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Q & A

Despite Doubts, He's Still a Believer in Power of Folk Music

May 20, 1997|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a career that spans six decades, folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger has been on the front lines of the labor, civil rights, antiwar and environmental movements. But it's a different cause that brings him on a rare trip west from his home on the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y.--benefit concerts tonight and Wednesday for the Ash Grove, the folk club owned by his old friend Ed Pearl.

Seeger, 78, doesn't perform much anymore--his voice is about gone, he says, so he has his grandson, Tao Rodriguez, along to help sing. Of course, the crowd will do its part too--the roughhewn song leader has been raising audience participation to an art form since the '40s.

Seeger, who proselytized for the likes of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Bob Dylan over the years, is probably the individual most responsible for the popularity of folk music, and he comes to town at a time when folk styles and attitudes seem especially strong, penetrating the culture in the music of such artists as Beck, Ani DiFranco and Bruce Springsteen.

But don't call it a resurgence. In a recent interview, Seeger scoffed at the notion that it ever went away.

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Question: Do you take pride in what looks like a resurgence of folk-music values these days?

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Answer: When you say resurgence, I think you're being misled by what gets publicity. There has never been any time in the last 30 years when folk songs have receded. They simply went off TV. Does that mean they receded? TV's a bunch of [expletive] and you know it. Arlo Guthrie and I sang for steadily larger audiences every single year after we started touring together [in the mid-'70s].

Q: Arlo's dad Woody seems to be undergoing a significant revival. Bruce Springsteen's album "The Ghost of Tom Joad" is almost an homage to his spirit.

A: Woody Guthrie has had, is having and will have a continuing important influence on poetry and music and politics too, I think. He had the genius of simplicity. And it is a real genius, too. I mean any damn fool can get complicated.

Q: Are you concerned that computers and other technology might endanger the folk process?

A: People are still carrying right on the folk process with computers and tape and everything. I think in spite of my pessimism about the country as a whole, there's probably more people writing songs, and some of them very, very good songs, than ever before in history. . . . And they make a little tape and sell it everywhere they go.

On the other hand, it's tending to become professionalized, as so many things do. And I'm very seriously pessimistic that the average mother doesn't sing songs to the average kid anymore, and the average kid going to school doesn't know how to sing. Later in life it becomes a lot harder to learn. . . . In my opinion it's the basic problem for the human race, that machines have said, "Oh, do your job and then pay an expert to do everything else." Watch an expert athlete, listen to an expert comedian, expert actors, musicians and so on. Just pay 'em money and you sit back on the couch. Every year America's physique goes down, down, down. Kids are more obese every year. Our main exercise is to transfer our asses from one seat to another.

Q: You've been linked with social activism throughout your career. Are you pessimistic in that area too?

A: No, there's millions of little things. The machine age has got us sitting back looking at experts and people are saying, "Well, I guess there's not much I can do about it." On the other hand, in every community there are people saying, "I've got to do something. . . . " The proliferation of little things going on, you can't feel completely pessimistic. Look at what Rev. [Lucius] Walker is doing carrying medical supplies to Cuba. Look at what Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest, is doing in trying to stop SOA--they call it the School of the Americas, it should be called the School of Assassination--in Fort Benning, Ga. Little organizations here, little organizations there, save this, stop that. Some are practical, some are impractical, but the remarkable thing is how many of them there are. Some of them are really heroic and wonderful.

Q: What about the so-called decline of the Left as a force in U.S. politics? Do you buy that?

A: I distrust the word "t-h-e." I don't think any two people would agree on what the Left is anyway. I mean some things have declined, other things have enlarged. . . . Those attitudes have spread widely. Fifty percent of the populace refused to vote in the last election. . . . They think that neither the Republican nor the Democratic party is going to make that much difference.

Q: Where does music fit in? How does it impact social change?

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