Life According to Pete Seeger: No Computer, No Records, Just Singing

For Seeger, music is not about financial gain but reaching individuals. "The most important thing I've done in my life," he said, "is to show that you don't have to have hit songs on the radio. I showed a raft of young composers you don't have to chase after the music business to try and make a living. You should sing for whoever you want—a coffeehouse here, a little organization there who needs a singer for an evening, from school to school." He credits this to his helping opening up the college performing circuit in the late 1950s. "I just got on the stage and sang informally, and said: hey, help me out with the chorus," he said. "It opened up a new field for performers—Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Graham Nash, David Crosby, and a whole lot of others. I could have kicked the bucket in 1960, and my main job was done." From another room, Seeger's wife, Toshi Seeger, shouted: "I thought marriage was your main job." "My main musical job," Seeger corrected.

He's more popular now, he feels, than he's often been in his long career, especially during his tempestuous 1950s and '60s period when his records were burned, he had difficulty appearing on television, and was an all-but-pariah from mainstream society. Now, the stigma has been lifted—Musselman jokes that "he went from the blacklist to the A-list in a number of years"—and younger generations are again embracing him as an American treasure. The singer appreciates the attention, but it comes with pitfalls. "The phone rings all day long," he sighed. "The mail comes in by the bushel." Once known for responding to fan mail personally, Seeger now receives far too much; still he feels obligated to respond to each person with one of several form letters he's written. "Until that nice movie [PBS Documentary] The Power of Song came out, I lived a halfway normal life. But now I've blown my cover," one starts, apologizing for the stock response. He's reserved an acerbic letter for autograph-seekers. It begins: "I wish I could persuade you that collecting autographs is one of the most foolish ways we can spend our precious time." When discussing the deluge of fan mail, or phone calls from reporters, it's the only time Seeger really sounds like a 91-year-old man.

Change the topic to music again, though, and he's reanimated. Seeger's working on recording a new song, called "God's Counting on You," a long, stanzaic ballad with what he insists is the key ingredient of successful protest music—a catchy chorus that's fun to sing. He rattled off a few verses a cappella, one of which is especially timely: "Yes, when drill, baby, drill / Turns to spill, baby, spill / God's counting on me / God's counting on you."

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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