Pete Seeger: "That Was the First Time I Met Reverend King..."

tags: Martin Luther King, interviews, Kris Wood, Rosa Parks, civil rights movement, Pete Seeger

Kris Wood was an HNN intern and is currently a student at New York University.

Editor's note: Legendary folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger died Tuesday morning at 94. To mark his passing, HNN is dipping into its archives to present an interview with Seeger conducted last year by NYU student Kris Wood.

The story of Pete Seeger’s life is a uniquely American tale. At age 93 he has lived long enough to go from being briefly jailed, and then blacklisted, in the 1950s, for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to receiving Kennedy Center honors in 1994. As Bruce Springsteen put it, when honoring Seeger on his 90th birthday, “Pete, you outlasted the bastards.” Seeger has played a prominent role in every social movement, from labor and civil rights to peace and environmentalism. His songs, which include "Turn, Turn, Turn"; "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and "If I Had a Hammer," have become part of the American fabric, and his output hasn’t slowed. In 2012, Seeger released two albums: A More Perfect Union (with Lorre Wyatt) and Pete Remembers Woody, along with the publication of Pete Seeger: In His Own Words a collection of private letters and documents edited by Rob and Sam Rosenthal. On Sunday, March 10, I sat down with Pete at his home, nestled in the woods of Beacon, New York, to talk about the early days of the civil rights movement.

Kris Wood: I wanted to start off by talking about the Highlander Folk School and how you became involved with the school.

Pete Seeger: I had never heard of the place, but Woody Guthrie allowed me to accompany him on his trip out to visit his wife. Alan Lomax, the folklorist at the Library of Congress said "You ought to stop in at the Highlander Folk School." I said, "What's that?" and he said, "Well it's a very interesting little place." We stopped in for all of one day and a photograph was taken there which has been shown ever since, showing me at twenty-one years and Woody at twenty-seven years. He was playing guitar and me banjo and it was at Highlander. Well, I found this a very interesting little place.

And you first met Myles Horton there?

Myles was a bright kid and his parents living in the mountains of Tennessee, the central little west of Knoxville, south of Nashville, said "If our son grows up here he'll go to a little one-room schoolhouse and he'll never get far, but if we lived in a town maybe he'd get to be a bright student. I'm sure he'd get to be a bright student in class and might get a scholarship to a college.” So they moved out of the little village in the mountains and went and got jobs in a textile mill, I think, and Miles did go to school and was absolute top of his class and did get a scholarship to a college up north. Up north, people asked him, "What are you going to do with your life?" and he said, "I want to go back to the Highlands and start a school. People down there don't have schools." They said, "Do you have any money?" "Nope I don't have the faintest idea where I will get the money." "Well you ought to go to Scandinavia. They have a thing there called the Folk School Movement."


I'm told that it started with Christian socialists way back in the nineteenth century. Bishop Grundtvig of Norway said, "Anybody who wants to learn something can get together with other people, and if you have a group you can learn it." One person can't do it, but if you have a group -- not too big a group -- he says fifteen is too many, three is too small. The ideal is seven or eight and one of you, you all get books from the library and one of you studies a chapter and gives a report on it and the next week a different person gives a report and the others ask questions. Well after a year, you all learn how to give reports and how to ask questions. Two of the most important things in life to learn. Miles went to Denmark and stayed there a year and when he came back he found a retired professor at an old farmhouse. He said, "I don't need no farmhouse. I just need somebody to cook for me and a room on the top floor I can live on and you can use the rest of the house." So they took down the wall between the living room and the dining room and had a room that you could sit fifty people in. He married a woman from Arkansas whose parents were rather conservative and didn't really approve her marrying this strange young teacher. Zilphia Horton. A wonderful person. I learnt many things from her. She was the person who first sang "We Shall Overcome" to me. Then she tragically died from accidentally drinking some cleaning fluid. She was only forty.

Anyway, Myles calls me up in 1957. Myles calls me up on the phone and says, "Pete, can you come down and lead some songs? We are having our twenty-fifth anniversary here at Highlander." And three young people drove up from Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King, Reverend Abernathy, and Rosa, Rosa Parks. Rosa had actually come up to spend two weeks at Highlander and it was Highlander that got her to sit down. At the end of two weeks at Highlander, Myles went around the circle and asked, "What are you going to do when you get home to put into action what you've learned here? Don't just study and then go home." One person said, "Well I'm going to start voter registration," and the next person said, "I've gotta start before that. I've got to start literacy classes." They came to Rosa and she said, "I don't know what I'm going to do." "Well we'll get back to you. You must think of something." They got back to her and she said, "I really don't know what I'm going to do, but I am going to do something." And of course, she did and it changed history.

You met her that day?

I met her, I met all three of them that day. As a matter of fact there is a picture taken of us out standing out standing in front of a cinder block wall that they enlarged the barn which became their library and King, Abernathy, Rosa, Me and Miles and Zelphilia's teenage daughter were there.

That was the first time I met King. I sang a few songs. I didn't sing "We Shall Overcome" very well, but a friend drove him to Kentucky the next day to a speaking engagement and she remembers him sitting in the back seat saying, "'We Shall Overcome,' that song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?" "We Shall Overcome" is from a song, it's still sung, "I'll be alright, I'll be alright, I'll be alright, some day. Deep in my heart I do believe, I'll be alright someday." Second verse, "I'll be like Him." Capital H. Third verse, "I'll overcome, I'll overcome, I'll overcome, someday." There's a book written by a University of Pennsylvania professor and it quotes a 1907 article in the United Mine Workers journal. It said, "At our strike meeting last year, we started every meeting with a prayer and singing that good old song 'We Will Overcome.'" Now they probably sang it fast. But, a woman named Lucille Simmons was in a strike of three hundred tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina, and she liked to sing it slow. You can sing gospel song fast or slow if its sung slow its called long meter style and this allows basses to feel out the part and tenors and altos, sopranos. It's a way that you can harmonize beautifully. I sometimes do "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" like that. A young man nine years younger than I named Guy Carawan, he'd been learning gospel songs at a black church and he found that they used a rhythm that musicians call 12/8 time. That's the way they sang "We Shall Overcome," and it hit the spot. I was at a weekend workshop, seventy young people from all across the South were at Highlander. This was the old Highlander, and we sang dozens of songs, but this was the hit song of the weekend. They loved it. A month later, Guy Carawan was at the founding convention of SNCC -- Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- and somebody shouted, "Guy, teach us all 'We Shall Overcome!'" and that's where they invented the idea of crossing your hands in front of you. Your right hand holds the left hand of the person to your left and your left hand holds the right hand of the person to your right and your shoulders touch and your bodies sway. You're dancing as well as singing, you're moving your body when you're singing. It becomes a great mass thing. I'd say a month later it was not a song, but the song throughout the whole South. Florida to Missouri. Texas to Maryland. Everywhere in the South it was the song. I started singing it that way. I learned it from Guy. Oh, the photograph of King sitting in this small. very small, little auditorium with a few dozen other people with him was blown up to thirty feet long and to nine feet wide and displayed throughout the South with a huge type that you could read as you were driving past it. "MLK at communist training school."

Well Miles was not a communist, although he knew communists. As a matter of fact, he had a big argument with Don West, he wanted him to be more strictly communist. Miles allowed communists to come to Highlander, but he kept his own opinions. I think there was, yes, there was a communist photographing that meeting. At any rate, I got to know Highlander better. During World War II I was stationed briefly at Camp Sibert, Alabama, in the northern part of the state and I got a weekend pass and I went up to Highlander which was about fifty miles away, I think. I guess a local bus and then hitchhiked the last few miles. They had wonderful people there. Miles had a wonderful sense of humor. Rosa said that was what impressed her. The governor of Kentucky had appointed what he called a human rights commissioner to take the pressure off the state government and the commissioner came and wanted to speak to Miles, "Tell me Mr. Horton, how to you get Negroes and whites to eat together?" Miles put on his best professorial tone, "There are three things that you must do commissioner: You must cook the food. You must set the table. You must ring the dinner bell." It was that kind of humor which really impressed Rosa.

Today, we think of Martin Luther King as being ubiquitous, as being the face of civil rights. Did you get the impression when you met him the first time that he was ... He wasn't as well known at the time. Did you get the impression that he was someone who was exceptional?

Well, I had followed the newspapers closely and there was a man who had for years worked with the NAACP in Montgomery and I'm now trying to remember his name because at age ninety-three my memory is going and I cannot remember his name ... E.D. Nixon. And when Rosa was jailed, for not getting up out of her seat, she was allowed to make one phone call and she called Nixon. He said, "Rosa, I'll come get you out of jail right away. I'll pay the bail, but," he said, "This man King, he's the person we should get to help us." He'd heard him speak, "This man speaks!" So he calls up King and King says, "Well, Brother Nixon, I'm new here. Let me check with my deacons. Call me back in two hours. I want to make sure the church is behind this." Nixon calls back in two hours and he says, "Yes, Brother Nixon, I'm glad to say that the deacons have approved. We'll hold a meeting." Now this is on Friday night. Rosa sat down on Friday. Nixon said, "Reverend King, I'm so glad you said that because I've just told two hundred people we are meeting at your church tomorrow night, Saturday night, at eight o'clock." They did the interesting thing of inviting the newspapers, or the newspaper, there was one main newspaper in Montgomery, and they almost said, sarcastically, "Ha, the blacks are going to have a bus boycott." However, whether they were sarcastic, or not, five thousand people showed up on Sunday night and King later said that was the most the most important speech he ever made in his life, because he said, "We are going to win this bus boycott, if we are non-violent" and kept reiterating this. The five thousand people were standing out in the parking lot -- there was only room for a hundred people at the church -- he just kept reiterating this over and over. Later on there would be black lawyers and doctors who said, "Dr. King, maybe we can make a compromise here. People are getting hurt and we don't want to see more violence." He said, "Please come to the church tomorrow and we'll talk." Now, there were young people who said, "Look, they bombed us. Why don't we bomb them? Are we scared, or something?" and he said, "Come to the church tomorrow night." He would have these two groups of people who disagreed with each other diametrically and King merely asked questions and he said, "Now you talk, and you ask questions. Now, you talk and you ask questions." and he wouldn't let either of them say, "I don't care what happens next." He said, "We know that we will not win this bus boycott unless we are united together." The conversation might go on all evening, or even two nights, sometimes even three. Finally, they'd say, "Okay, okay, this is what we'll say. This is what we'll do." He got these two groups of people to shake hands and go ahead together. He really was the most extraordinary leader in winning this bus boycott. I finally meet him about one year later, when I came down to sing and I heard him speak there.

Did you meet him on any other occasions?

The only other time I met him was at the very important speech he made at Riverside Church in 1967, thirteen years later, and he said "I have to face the fact that my country is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. We must get out of Vietnam." He gave the same speech for eighty thousand people the following day. It was in the square at First Avenue and Forty-Third Street, outside the United Nations. This enormous crowd had gathered to hear King speak. He wasn't there yet though, I sang a song and I was up on the speaker's platform, a platform maybe twenty feet wide, and I saw a black car inching its way through the crowd. I heard people say, "He's here, he's here!" The car finally gets twenty feet from the speaker's platform and I looked down and saw King get out of the car. It took six strong men to make it possible for him to move through the crowd, saying, "Please make way for Dr. King" and pushing the crowd so that he wouldn't get crushed by them, because they all wanted to get close to him. It took him about five minutes to go twenty feet, and that's were he spoke the same speech again."I have to admit that my country is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. We must get out of Vietnam."

In those thirteen years, the whole country learned from him. I learnt things about him, also. He graduated from high school at age fifteen. Bright kid. When he was only fourteen, a man writes a letter to the Atlanta Constitution saying, "Why do Negroes want to marry whites? Don't they know that were supposed to be separate people?" And this fourteen-year-old writes, "Dear Editor, Surely Mr. So and So...", whoever wrote that letter, "...must know that if there are people in America that are mixed ancestry, it is not because Negroes want to marry whites but because of aggressive white males taking advantage of defenseless black females." In one sentence he said what most people would have taken two paragraphs to say. He was an absolute master of the English language. It's why his speeches were so unforgettable, wherever he went.

And you marched in Selma...

My wife and I both joined the march from Selma to Montgomery when it was finally agreed that it was legal. There were helicopters overhead making sure that there was nobody in the cornfields that was going to take pot shots at us. There were about three hundred people on the march. We were near the end. King was up near the beginning. We never spoke to him. Harry Belafonte went up and down the line encouraging people, up front and in back. Oh, an interesting thing, I learned a thing about "We Shall Overcome." Lilian Hellman, the great playwright, said, "Some day, some day. What kind of a song is that? We've been saying someday too long." She was not enthusiastic about the song. However, on that march we sang "We Shall Overcome" several times. Everyday, I'd say. At least once or twice or three times. Right after it, someone would shout, "What do we want?" and the whole crowd would say, "Freedom!" they'd shout, "When do we want if?" and they'd all shout, "Now!" Right after singing "We Shall Overcome." So that was a good answer to Lillian Hellman.

And those were dangerous times, during the marches. Do you remember a specific time when you felt frightened by the situation?

I went down, as I remember, twice. I might have gone down three times. One was just to sing a song. I think one song I sang. It was in a field out in back of what would be called the black section. They had a field back there. Bob Dylan was there. He was then in the prime of his youth, making up great songs. Incidentally, and this is quite off the subject, I came to the realization only a few months ago that most songwriters write their best songs when they are young. My best songs were all written when I was young. I can write an acceptable song now, but the great songs -- "Turn, Turn, Turn"
and "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" and "If I Had a Hammer," they were all written when I was young.

What about "Take It From Dr. King"? When did you write that?

That was about five years ago.

That's a good song.

Well, that's a good song, that's not a great song. Bob Dylan wrote his greatest songs young. Tom Paxton wrote his greatest songs young. Even Joni Mitchell, though she's written some songs later, but her unforgettable ones like "Big Yellow Taxi," now that's an absolute piece of genius. Although, she's still writing good songs. But here I got distracted and never really answered your question about Highlander and Myles Horton. So, then, the state of Tennessee, combined with the local Klu Klux Klan forced Highlander to close, but they had friends in Knoxville and they got some land a little bit east of Knoxville and they set up what was called the Highlander Research Center. It's not a cosy little place like the old Highlander. It's a big place with a beautiful view of the Smoky Mountains to the east. I've been down there several times.

How did you end up here, looking over the Hudson?

My wife has done such extraordinary things. When we first moved up here, I'd be off singing somewhere for ten or twenty dollars and we had one baby that was less than one year old, she would put her on her hip and the other was three years old and he would be pulling at her skirt. And she walked down the hill to the brook down there, about one hundred and fifty yards away and she got a little pail of water and walk back to the house. The water for cooking and washing and drinking for the day. And I'd come back with a few dollars. We bought this land, it was very, very cheap. There were ten little brick yards along the edge of the river and my neighbor and his father had a job cutting young oak trees, which would be put on a sled and a team of oxen would pull them to the river. Summer or winter. There they would get paid a dollar and they made charcoal out of the younger oak trees and then made bricks out of the charcoal. Now the oxen would pull the empty sleds up here and they'd handsaw wood four feet wide and four feet high and eight feet long. That was another dollar. Thirty-eight years later some real estate agents tried to sell us an old farmhouse. I wanted to get an old farm. My grandparents had lived thirty miles east and I'd hiked around this valley and it was all dairy farms. In 1949 there were a few dairy farms left but now it's all development. Hudson Valley is doubling every twenty years. Economists tell you that we should grow, grow, grow. They say, "If you don't grow, you die." I say if that's true, doesn't it follow that the quicker you grow the sooner you die?

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