Pete Seeger: Unless we communicate, mankind will disappear
American folk singer who mentored Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, set to participate in virtual rally for Negev's Arava Institute, but is supportive of commercial ban on Israel. 'The entire world should show Israel it should work non-violently,' he says
"My memory is going," says Pete Seeger during a phone interview conducted from his home in the Hudson River Valley. But the 91-year-old singer's sharpness does not cease to amaze, as he spells out a surname he thinks is important to the conversation or recalls his first visit to Israel in the 1960s. During the conversation it is hard to believe that the speaker is a World War II veteran who performed for Eleanor Roosevelt and marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.
Then, as now, Seeger whole-heartedly believed that songs can bring change. Seeger, America's most important folk-music singer, says time and again that dialogue and non-violent actions are the only way to solve conflicts. This is why he's participating in a virtual rally in support of the Negev's Arava Institute, whose students include Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and others.
Many pro-Palestinian organizations, including Adalah-NY, the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, signed a petition calling on Seeger to withdraw from the rally, but he won't hear of it. That's not to say that he supports Israel's current policies. "My stand is supporting the boycott of Israeli products. I don't know much about the artistic boycott taking place, but I understand the financial boycott. I don't think there will be a human race here in another 50 years unless the entire world finds a way to communicate - whether it's with pictures or music or food or sports. Words may come later, but we have to find a way to (talk) in some way".
'Big things don't impress me.' Performance at Obama inauguration (Photo: AP)
Three Grammy awards and presidential medals, from both Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro, have been bestowed upon Seeger. And yet, his name may not ring a bell to the younger generation. "Arguably America’s most celebrated anti-celebrity", New York Magazine called him, before a star-studded event in honor of his 90th birthday.
This is the singer who helped Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as fledgling artists, who took folk songs from around the world and introduced them to the West, from Africa's "Wimoweh" to the Cuban "Guantanamera". Seeger and his band The Weavers were the only act to bring a Hebrew song, "Tzena, Tzena", to the top of the US charts, in 1950.
Seeger also wrote the song "Turn!Turn!Turn" by words taken from the book of Ecclesiastes, later to become a hit with The Byrds. Seeger believes royalties from songs he helped make popular should return to their place of origin, which is why he donates a share of "Turn! Turn! Turn" to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
Seeger paid a price for his political activism. His membership in the American Communist Party, which he revoked upon learning of the horrors of the Stalinist regime, led to a subpoena in 1955 by the House Un-American Activities Committee. His pleading the first amendment ended in an indictment for contempt of Congress. Though he was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months in prison, his conviction was overturned. Despite being a free man, Seeger was blacklisted and banned from appearing on American TV and radio shows.
Half a century later, it appeared that poetic justice has been served, as Seeger was invited to perform, alongside Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao Seeger-Rodriguez, at Barack Obama's inauguration.
As a former Washington pariah, did you feel you've come full circle in the inauguration?
"I don't know about 'full circle'. Big things don't impress me. I'm just as impressed when I sing to the children in my home town. It's true, though, that during the Cold War, I call it the 'Frightened 50s', it was the Conservatives who brought Mccarthy down, while Democrats were running for cover. The Conservatives had him eventually censured."
What was your reaction when you learned of Bruce Springsteen's intention to release an album of your songs?
"I've never heard of him, because I don't listen to records. Although I heard he's very famous (laughs). I said go ahead."
Your relationship with Israel goes back a long way.
"That's true. I first visited in 1964 with my wife and children. I was interested in visiting a Kibbutz and met Yemenites who had just come to Israel. I was impressed by the energy of the kibbutz.
"In 1967 I performed at a joint Israeli and Arab event (at the Hilton Tel Aviv, days before the Six Day War broke out). Before that I performed in Lebanon, where they asked me not to come to Israel. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse; Israel adopted large scale force while Palestinians use small scale force.
"Little by little I understood more how Zionism started. Of course, after the horrible experience of Hitler many people went to Israel. On the other hand, had I known more then, what was going to happen to Jews everywhere, I would consider how to prevent this terrible situation going on right now."
What do you think you could have done, 50 years ago?
What I'm saying right now. I would have said to the Israelis and Palestinians, if you think right now is terrible, just think ahead 50 years when the world blows itself up and there will be no more human race. It will get worse; it will get worse and worse unless you start thinking how to turn things around peaceably. We don’t know how to do it, but we’ve got to try. That’s what Dr. Martin Luther King did. Instead of taking a big task, such as voting, he was dedicated to boycotting segregated buses. It took him 14 months to boycott one city. Finally, the fascists in America assassinated him. But he accomplished in 13 years what hadn't been done in a century."
The virtual rally for the Arava Institute, scheduled to take place on November 14th at 8 pm (Israel time), will be hosted by actor Mandy Patinkin (Chicago Hope, Princess Bride) and includes performances by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Tuck and Patty and Israeli singer Mosh Ben Ari, whose song "Salaam (Od Yavo Shalom)" will close the event.
Have you learned the song "Salaam (Od Yavo Shalom)" by heart?
"No, but I've learned a beautiful Lebanese song I've recorded for the rally, 'Ghannu Mai'. It ends with a phrase, when you know finally who freedom is, 'You must call to her. If not, she will not come closer.'"
Do you have any estimation how many songs you’ve written over the years?
"There are 267 songs in my songbook. One of them is a famous song in which I changed only two words: 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'. I changed it from 'why, oh why, can't I?' to 'why can't you and I.'
"I make a joke about it. I look at the sky and I hear Yip Harburg, who wrote the words and died 30 years ago say, 'You can fool with the folk songs, but don't dare touch 'Over the Rainbow!' (laughs)
You and your wife Toshi have been married for 67 years. Any tips for domestic bliss?
(Laughs) "Good food."
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