” The Wikipedia entry on the song mentions it was published first in a small pamphlet. That was Seeger’s People’s Song Bulletin which eventually became Sing Out!

    I had to laugh re-reading the bit with him mentioning the ‘false-folk’ revival brought on by the Kingston Trio.

  3. Tom Paterson said,

    January 29, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Sending a cassette tape (intended as a language-learning aid) of Seeger’s LP ‘God Bless the Grass’


    to a friend in mainland China I wrote:

    There is no longer such a thing as English folk music: it was destroyed by industrialization, new systems of communication and the professionalization of popular entertainment. By the time the phrase folk music has been coined, genuine folk music is dead; self-consciousness kills tradition. The only place where naïve English music survived into the twentieth century was the United States, in isolated rural and mountain communities which had been established by the earliest of English settlers. The 4 traditional songs on this tape, sung by a highly educated upper-middle class American, were collected from such backwoods communities by academics and music scholars; newer material has been composed in the style of this traditional music. Folk music and protest songs of this kind were in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s.

    Of course I was winging it (God forbid that I should do any real research), but there’s probably a little truth there … that traditional Swedish folk song ‘Night and Day’!

  4. George Smith said,

    January 29, 2014 at 10:43 am

    In the 50’s Seeger got put before Congress for playing to Pennsylvania coal miners in Carbon county, near where I grew up. This was before I was born, of course. They wanted to prove he was a member of the communist party for playing to laborers and couldn’t. The entire idea that coal miners in Pennsylvania were “commies” is absurd to me.

    But that was the country. The Communist Party in America did have a great deal of appeal to labor, which took a lot of beatings from wealth prior to the New Deal, but US members were hardly like anything in the Soviet Union. In any case, the antipathy to coal miner labor was really old in Pennsylvania. The Molly Maguires, a coal miner resistance group, were set upon by business and the Pinkertons and hung, allegedly for being terrorists.

    Today the anti-union hate is very strong. In fact, the last few years has seen it grow quite a bit in WhiteManistan, linked with the presidency of Obama. And as I’ve noted over the years in this blog, now every Labor Day we have the routine of GOP congressmen writing anti-labor opinion pieces extolling American business titans for their “entrepreneurial spirit.”

    Here was the perfect example from a few years ago: Ted Nugent flacking for Don Blankenship, a coal titan, on the Labor Day weekend at a travesty called Coalstock.


    It was also guest to John Rich, who a couple years back was big country star in Big & Rich and had written a song called “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” another ace example of WhiteManistan’s mixed-up fools who represent the right and business interests while lamenting something like the then very threatened center of car manufacturing in Michigan.

    Months later Blankenship’s mine exploded killing 29, it made national news, and he was eventually compelled to forfeit his position.

    Read the digest of news reports and there you have it, the perfect American anti-labor Labor Day festival.

    This is all total anti-matter to what someone like Pete Seeger stood for.

  5. Tom Paterson said,

    January 29, 2014 at 11:47 am

    I wouldn’t have bought the records if I hadn’t loved the man and the music.

    Harmless fun to compare death rates in the great hydroelectric projects of the 1930s. American death rates were grim … but Soviet death rates were orders of magnitude greater.

    The situation in the US must have been mitigated by the union movement and a free press … and the fact that US labour was (theoretically?) voluntary. I don’t know, but certainly things had improved since the great railroad building projects of the previous century.

    As ever I’m as much asking you questions as making statements.

  6. Tom Paterson said,

    January 29, 2014 at 12:01 pm


  7. George Smith said,

    January 29, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    Maybe we don’t have as many deaths in big labor infrastructure and private sector projects mainly because we don’t do such projects in this country anymore. Haven’t, really, for years. Coolie labor on the railroads was way pre the New Deal revolution that came from the Great Depression and, along with WWII, caused the great middle class expansion. Plus, it had great tie in with, ah, race.

    My dad worked for Alcoa at the biggest extrusion plant in the world. People died and were maimed there; one particularly gruesome example often was of someone caught in an extrusion ram.

    Coal mines still regularly kill people. In the Lehigh Valley, a powder
    chemical firm regularly vaporized a couple workers.

    And we’ve had a spate of industrial accidents in the past few years with fatalities and quite awesome explosions to see on YouTube, inevitably all tied to de-regulation and lack of oversight/inspections and adherence to standards of protection.

    Naturally, we also now have the daily news of nicely contaminated water in West Virginia, for the usual reasons.

    The other thing to keep in mind is corporate America’s shift of production risk to slave and low wage labor nations. So when a garment worker building collapses or burns in Bangledesh and kills many, it’s major clients are American textile and apparel companies. Not exactly process, just a shifting of locales, and a convenient one.

  8. Tom Paterson said,

    January 29, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    “This machine surrounds hatred and forces it to surrender.”

  9. Tom Paterson said,

    January 29, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    I’m sorry, but I like TV sometimes. You can trust me to lower the tone.

    2006 Malcolm in the Middle (Graduation)

    Malcolm goes off to a prestigious college, working his way through as a janitor. Reese becomes a janitor for real. And Francis walks right into a plum white-collar vacancy.

    *Hal: You got a job?

    Francis: For the last two months. It’s at this giant corporation. I’m in this
    tiny little cubicle, surrounded by hundreds of other tiny little
    cubicles, inputting numbers into a computer all day. And I love it.
    I love everything about it. I love the stability and the regular
    paychecks. I love my parking space. I love getting those stupid joke

    And he finishes at 5 p.m.!

    I couldn’t work out whether this was ironic or whether the writers were really just out of touch with reality. They were back in the 1950s … maybe the advertisers demand it. I guess the true likely end of the Wilkerson family would have been too depressing.