Nietzsche: Myths Dispelled

Nietzsche: A time to dispel myths.

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As Alice Miller (1990) returned to re-read Nietzsche’s works after thirty years, so did I as a result of her essay. (Any other popular culture publication may have served as well, but at least she can read German.) Ironically enough, it reminded me of the opening of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Als Zarathustra dreißig Jahre alt war, verließ er seine Heimat und den See seiner Heimat und gin in das Gebirge.” (Z, 303) (“When Zarathustra became thirty years old, he left his homeland, and the sea of his homeland, and went to the mountains.” This will be my last reference to Zarathustra for reasons mentioned in the bibliographical note.) Both Miller and I were surprised by what we learned in those mountains, but we learned quite different things. However, I am thankful to her for prodding me to re-read what may be the most powerful and influential writer for the twentieth century.

Most frustrating about Miller’s essay is not the apparent effect of reducing to pity the writings, but her tactic of dismissing aforehand any disagreement as character defects in the reader. “Experts,” those who cannot face the facts, those who do not take seriously the situation of the child, will disagree with her. Therefore, those who do not accept her “proof” ignore the plight of children.

Her explanation of his misogyny is characteristically biographical, but using the same approach we can see that he was ahead of his time and recognized potential greatness in specific women—those who do not allow their roles in life to be prescribed by men.

Basically, the disagreement can be reduced to a simple question: Who has better insight into Nietzsche’s work—Miller or Nietzsche? If we argue that perhaps Nietzsche did not have sufficient psychological insight to recognize the effects of his childhood in accordance with Miller’s interpretations, we either have to dismiss Freud’s (and later Frankl) view that Nietzsche knew himself better than any other man in history and that Nietzsche knew little about psychology, or we must assume that Miller knows more. Even his own autobiography is at odds with her interpretations, especially as they relate to his relationship with Wagner.

There is one other possibility: Miller is not writing about Nietzsche at all. She is writing about child abuse and its consequences and Nietzsche is “handy” for her. She thus would be employing a tactic that Nietzsche himself used—using a person as a symbol for something, as a magnifying glass. If I knew nothing about Nietzsche, I would have been convinced by her arguments. Knowing a bit about him proved a considerable handicap in understanding the essay. As it is, Miller simply chose the wrong figure for a case study to “prove” her thesis, at least to one reader.

Alice Miller, in “Friedrich Nietzsche: The Struggle Against the Truth,” The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness (New York: Anchor Books, 1990), 73-133) writes with a warm, caring, feeling for “little Fritz,” but does little to enlighten any reader on Nietzsche. In fact, she takes the corpus of his works (which she has at least read and understood on a basic level) and reduces them to the helpless rantings of a wounded child. While the years have seen a number of attacks on Nietzsche, none is so subtly pernicious. It does nothing to advance scholarship on Nietzsche (except perhaps in reaction) and could have the effect of misrepresenting him to those who have only heard of him or who have perhaps read a few passages here and there. I believe Nietzsche may have reacted to her essay by calling it an example of “the eternal feminine.” Just as today the intended humor of that last sentence would most likely be overlooked in a reaction to perceived misogyny, so the humor and light spirit of Nietzsche is overlooked by Miller throughout in favor of “understanding” poor little Fritz.

She early on (74) points out that anyone who is “expert” on the subject of Nietzsche will not agree with her because “they were not capable of recognizing such forbidden knowledge” because, unlike her, they never realize “how strongly I was clinging to my childhood idealization of my parents” (74). Therefore, those readers who do not recognizer the truth of what she is saying simply are idealizing their parents and thus are intellectually handicapped. She writes for people “who can face the facts. They need not be experts….” (74) Because of his early childhood, Nietzsche wrote in such a way that the Nazis could distort him—the corollary, of course, is that anyone the Nazis distorted had an unhappy childhood. This includes Christ, Luther, Beethoven, Wagner, Jack London, Bernard Shaw, etc. Perhaps all of these writers had an unhappy childhood, but Shaw, at least, constantly says that his was a happy one. Miller “witnessed the way the deadly marching of the National Socialists in the thirties and forties was indirectly spurred on by Nietzsche’s words ….” (75) Could we say, using the same approach Miller applies to Nietzsche, that therefore PTSD affects her reading of Nietzsche?

But she covers her bases. She knows ahead of time that “my thesis that Nietzsche’s works reflect the unlived feelings, needs, and tragedy of his childhood will probably meet with great resistance.” However, “my thesis is correct nevertheless, and I will offer proof in the pages that follow.” Now the reader must pay attention—we will get “proof.” However, this “proof can be understood … only by someone who is willing to temporarily abandon the adult perspective to gain insight into and take serious account of the situation of a child.” (76) So, there it is—if the reader does not accept her proof, it is an example of not being willing to take seriously the helplessness of children. Is it possible to say the contrary, that anyone who agrees with Miller simply has not read Nietzsche appropriately?

I am not sure how to interpret her remarks about his “madness” as a result of syphilis. (76-78) Suffice to say, I get the impression that she feels the illness, in reality, was a result of an unhappy childhood, the body reacting to repression, an example of society defending itself against Nietzsche by invoking some sort of divine retribution. Walter Kaufmann (1966), who remains the authority on Nietzsche, provides this account: “During his disease Nietzsche was almost invariably gentle and pleasant, and in lucid hours he engaged in conversation. Sometimes, however, he was wild and frenzied. At no time could he be induced to discuss any of his works or ideas. His last books and letters notwithstanding, his disease was not paranoia but almost certainly an atypical general paralysis. If this diagnosis is correct, it would follow that he must have had a syphilitic infection—but it cannot be [considered proven]. The certainty which can be achieved today by various tests can never be matched by posthumous conjectures on an atypical disease. All we can say is—and all sober and unsensational medical treatments of the subject seem agreed on this—that Nietzsche very probably contracted syphilis.” (58) Both are reacting to negative commentaries about Nietzsche’s work, commentaries that see his “madness” as a result of God’s retribution or as proof that his ideas are invalid, or as both. Kaufmann’s, however, seems to me more substantiated (but then, perhaps Kaufmann does not take the sufferings of children seriously?).  More importantly, in this 21st Century, it has been fairly definitively diagnosed as Brain Cancer, a diagnosis unknown to physicians in the 19th Century whereas Syphilis was a common complaint.


Nietzsche’s remarks about women generally do him little credit from today’s (2014) perspective. At the same time, perhaps we can gain some insight into his remarks by examining them in context rather than dismissing them, as does Miller: “Nietzsche’s misogyny becomes understandable, of course, if we consider how much distrust must have accumulated in someone who was whipped so frequently as a child.” (98) So, poor Fritz, so abused by these women particular women, came to hate all women. Let me add that Miller overlooks an incident that would tend to support her case: Nietzsche threw his arms around a horse that was being whipped, went home to write a few letters, and was confined to an asylum shortly after that.

In truth, Nietzsche’s remarks about women should be understood in context of this remark from The Gay Science: “…it is man who creates for himself the image of woman, and woman forms herself according to this image.” (GS, 126) As is usually the case with Nietzsche, any sentence, paragraph, even book, quoted out of context requires explication. The remark means that we live in a male-dominated society and it is the males in power who prescribe the roles played both by males and females. Those males are usually members of the clergy (the priestly caste). Women attempt to fit into these roles and it is the roles that are absurd, not the gender itself. In fact, throughout, Nietzsche’s remarks about women should be interpreted as attacking those women who are unable or unwilling to rise above those roles and act instead as human beings striving for an overcoming of mankind. Indeed, we still see this phenomenon—one need only consider televised beauty pageants (who watches them? To whom are the commercials targeted?)

Freud himself has been attacked as misogynistic and certainly the early hypotheses concerning hysteria (a wandering uterus) does little credit to those who accepted it, yet it is best seen as an attempt to understand a condition, not as an attempt to belittle women.

In the 20th Century, the O.J. Simpson trial, believe it or not, illustrated how dangerous this subject is today when discussed by males. (There is no need to discuss the validity of that verdict or to think of it as of serious importance here.) At one point, a defense attorney described the prosecution’s actions as hysterical. Marsha Clark, the lead prosecution attorney, pounced on this and described it as a blatantly sexist remark, demeaning to women and by implication to the prosecution, justifying spousal abuse, compounded by the fact that the judge, another male, allowed the remark to enter the record. Another defense attorney, one of Barry Sheck’s team (today well-known as the founder of the innocence Project which has uncovered hundreds of nefarious actions of the legal system in criminal proceedings), did a computer search on the term and documented the fact that the first use of the term in the trial was by Marsh Clark herself! Why was it permissible for the prosecution to use the term and not the defense? Johnnie Cochran, the lead defense attorney, with a wandering uterus seemed rather absurd under the circumstances. She dropped her objection.

If we wish, however, to see the historical context of Nietzsche’s above remarks, we can look to Schopenhaurer: “it is only the man whose intellect is clouded by his sexual impulses that could give the name of the fair sex to that undersized, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped, and short-legged race; for the whole beauty of the sex is bound up with this impulse” (SP, 440). He continues, complaining of “..the childish simplicity, for example, with which they keep on chattering during the finest passages in the greatest masterpieces.” (411) Today, presumably, we have improved as both men and women chatter during performances. Aristotle, somewhere, places women on step below man on the ladder of evolution and offers as partial proof the fact that they have less teeth. Aristotle was married three times as I remember reading, and apparently never bothered to count his spouses’ teeth.

In light of the above, Nietzsche’s remarks seem rather enlightened and forward looking. Certainly, his remarks on women, taken out of the context of late nineteenth century views are harsh, but placed in their context they seem insightful. On the other hand, Shaw and Ibsen held more feminist views during the same period or a decade later, but their attacks were on the same issue: the roles women found themselves forced to play. (Nietzsche referred to Ibsen as “…that typical old maid”). (EH, 863)

Moreover, it is on precisely this point that Nietzsche is most vulnerable today. His remarks on Christianity, Wagner, society, etc., are far more obviously lucid and accepted. However, if his remarks on women are interpreted as extending to all women and they way women are biologically and for all time, how does one explain his comment on “Madame Cosima Wagner, who had by far the most superior judgment in matters of taste that I have ever heard.”? (EH, 840)

The Psychologist

Rather than proceed to a discussion of all of Miller’s points, it may be more profitable to discuss Nietzsche as a psychologist, or as a precursor to psychology. After all, could Nietzsche have understood himself well enough to recognize how his philosophy was a reaction to his childhood?

It is fairly well known that Freud thought that Nietzsche knew himself far better than any man who ever lived (although I can not locate a specific reference). Certainly, one who knew himself this well in the opinion of the “father” of Psychoanalysis would have enough acumen to recognize how “poor little Fritz” contaminated his writings as a result of being abused as a child. Much more important, however, is this remark by Freud: “Nietzsche … whose premonitions and insights often agree in the most amazing manner with the laborious results of psychoanalysis, I have long avoided for this very reason. After all, I was less concerned about any priority than about the preservation of my open-mindedness [Unbefangenheit]” (Kaufmann, 382). In short, Nietzsche anticipated the findings and the discipline of Psychoanalysis so precisely and prematurely that Freud himself avoided reading him for fear of being unduly influenced. As Nietzsche said, he “was born posthumously.”

So what are these insights? Nietzsche’s attacks on the “Slave Morality,” are well known, but the basis for those attacks is not, especially since Christianity is the premiere example of that morality. The following passage is fairly explicit, however: “The slave revolt begins by rancor turning creative and giving birth to values—the rancor of beings who, deprived of the direct outlet of action, compensate by an imaginary vengeance. All truly noble morality grows out of triumphant self-affirmation. Slave ethics, on the other hand, begins by saying no to an ‘outside,’ and ‘other,’ a non-self, and that no is its creative act.” And a few sentences later: “we should remember that the emotion of contempt, of looking down, provided that it falsifies at all, is as nothing compared with the falsification which suppressed hatred, impotent vindictiveness, effects upon its opponent, though only in effigy.” (GM, 171). Ironically enough, this is precisely what Miller accuses Nietzsche of doing in his writings, of reacting to his childhood, suppressing hatred, etc.

In Psychoanalytic terms, the above is fairly clear. The danger of suppression of libinous instincts in clearly expressed and anticipates Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Thanatos, the death wish, the turning inward of this violence negates any possibility of self-affirmation. It leads to or results in a lack of ego strength or identification makes one unable to identify boundaries between self and other. A strong ego may look upon others negatively, and at times erroneously, but it is “as nothing” compared to the violence done to the ego and others by the guilt caused by the turning inward of this energy. Perhaps this is the appropriate time to mention that Nietzsche used the term “das Ich”, not ego. I understand that the same was true for Freud. Curiously enough, both suffered from the biases of their early translators. Thomas Common’s translation of Also Sprach Zarathustra is one of the main reasons for much misinterpretation of Nietzsche. Common understood the entire work as a parody of the Bible because of the use of the second person—in grammatical terms, this is common in German, but fairly unique to the Bible in English today. I could say much more on this, but Religion is best reserved for another forum.

Another passage on the Superego or guilt: “whereas the noble lives before his own conscience with confidence and frankness…, the rancorous person is neither truthful nor ingenious nor honest and forthright with himself. His soul squints; his mind loves hide-outs, secret paths, and back doors … he is expert in silence …, in provisional self-depreciation, and in self-humiliation. (GM, 172). He focuses “…nun auch noch einen ‘guten” ausdenkt—sich selbst!” (GMG, 334) I have not seen this translated acceptably, but it means that the thoughts concerning what is “good” become the self-concept of the “slave” (eg., Christian Clergy, the Monkish Caste) and those who are opposed are “den Bösen” (the Devil, the “bad,” the “evil” sort of all rolled up into one in the same way “spirit,” “ghost,” and “energy” and all rolled up into one are “Geist.”) Since the slave is self-hating, self-hatred forms the basis of slave-morality. Moreover, the slave does not recognize this in himself—he sublimates it to the point where is it unconscious (in “hide-outs, secret paths, and back doors”) and then projects this hatred onto the other to the extent it is recognized. (One wonders about the childhood of such people.)

And these values, the form that self-hatred takes, and consequently what is proper behavior and thought is dictated by the “herd instinct,” that is to say, contemporary norms: “Whenever we encounter a morality, we also encounter valuations and an order of rank of human impulses and actions. These valuations and orders of rank are always expressions of the needs of a community and herd: whatever benefits it more—and second most, and third most—that is also considered the first standard for the value of all individuals.” (GS, 174)) Another passage illustrates this more clearly, but I think Nietzsche is a bit too generous in assuming progress on the part of humanity in it. When he uses the past tense, he is referring to prehistoric times, assuming we (his readers) have “overcome” much of this. Nevertheless, the passage is as follows: “…nothing was more terrible that to feel that one stood by oneself…. Freedom of thought was considered discomfort itself. While we experience law and submission as compulsion and loss, it was egoism that was formerly experienced as something painful and as real misery. To be a self and to esteem oneself according to one’s own weight and measure—that offended taste in those days. An inclination to do this would have been considered madness; for being alone was associated with every misery and fear. In those days, “free will” was very closely associated with a bad conscience; and the more unfree one’s actions were and the more the herd instinct rather than any personal sense found expression in an action, the more moral one felt.” (GS,175).

It seems relatively safe to say that mental illness is usually defined using some sort of normative approach and measured against some code of socially acceptable behavior. It also seems clear that the Superego is the internalization of these moral norms and that transgression against them is experienced with guilt and shame, if not incarceration. Certainly, this is how I understand Freud’s concept of the Superego, at least in part. Perhaps some aphorisms make more clear Nietzsche’s attitude towards the debilitating effects of sublimation and the Superego: “Not to perpetrate cowardice against one’s own acts! Not to leave them in the lurch afterward! The bite of conscience is indecent.” (TI, 467) To put it another way, “How much conscience has had teeth to chew on in the past! And what excellent teeth it had! And today—what is lacking? A dentist’s question.” (TI, 470) (The answer, not given here, is “it needs to be rooted out.”)

Ecce Homo

Since this essay began as a response to someone who would interpret Nietzsche in light of his life, his childhood, perhaps we should allow Nietzsche himself to make some remarks on the subject. He wrote his book Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) in 1888, but it was suppressed by his sister and not published until 1905 when she allowed its publication.

Miller (1990) seems to believe that Nietzsche’s attachment to Richard Wagner and subsequent vitriolic attacks on him were a result of Nietzsche’s idealization of a father he never really knew and the disappointment and finding him human, that he took Wagner’s Parsifal as a personal disappointment. In his description of what he meant by “war,” Nietzsche wrote “I never attack persons—I make use of a personality merely as a powerful magnifying glass, by means of which I render a general … evil more visible…. In this way I attacked Wagner, or more exactly the falsity of mongrel instincts of our ‘culture’ which confounds super-refinement with abundance, and decadence with greatness.” (EH, 829) And later, “in speaking of the recreations of my life, I must express a word or two of gratatitude for the one which has afforded me by far the greatest and heartiest refreshment. This was undoubtedly my intimate relationship with Richard Wagner…. I know not what Wagner may have been for others; but no cloud ever obscured our sky. … What is it that I have never forgiven Wagner? The fact that he condescended to the Germans—that he became a German Imperialist.” (EH, 843-845).

In other words, Nietzsche used Wagner as a symbol of negative characteristics that were in their ascendancy (he also only attacked caused which he felt were triumphant). He felt no ill-will toward him personally.

In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche surveys his life and work, even early childhood, and there is not one hint of this “idealization.” He admits that his childhood was not happy, but attributes it to the bad climate. But perhaps his most salient point in this context is his remark that “I am one thing, my writings are another.” (EH, 854)


This brief essay began as a reaction to Miller (1990). A central difficulty in discussing her essay in the context of Nietzsche’s writings lies in the fact that her focus or interest is not on Nietzsche but on child abuse. She uses Nietzsche in much the same fashion Nietzsche used Wagner—as a vehicle for her ideas on the subject. The fact that one with the liability of being suspect as an “expert” on Nietzsche could react with ire is educational in itself as it explains to some extent why less educated Christians, Wagnerians, Feminists, etc., in short, all those who devoted to causes or beliefs that Nietzsche attacked, react so violently and emotionally to his attacks. It seems clear that Nietzsche did attack institutions and issues that were a part of his childhood, but then all of us have many of our characteristics formed in that period of life—perhaps not the particular view of those issues, but the approach to it. The fact that Nietzsche as a child was exposed to music by his father may have made him more sensitive to issues related to music and better able to appreciate and compose it (there is a relatively new two CD set of Nietzsche’s musical compositions available), but it in no way explains his attacks on Wagner. The fact that his father died when he was four was of great importance to Nietzsche, but not because he felt abandoned—it was because Nietzsche felt his energy and vigor at its lowest ebb when he was at the age his father was when he died. He felt it was hereditary that he should die young.

Perhaps the best that can be said is that Miller’s approach is somewhat demeaning and indirect if seen as an analysis of Nietzsche, but remarkably sensitive if seen as an attack on child abuse. The fact that she and Nietzsche (and most “experts”) disagree as to the effects of his early childhood on his later writings is quite irrelevant for her purpose.

Nietzsche’s Chronology
Nietzsche was born in Röchen, Germany on October 15, 1844. His father was a Lutheran Pastor and music teacher who died five years later, probably as a result of a head wound. From 1850-58, he lived in a household of women and in 1858 began attending a boarding school Schulpforta. Immediately afterwards, he bagan his studies of classical philology at Bonn University, met Richard Wagner in 1868, and became Professor Extraordinarius of Classical Philology at the University of Basel—full professor at the age of twenty-four without having finished his residency requirements. In 1870, a Swiss subject, he volunteers as a medical orderly and returns to Basel in very ill health. From this point on, his important work takes place.
1872: The Birth of Tragedy
1873: Untimely Meditations
1874: Schopenhaurer as Education, the third untimely meditation.
1875: Richard Wagner in Bayreuth
1878: Human, all-too-Human
1879: Resigns from the university as a result of ill-health with a pension. By this time, he had already published two books not directly related to philology and the one that was (1872) was far from conventional.
1880: The Wanderer and His Shadow
1881: The Dawn of Day
1882: The Gay Science (GS)
1883: The first two books of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, each written in ten days.
1884: The third book of Zarathustra
1885: The fourth book of Zarathustra—fourty copies are printed and only seven are distributed to close friends.
1886: Beyond Good and Evil
1887: The Case of Wagner—an attack on Wagner. Geneology of Morals. (GM) (GMG—German version). About this time, his fame begins to spread.
1888: The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, Twilight of the Idols. (TI) Ecce Homo (EH) (suppressed by his sister until 1908).
1889: Throws his arms around a horse that is being whipped and writes a few letters. His friend Overbeck takes him to an asylum in Jena, but his mother moves him out to live with her.
1890 — Eventually, his sister obtains exclusive rights to all his publications and notes and zealously promotes the image of her brother as an insane genius as his fame grows. She is responsible for many misconceptions about him.
I have made no mention of the Will to Power. The book is a collection of Nietzsche’s notes, most of which he had revised and rewritten and used earlier, often revising them to indicate the opposite of what they say. His sister patched it together and promoted it is his Magnum Opus. It is worthy of consultation, but only after a thorough study of the works he actually saw to press himself.

Kaufmann, Walter. 1966. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. New York: Meridian. This is the eleventh printing of this work. A reader interested in secondary material and facts should start with this volume.
Miller, Alice. 1990. The Untouched Key: tracing childhood trauma in creativity and destructiveness. New York: Doubleday. A well-meaning effort that makes the mistake of using Nietzsche as an example and thus endangers the reliability her entire effort.
Nietzsche, Frederich. (n.d., c. 1960). Herausgeber und Verfasser, Gerhard Stenzel. Nietzsches Werke in Zwei Bänden. Salzburg: R. Kiesel zu Salzburg. A handy collection of Nietzsche’s works in the original German. (Z, TI)
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1956. The Birth of Tragedy and The Geneology of Morals. tr., Francis Golffing. New York: Anchor. Kaufmann has subsequently translated this as he has all of Nietzsche’s works. Kaufmann does not like the use of “ego” to replace “THE I”.
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1954. The Philosophy of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library. (EH) I have use Clifton Fadiman’s translation of Ecce Home from this source. It has since been retranslated by Walter Kaufmann. The main defect of this translation is its use of the Thomas Common translation of Zarathustra in quotations. The volume also contains that translation in its entirety.
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1967. The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner. tr., Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage. I had intended to use the Case of Wagner to point to the humor and the nature of Nietzsche’s attacks, but it became beyond the scope of this essay.
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1976. The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin. First published in 1954, this remarkable work has gone through thirty-eight printings as of 1976. It remains the definitive translation of Zarathustra, Twilight of the Idols (TI), and excerpts. R. J. Hollingdale is also a reliable translator.
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1974. The Gay Science. New York: Vintage. This is the book I would recommend as an introduction to Nietzsche, not Zarathustra. (GS)
Schopenhauer, Arthur. nd. Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer. Tr. T. BAiley Saunders. New York: A.L. Burt.


Seeger, Shaw, Both Dead at 94

No need to preface this – either you know him or you do not. A lot of information of the late singer.


“We Shall Overcome”: Remembering Folk Icon, Activist Pete Seeger in His Own Words & Songs

The legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died Monday at the age of 94. For nearly seven decades, Seeger was a musical and political icon who helped create the modern American folk music movement. We air highlights of two appearances by Seeger on Democracy Now!, including one of his last television interviews recorded just four months ago. Interspersed in the interviews, Seeger sings some of his classic songs, “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” He also talks about what has been described as his “defiant optimism.” “Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what [the album] ‘Seeds’ is all about,” Seeger said. “And there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.”

Seeger led an illustrious musical career. In the 1940s, he performed in The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Then he formed The Weavers. In the 1950s, he was blacklisted after he opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger became a prominent civil rights activist and helped popularize the anthem “We Shall Overcome.” In the 1960s, he was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired generations of protest singers. He was later at the center of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. With his wife Toshi, Pete helped found Clearwater, a group to clean up the Hudson River. Toshi died last year just weeks before their 70th wedding anniversary. In 2009, he and Bruce Springsteen performed Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

PETESEEGER: [singing] If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

If I had a bell,
If I had a bell,
Ring it in the morning,
I’d ring it in the morning
Ring it in the evening!
Ring it in the evening,
All over this land,
Ring out danger
Ring out danger,
Ring out a warning,
Ring out a warning,
Ring out love, ring out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

AMYGOODMAN: The legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died Monday at the age of 94. For nearly seven decades, Pete Seeger was a musical and political icon who helped create the modern American folk music movement. In the 1940s, he performed in The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Then he formed The Weavers. In the ’50s, he opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt and was almost jailed for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Pete Seeger became a prominent civil rights activist and helped popularize the anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” He was also a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired a generation of protest singers. Later in his life, Pete was at the center of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. With his wife Toshi, Pete Seeger helped found Clearwater, a group to clean up the Hudson River. Toshi Seeger died last year, just weeks before their 70th wedding anniversary. In 2009, Pete and Bruce Springsteen performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama, when he first became president.

Pete Seeger last joined us on Democracy Now! just four months ago. We’ll play highlights from that interview later, but first I want to turn to Pete Seeger in 2004, when he joined us in our firehouse studio. I asked him about his parents and their philosophy of raising him.

PETESEEGER: Well, my father said, “Let Peter enjoy himself. We’ll see what happens.” And I think he was curious, because he knew I liked music. My mother just left instruments all around the house. So I could bang on a piano or an organ or a marimba, on a squeezebox or a penny whistle or an auto-harp. And at age seven I was given a ukulele, and I’ve been into fretted instruments ever since then. In prep school I joined the jazz band. And then a few years later, my father took me to a square dance festival in the Southern Mountains, and I suddenly realized there was a wealth of music in my country that you never heard on the radio: old-time music, my brother called it—I think a better name than folk music—all over the place. Depending where you are, you hear different kinds of old-time music. And I still feel that I’d like to see people not forget the old songs at the same time they’re making up new songs.

AMYGOODMAN: Do you remember any of the songs that you heard then?

PETESEEGER: Oh, good gosh, yes.

AMYGOODMAN: That you’d like to play now?

PETESEEGER: I can’t play them. My fingers are froze up, and my voice, you hear, I can’t really sing anymore. What I do these days, I get the audience singing with me. If I’m singing for children, needless to say, I say, “Kids, you all know this song. If you don’t, you will in a minute. She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes. Toot! Toot!” I’d say, “Can’t you get the toot? Toot! Toot!” Well, pretty soon they’re all doing it. “She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes. Toot! Toot!” And the last verse, it’s cumulative, so you repeat all the previous things. “She’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! She’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! Wearing red pajamas, she’ll be wearing red pajamas, she’ll be wearing red pajamas, when she comes. Scratch! Scratch! Hoink-shoo! Yum! Yum! Hi, Babe! Woe, back! Toot! Toot!” And even if the kids never heard the song before, they’re doing it with me.

AMYGOODMAN: Pete, you traveled the South with Alan Lomax, and to a lot of people that may not be a familiar name.

PETESEEGER: Alan Lomax was the son of a Texas fella who collected cowboy songs a hundred years ago. And that’s how we know “Home on the Range” and other songs like it, “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo.” And in 1908, he got President Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, to write a short forward for his book of cowboy songs.

Thirty years later, he had a son, and Alan was only 22 years old. His father got him installed as the curator of the Archive of American Folksong in the Library of Congress. And Alan in a few years did what most people would take a lifetime to do. With utmost self-confidence, he calls up the head of Columbia Radio and says, “You have a school of the air. Why don’t you spend one year learning about American folk music? And the Columbia symphony can play the music, after you’ve heard some old person croak out the old ballad.” And if he couldn’t find an old person to do it, he got young me, age 19 and 20. And I still sing some of the songs I learned then.

’Tis advertised in Boston, New York and Buffalo,
five hundred brave Americans, a waggling for to go,
singing, blow ye winds of the morning, blow ye winds, high ho!
Clear away your running gear, and blow, blow, blow.

He interviewed the woman who collected that song when she was a teenager sailing on her father’s whaling ship in the 19th century. Now, as an old woman, she came out with a beautiful book, Songs of American Sailormen. Joanna Colcord was her name, so he interviews her, has me sing a song, and then the symphony orchestra plays it.

Well, Alan got me started, and many others. He’s the man who told Woody Guthrie, he says, “Woody Guthrie, your mission in life is to write songs. Don’t let anything distract you. You’re like the people who wrote the ballads of Robin Hood and the ballad of Jesse James. You keep writing ballads as long as you can.” And Woody took it to heart. He wasn’t a good husband. He was always running off. But he wrote songs, as you know.

AMYGOODMAN: Do you remember when you first met Woody Guthrie?

PETESEEGER: Oh, yeah, I’ll never forget it. It was a benefit concert for California agricultural workers on Broadway at midnight. Burl Ives was there, the Golden Gate Quartet, Josh White, Leadbelly, Margo Mayo Square Dance Group, with my wife dancing in it. I sang one song very amateurishly and retired in confusion to a smattering of polite applause.

But Woody took over and for 20 minutes entranced everybody, not just with singing, but storytelling. “I come from Oklahoma, you know? It’s a rich state. You want some oil? Go down on the ground. Get you some hole. Get you more oil. If you want lead, we got lead in Oklahoma. Go down a hole and get you some lead. You want coal? We got coal in Oklahoma. Go down a hole, get you some coal. If you want food, clothes or groceries, just go in the hole and stay there.” Then he’d sing a song.

AMYGOODMAN: When did you form The Weavers?

PETESEEGER: That was after World War II. Lee Hays from Arkansas, and his roommate Millard Lampell and I had started a group called The Almanacs. And I wrote to Woody, I said, “Woody, we’re singing for unions all around. Come out and join us. We’re in Madison Square Garden singing for striking transport workers.” And so Woody, once again, deserted his wife, came and joined us. But Woody used to say, “The Almanacs are the only group I know that rehearse on stage.” We were very badly organized. And after World War II, Lee says, “Pete, do you think we could start a group that would actually rehearse?”

And we were fortunate to run into one of the world’s greatest singers, Ronnie Gilbert. She was in her early twenties, beautiful alto voice, and a strong alto voice. I’d have to be two inches from the microphone. She could be two feet from the microphone, and she’d drown me out. She stood up to three strong-voiced men, and the four of us, however, were about to break up, when we did the unthinkable: We got a job at a nightclub.

Well, a little Greenwich Village place, it’s still down there, the Village Vanguard. And the owner paid us—he didn’t want me first. He said, “I can’t pay for a quartet. I’ll pay for you. I’ll pay you $200, like I did two years ago.” I said, “Well, what if the all four of us were willing to come for $200?” That was low pay, even then. And he had laughed. He said, “Well, if you’re willing.” And we got $200 and free hamburgers, until a month later he came and saw the size of the hamburgers I was making. He said, “Let’s make that $250, but no more free hamburgers.”

And we stayed there six months. Near the end of it, we met an extraordinary band leader, Gordon Jenkins, who loved our music and got us signed up with Decca, and we had a record called, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” and on the other side, the B-side—it was a record—”_Irene_,”good night, which sprang to number one, and for three months stayed up there on top of the hit parade. It was the biggest seller since World War II, and—

AMYGOODMAN: Can you talk more about “Irene”?

PETESEEGER: Well, it was the song, the theme song of the great black singer, Leadbelly. He died in ’49, and if he’d only lived another six months, he would have seen his song all over America. It was an old, old song. He’d simply changed and adapted it, added some verses and changed the melody, what my father called the “folk process,” but which happens all through all kinds of music—in fact, all culture, you might say. Lawyers adapt old laws to suit new citizens. Cooks adapt old recipes to fit new stomachs.

Anyway, I learned this 12-string guitar from Leadbelly. A high string and a low string together, but played together to give a new tone. And the song I really would like to sing to you is—always have to do with it—I don’t sing it anymore. I give the words to the audience, and they sing it. I says, “You know this song. To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season. Sing it.” And the whole audience sings, “Turn, turn, turn. There is a season. And a time. And a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. Sing it. A time to be born, a time to plant, to reap. A time to plant, a time to kill, to heal. A time to kill, a time to laugh, to weep. A time to laugh, a time to“—

You know, those words are 2,256 years old. I didn’t know that at the time, but Julius Lester, an old friend of mine, he’s a—I don’t know if you know him—he’s a black man who’s officially a Jew. He became fascinated with the Bible. I asked him, “When was these words written?” He says, “Well, the man’s name was Kohelet, meaning ‘convoker,'” somebody who calls people together to speak to them. In the Greek translation, they called him Ecclesiastes, and he’s still in the King James Version as this. And it’s a type of poetry, which is Greek. The Greeks have a word for it, anaphora, A-N-A-P-H-O-R-A, and it means you start off a line with a word or a phrase. You don’t have rhyme at the end of the line, but you do have—it becomes poetry by the way it’s organized.

Well, I didn’t realize I liked the words, but I realize now. Those are maybe some of the most fundamentally important words that anybody could learn. You see, you and I, we’re all descended from killers, good killers. The ones who were not good killers didn’t have descendants. But we’re descended from good killers. For millions of years our ancestors were good killers. They say if they hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be here today. Now is a new period. In other words, it’s a time, you might say, the human race needed to have good killers. Now, if we don’t change our way of thinking, there will be no human race here, because science acts very irresponsibly—oh, any information is good. Ha, ha, ha. They don’t realize that some information is very important, some, frankly, forget about until we solve some other problems. Einstein was the first person who said it: Everything has changed now, except our way of thinking. And we’ve got to find ways to change our way of thinking.

Sports can do it. Arts can do it. Cooking can do it. All sorts of good works can do it. Smiles can do it. And I’m of the opinion now that if the human race makes it—I say we’ve got a 50-50 chance—if the human race makes it, it’ll be women working with children, these two very large oppressed classes in the human race. Children, doing what the grown-ups say they’re supposed to do, and yet they’re going to have to pay for our mistakes. They’re going to have to clean up the environment, which had been filled with chemicals, the air being filled with chemicals, the water being filled with chemicals, the ocean being filled with chemicals. And they’re going to have to clean it up. And I think it will be women working with kids that’ll do this job. In millions of little ways, maybe done in your hometown. In my hometown, we’re starting a project to put in a floating swimming pool in the Hudson, because now the Hudson is clean enough to swim in. Let’s swim in it. And if it works in our little town, maybe other towns will do it. In fact, if this swimming pool idea—it’s like a big netting in the water.

So, I confess I’m more optimistic now than I was 58 years ago, 59 years ago, when the atom bomb was dropped.

AMYGOODMAN: That’s Pete Seeger in our firehouse studio with our tell-tale radio headphones in 2004. The legendary folk singer and activist died Monday at the age of 94. We’ll go back to our interview with him in a minute.


AMYGOODMAN: Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen and Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, Pete’s grandson, singing “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial ahead of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Today, aDemocracy Now! special, remembering the life of Pete Seeger. The legendary folk singer and activist died Monday at the age of 94. We now return to our interview in 2004 in our firehouse studio. I asked Pete to talk about his time serving in the military during World War II.

PETESEEGER: I first wanted to be a mechanic in the Air Force. I thought that would be an interesting thing. But then military intelligence got interested in my politics. My outfit went on to glory and death, and I stayed there in Kiesler Field, Mississippi, picking up cigarette butts for six months. Finally, they let me know, yes, they’d been investigating me, opening all my mail.

AMYGOODMAN: Pete Seeger, when you came back, they continued to investigate you.

PETESEEGER: Well, I have assumed most of my life that if there wasn’t a microphone under the bed, they were tapping the phone from time to time and opening my mail from time to time. Who knows?

AMYGOODMAN: But it was more than that, wasn’t it?

PETESEEGER: Well, sometimes they’d have picket lines out, but, you know, in a crazy way all it did was sell tickets. I remember one concert did not sell out. My manager said, “Pete, we should have gotten the Birches to picket you. Then it would have sold out.”

AMYGOODMAN: I’m looking at a transcript of the House Un-American Activities Committee, August 18th, 1955, when they started off by saying—Mr. Taverner said, “When and where were you born, Mr. Seeger?” You actually answered that question.

PETESEEGER: Well, I wish I had been more—spoken up more. I just did what my lawyer, a very nice guy—he says, “Don’t try to antagonize them. Just don’t answer these questions, because if you answer this kind of question, you’re going to have to answer more questions. Just say you don’t think it’s legal.” Well, I said, “I think I’ve got a right to my opinion, and you have the right to your opinion. Period.”

And so, eventually I was sentenced to a year in jail, but my lawyer got me off on bail. I was only in jail for four hours, and I learned a folk song. They served us lunch, a slice of bread and a slice of bologna and an apple, and the man next to me was singing, “If that judge believes what I say, I’ll be leaving for home today.” The man next to him says, “Not if he sees your record, you won’t.” But that’s an old African melody, you know. It’s in many, many African-American folk songs.

AMYGOODMAN: Now, you were sentenced to a year in jail?

PETESEEGER: And a year later the appeals court acquitted me. Ironically—the contradictions of life still amaze me—the judge who acquitted me, the head judge—there were three judges—head one was Irving Kaufman, the man who sentenced the Rosenbergs to the chair 10 years earlier. But he acquitted me. He said, “We are not inclined to lightly disregard charges of unconstitutionality, even though they may be made by those unworthy of our respect.”

However, I feel that—both my wife and I feel we’re lucky to be alive and lucky to be on good terms with our neighbors, and in the little town where we live, people shout out, “Hi, Pete! Hi, Toshi!” And I’d like to—I wish I could live another 20 years just to see things that are happening, because I believe that women working with children will get men to wake up to what a foolish thing it is to seek power and glory and money in your life. What a foolish thing. Here we are—

There’s a politician in my hometown, a very nice guy. He used to be a shop steward for the union in the local factory, but for 20 years he represented our town in the county legislature. And he said, “Pete, if you don’t grow, you die.” One o’clock in the morning, I sat up in bed and thought of the next question. If that’s true, if you don’t grow, you die, doesn’t it follow the quicker you grow, the sooner you die? Nobody is facing up to that question, but it’s very definitely true. Now the first step in solving a problem is to admit there’s a problem. Then we can argue about ways it could be solved.

I suppose one person will say, “Well, let a few people have trillions of dollars and the rest of the people obediently do the work, and the people in charge will see that everything is done right.” On other hand, I think what was in the Declaration of Independence is true now just as it was then. Those great lines, they’re written by Ben Franklin, you know, not Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that when any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”

AMYGOODMAN: Pete Seeger, can you tell us about “We Shall Overcome”?

PETESEEGER: I thought, in 1946, when I learned it from a white woman who taught in a union labor school, the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, that the song had been made up in 1946 by tobacco workers, because they sang it there to strike through the winter of 1946 in Charleston, South Carolina, and they taught the song to Zilphia Horton, the teacher at the labor school. And she said, “Oh, it was my favorite song.” And I printed it in our little magazine in New York,People’s Songs, as “We Will Overcome” in 1947.

It was a friend of mine, Guy Carawan, who made it famous. He picked up my way of singing it, “We Shall Overcome,” although Septima—there was another teacher there, Septima Clark, a black woman. She felt that “shall”—like me, she felt it opened up the mouth better than “will,” so that’s the way she sang it. Anyway, Guy Carawan in 1960 taught it to the young people at the founding convention of SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC for short. And a month later, it wasn’t asong, it was the song, throughout the South.

Only two years ago, I get a letter from a professor in Pennsylvania, who uncovered an issue of the United Mine Workers Journal of February 1909, and a letter there on front page says, “Last year at our strike, we opened every meeting with a prayer, and singing that good old song, ‘We Will Overcome.'” So it’s probably a late 19th century union version of what was a well-known gospel song. I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome some day.

AMYGOODMAN: You sang it for Martin Luther King?

PETESEEGER: In 1957, I went down to Highlander. Zilphia was dead, and Myles Horton, her husband, said, “We can’t have a celebration of 25 years with this school without music. Won’t you come down and help lead some songs?” So I went down, and Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy came up from Alabama to say a few words, and I sang a few songs, and that was one of them. Ann Braden drove King to a speaking engagement in Kentucky the next day; and she remembers him sitting in the back seat, saying, “‘We Shall Overcome.’ That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?” But he wasn’t the song leader. It wasn’t until another three years that Guy Carawan made it famous.

AMYGOODMAN: Even as you’re singing songs like that, it has also often been seen as a tremendous threat to the establishment. In 1963, the Fire & Police Research Association of Los Angeles warned before one of your appearances, Pete Seeger, that folk music in youth gatherings were being used to brainwash and subvert vast segments of young people’s groups.

PETESEEGER: Oh, poor—I hope they’ve learned a little different now. That’s 40 years ago, 41 years ago, but the establishment has always been concerned about music. I’ve quoted Plato for years, who wrote, “It’s very important that the wrong kind of music not be allowed in the Republic.” And I’ve also heard there’s an old Arab proverb, “When the king puts the poet on his payroll, he cuts off the tongue of the poet.”

During the 1930s, I was very conscious that radio stations played nice love songs and funny songs, but only by accident did a song like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” get through. The other songs tended to be more like Bing Crosby’s hit of 1933, I think. “Wrap your troubles in dreams. Dream your troubles away.” That’s how we’re going to lick the Depression?

AMYGOODMAN: We’re talking to Pete Seeger, and on this bio of you, it says, “Pete Seeger’s adherence to the sanctity of folk music came to a boiling point with the advent of folk rock, and it’s long been rumored that he tried to pull the plug on Bob Dylan’s very electrified set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1965.” Is that true?

PETESEEGER: No. It’s true that I don’t play electrified instruments. I don’t know how to. On the other hand, I’ve played with people who play them beautifully, and I admire some of them. Howling Wolf was using electrified instruments at Newport just the day before Bob did. But I was furious that the sound was so distorted you could not understand a word that he was singing. He was singing a great song, “Maggie’s Farm,” a great song, but you couldn’t understand it. And I ran over to the soundman, said, “Fix the sound so you can understand him.” And they hollered back, “No, this is the way they want it!” I don’t know who they was, but I was so mad I said, “Damn, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable right now.” I really was that mad. But I wasn’t against Bob going electric.

As a matter of fact, some of Bob’s songs are still my favorites. What an artist he is. What a great—I would say maybe he and Woody and Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell and Malvina Reynolds are the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, even though Irving Berlin made the most money. They wrote songs that were trying to help us understand where we are, what we’ve got to do. Still are writing them.

AMYGOODMAN: In 1967, you made your stand against the Vietnam War clear on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Can you talk about that?

PETESEEGER: Well, the Smothers Brothers were a big, big success on CBS television. And way back the year before, I think in the spring of ’67, they said—CBS says, “Anything we can do for you? You’re right at the top. What can we do to make you happier?” And they said, “Let us have Seeger on.” And CBS said, “Well, we’ll think about it.” Finally, in October, they said, “OK, you can have him on.” And I sang this song “Waste deep in the big muddy, the big fool says to push on.”

The tape was made in California, flown to New York. And in New York they scissored the song out. And now, the Smothers Brothers took to the print media and said, “CBS is censoring our best jokes. They censored Seeger’s best song.” And they got some publicity. And during November, December and January, the arguments went on. Finally, in February—no, pardon me, late January, late January of ’68, CBS said, “OK, OK, he can sing the song.” On six hours’ notice, I flew out to California.

I remember singing a batch of songs from American history, songs from the Revolution, like “Come ye hither, redcoats, you mind what madness fills. In our forest there is danger, there’s danger in our hills. Fall the rifles, the rifles in our hands shall prove no trifle.” I think I mentioned the hit song of 1814. It was the hit song: “Oh, say can you see.” And the song of the Mexican War, “Green grow the lilacs all sparking with dew.” A love song. That’s why Yankees are called “gringos” in Mexico, from that song. And, of course, the Civil War, several good songs, not just “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but a batch of them. The Spanish-American War, Oscar Brown taught me this song. American soldiers in the Philippines, they were singing, “Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos. Cross-eyed kakiack ladrones. And beneath the starry flag, civilize them with a crag, and go back to our own beloved home.” I didn’t sing that. But along come modern times. I sang “Waste Deep in the Big Muddy,” and this time only a station in Detroit cut it out. But the rest of the country heard it, so seven million people heard it.

Who knows? Later that month, in late February, Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election. The song would be probably just one more thing. I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, “Ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.” But we’re saying, “We’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.” And we think, “One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction.” And people will say, “Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons. Now granted, we’ve got to keep putting it in, because if we don’t keep putting teaspoons in, it will leak out, and the rocks will go back down again. Who knows?

AMYGOODMAN: Do you see those cracks, those places, today in mass media? I know you don’t watch TV and all that, but, for example, you going on Smothers Brothers. Do you think that it is as constricted today?

PETESEEGER: Not as constricted, no. There’s all sorts of little things going on. I understand this program may be on some TV stations. I’ve got to find out where, when, so I can see it. You’re right, I don’t look at TV much, except to check on the weather for my skating rink. I’m a read-aholic and a magazine-aholic, I get 40 or 50 magazines a month. And I read music magazines, environmental magazines, union magazines, civil rights magazines. Who knows?

AMYGOODMAN: That’s Pete Seeger in our firehouse studio in 2004. The legendary folk singer and activist died Monday at the age of 94. We continue remembering Pete in his own words and song.


AMYGOODMAN: Pete Seeger, singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on theSmothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we remember the life of Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer and activist. He died Monday at the age of 94. We return to our interview in 2004 in our firehouse studio. I asked Pete Seeger to talk about one of his most famous songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

PETESEEGER: Well, I was sitting in an airplane on my way to sing at Oberlin College. I was over Ohio, and—

AMYGOODMAN: What year?

PETESEEGER: —half-dozing. Year, 1955. And all of a sudden, three lines, which I had read in a book, took form. In the book, it simply said, “Where are the flowers? The girls have plucked them. Where are the girls? They’re all married. Where are the men? They’re all in the army.” It’s an old Russian folk song. And the Don Cossacks—maybe it’s a Ukrainian folk song. “Koloda Duda” is the original name, but I didn’t know that. All I knew is I had read these three lines in the book And Quiet Flows the Don by a Soviet novelist. And all of a sudden, I had three verses. I didn’t realize it at the time, I had swiped part of the verse from an old Irish song. I had been recording a lumberjack song from the Adirondacks: “Johnson says he’ll load more hay, says he’ll load 10 times a day.” You can really see, I slowed it down, and I pinned the words to the microphone that night and sang them.

And a few weeks later, I was walking down 48th Street, Manhattan, stopped in at Folkways Records, said, “I made up a new song.” And then, Moe Asch propped a mic up in front of me and recorded it. And a few months later it was out on another LP. An Oberlin College student got the LP at a job at a summer camp, and the kids were fooling around with the verses: “Where have all the counselors gone, broken curfew everyone.” But by the end of the summer, he had made up the two extra verses we know. “Where have the soldiers gone, gone to graveyards. Where have the graveyards gone, covered with flowers.”

And the kids took the song back to New York. Peter, Paul and Mary were singing in the Village, in Greenwich Village, and picked it up, started singing it. The Kingston Trio learned it from them. And about three years later, my manager says, “Pete, didn’t you write a song called ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’?” I said, “Yeah, about three years ago.” He said, “Did you copyright it?” “No, I guess I never did.” He said, “Well, you ought to. The Kingston Trio have recorded it.”

Well, I got on the phone to Dave Guard. He was an old friend. He had started playing the banjo because he got my book, my bestseller. I mimeographed it first, but later printed it. It’s printed 100,000 copies.How to Play the Five-String Banjo. He wrote me a year later. He says, “I’ve been putting that book to hard use. I and two others have a group we call The Kingston Trio.” So I called him up. “Oh, Pete, we didn’t know it was your song. We’ll take our name off it.” It was very nice of him, because technically, legally, I had, as they say, quote, “abandoned copyright.” But they took their name off, and my manager copyrighted it. It pays my taxes these days, that song. It’s been translated into dozens of other languages.

AMYGOODMAN: Pete, could you play “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

PETESEEGER: Where — ah, maybe I’ll just sing the very, very last verse, because the contradictions of life still amaze me. You have to laugh, if you don’t cry.

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one.
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

AMYGOODMAN: You still have your voice.

PETESEEGER: It’s in the cellar.

AMYGOODMAN: Can you talk about getting older?

PETESEEGER: Oh, it’s no fun to lose your memory or your hearing or your eyesight, but from my shoulders on down I’m in better condition than most men my age. I can go skiing with the family, although I stick to the intermediate slopes. I don’t try the double diamond.

AMYGOODMAN: Pete, you sit here listening with headphones on. You’re a singer. Sound is very important. It’s not as easy for you to hear things so clearly anymore. How has that affected you?

PETESEEGER: Well, I’m singing to myself all the time, just humming or just in my brain. I’m not making any sound. But admittedly, I can’t—unless I have earphones on, I can’t really—even with what they call hearing aids, I can’t really hear music. I don’t listen to CDs. I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t listen to TV. And occasionally, when friends come around, I’ll join in with them, but my fingers are slowing down. I hear records that I made years ago and say, “How did I ever play that so fast?”

On the other hand, these are exciting times. There’s never been such as exciting times. And win, lose or draw, it’s going to be very, very exciting. And I applaud what you are doing. I think what Democracy Now! is doing is just fantastic. This couldn’t have been done half a century ago, could not have been done.


PETESEEGER: Well, they didn’t have the technology for it, I guess. So as I say, technology will save us if it doesn’t wipe us out first.

AMYGOODMAN: Well, final words, Pete Seeger, as we wrap up this conversation—the role of music, culture and politics.

PETESEEGER: They’re all tangled up. Hooray for tangling!

AMYGOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. And for someone who isn’t so hopeful who is listening to this right now, trying to find their way, what would you say?

PETESEEGER: Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what Seeds is all about. And there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.

AMYGOODMAN: Pete Seeger speaking in 2004 on Democracy Now!. The legendary folk singer and activist died Monday at the age of 94. Helast appearedhiroshimabombing on Democracy Now! in August. He talked about one of his most famous songs.

PETESEEGER: The song, “If I Had a Hammer,” went all sorts of places that I could never go, and I’m very glad.

[singing] If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
Hammer out a warning,
Hammer out love between,
All of my brothers,

Oh, a woman said, “Make that ‘My brothers and my sisters.'” Lee says, “It doesn’t roll off the tongue so well. But she insisted. He said, “How about ‘All of my siblings’?” She didn’t think that was funny.

[singing] All over this land.
If I had a song,

Don’t need to sing the whole song. You can sing it to yourself, whether you’re driving a car or washing the dishes or just singing to your kids. We haven’t mentioned children much on this program, but it may be children realizing that you can’t live without love, you can’t live without fun and laughter, you can’t live without friends—and I say, “Long live teachers of children,” because they can show children how they can save the world.

AMYGOODMAN: And we end with more Pete Seeger just four months ago.

PETESEEGER: We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I know that I do believe,
We shall overcome…

AMYGOODMAN: You’ve been listening to Pete Seeger in his own words and song. He died yesterday, Monday, at the age of 94. For a copy of today’s show, go to our website at, and go there to watch all of our Pete Seeger shows, including his 90th birthday celebration featuring Bruce Springsteen, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Joan Baez.

Pete Seeger, RIP An American for All Seasons

Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94.  There is a plethora of tributes, links, and praises for the man on Twitter, and I am reproducing just a few of them for good measure.  


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  2. People · View all
    1. Pete Seeger@Peter_Seeger

      Followed byAbsurdTimes

  3. On the passing of Pete Seeger – Folk singer Pete Seeger, who established the music as an expression of community, … 

  4. RT @lizzwinstead UGH. RIP. Such an inspiration RT @washingtonpost: Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger dies at 94: 

    1. Pete Seeger sang We Shall Overcome at Mississippi church in 64 after bodies of Cheney, Goodman & Schwerner were found …

  5. This land is thy Lancs, this land is my Lancs From Bury market to the Blackpool Tower … Pete Seeger RIP

  6. Pete Seeger, Rest In Peace good sir. You will be missed dearly. …

  7. how many brothers & sisters went one day longer on the picket line because of a Pete Seeger song is something I could never estimate

  8. Rare, and very cool, photo of Pete Seeger with his pal, Woody Guthrie. 

  9. Rest in peace, Pete Seeger. He was a true progressive hero. 

  10. Rest in Peace, Pete Seeger. Sang with Woody Guthrie, fought Hitler, marched with MLK, and was part of Occupy Wall Street? What a life.

     Retweeted 802 times


  11. video of Pete Seeger chastising a crowd for living in DC too long while singing “You Gotta Walk that Lonesome Valley” …

  12. Don’t miss: Johnny Cash w/ Pete Seeger in 1960s talking about protest songs re: Native Americans.  @rosannecash

    1. There was no “I” in Pete Seeger’s music, only a big, broad, encompassing “we.” @jodyrosen‘s remembrance: 

    1. Pete Seeger was a folk singing hero who stood up to the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee 

  13. Honoring a lifetime dedicated to activism – Pete Seeger inspired me to never give up the fight for democracy. 

    1. Watch as Billy Bragg pays tribute to singer Pete #Seeger, who’s died aged 94  &

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  14. “He had more guts than anybody I know,” says @AlanChartock of Pete Seeger. Our remembrance of the folk legend here: 

    1. . @springsteen & Pete Seeger perform what Bruce called “the greatest song written abt America” … #USA

    1. We remember Pete Seeger who had a 67 year performance history with the hall & made his first appearance here at 26.

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  15. Sing a song for Pete Seeger — for justice — today. We mourn his loss, all over this land.

  16. Pete Seeger is leading a sing-along in the afterlife. He reminds us to carry on working against misogyny, bigotry and war. #StopHR7

  17. Pete Seeger‘s great heart was matched only by his commitment to social justice. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.


  19. In honour of the passing of a great American, Pete Seeger. ‘Real American Folk’ featuring the music of Pete Seeger: …

  20. Watch Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen perform together at Obama’s first inauguration: 

  21. “He said how lucky it is to have a family” – Pete Seeger‘s grandson on the folk singer’s final days 

  22. Remembering #PeteSeeger – singing an Indian bhajan – a special song for those of us who were in India with Maharaji: 

    1. RT @tractorbeamnyc: @LeonardLopate Petition to Create A #PeteSeeger Memorial in Washington, DC. Sign + Share! 

    1. A personal tribute to the legendary folk musician & social activist, Pete Seeger:

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    1. Pete Seeger singing the banned lyrics of This Land Is Your Land at Obama’s Inaugural …

  23. Pete Seeger has passed. So sad. Such an amazing man. I met him briefly when I was 12. He will be missed.

    1. As this great man implied, actions will save the planet. Honor Pete Seeger through vigilance.

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  24. PHOTOS: Remembering Pete Seeger‘s political involvement 

  25. Pete Seeger‘s homemade banjo with inscription, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” 

    1. Musicians remember folk legend Pete Seeger . (Photo: Getty Images)

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    1. RIP folk legend Pete Seeger. Find out about his long, colourful life in music & politics here:

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  26. “At age seven I was given a ukulele, and I’ve been into fretted instruments ever since.” –Pete Seeger Watch: 

  27. Pete Seeger: 10 things you should know about one of the fathers of folk  #c4news

  28. wow – Pete Seeger told HUAC he didn’t want to be a folk singer, he wanted to be a newspaperman 

    1. The Happiness of Pete Seeger, told in these 1964 photos via Carl Guderian

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  29. My one living hero died last night. But he will live forever. R.I.P. Pete Seeger 

    1. Pete Seeger leading a march of Occupy Wall Street – he lead marches my grandparents were in as well …

    1. ” RT @carynrose: Pete Seeger on “The Johnny Cash Show” complete and uncut: 

  30. NPR’s music coverage has been a little too clever for my taste lately, but this Pete Seeger obit is just great. 

  31. Pete Seeger – It was a great honor to have known him. His performance of his song, “Waist deep in The Big Muddy”,… 

    1. Pete Seeger sings the civil rights anthem “We shall overcome”, later translated to “Hum Honge Kamyaab” in India. 

Amadeus Reconsidered


The same Mozart as played by Hulce and seen by Salieri.
The same Mozart as played by Hulce and seen by Salieri.

Amadeus as I See It

Poetrait of Mozart at the age in question.
Poetrait of Mozart at the age in question.

Salieri in the Asylum, expressing the eternal "Why?  God, I hate you."Salieri in the Asylum, expressing the eternal “Why?  God, I hate you.”

A friend whose judgment and taste I respect greatly, recently pointed out that Tom Hulce had reduced Mozart in that film to a silly, tasteless fool, and obviously held him accountable for desecrating Mozart’s memory, as bland as he seems today as a composer when compared to Bach or Beethoven.  It made me realize, after quite a while, that many people do not interpret the film as I do, nor as it was meant to be seen.

I did not know at the time that the movie was based loosely on something that Pushkin wrote, but I did know the German romantic tradition quite well.  As an undergraduate, I had studied German intently.  I also felt a great sympathy, even empathy, with the Weltschmertz of the period.

One of the works I read, in the very original German, script-type and all, was Edward  Mörike’s Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag, a short novel of the period with which I greatly sympathized, thinking of Mozart as the struggling artist and the protagonist.  I was not even aware that it was supposed to be somewhat humorous, but German Romantic humor is easy to miss.

Strangely enough, I had one of the most jocular of Professors I had ever studied under, before or since.  He was, to me, elderly, balding, with thin horn-rimmed glasses, and had a thick accent but perfect syntax and an impressive English vocabulary.

The assignment was to write a review and summary, or a paper, on the book.  I remember one sentence I wrote then almost verbatim: “Mozart was a creative genius with a cabal of practitioners of the vapid and artificial pastoral torpor that passed for art at the time.”  That’s telling them, I thought.

I did get an “A” on the paper, but Professor Ernst had written the following in the margin: “There is a certain charm in the poetry of the Baroque and Rocco Period, believe it or not!  Your professor has spent years re-editing such poetry!!!”  When he saw me reading his remark, he was laughing a hearty Bavarian sounding chuckling smirk and said “So Zere. Ho Ho!”

On another occasion, I informed him that I had just acquired a recording by Glenn Gould, the outstanding pianist most know for his interpretation of J. S. Bach, particularly The Goldberg Variations (1955), that had Mozart’s #24 on one side and Schoenberg’s #1 on the other.  He asked, “Dozen’t zis make loud noize during ze night?” and put his hands to his ears.  I assured him that I kept it in a plastic bag and that no sound was emitted unless I actually took it out and put it on the player.  He found that not only hilarious, so indicating with raucous laughter and slapping me on the shoulder, then himself on his thigh.

At any rate, Peter Schaefer who wrote the screenplay in the 20th Century, using accounts from the 19th, to describe events in the 18th, placed the entire story in the mind of Antonio Salieri, who is confined in an insane asylum in Vienna.  So, we have an insane 18th century figure, a rival of another 18th century genius, as related by a 19th century tradition, as interpreted by a 20th century playwright, using as a model the writing of Pushkin, a 19th century Russian, reflecting the views of an 18th century Italian living in a German insane asylum.

Salieri is convinced he murdered Mozart as God, remember the word in Latin, Amadeus, as a major part of this delusion, endowed Mozart with the talent he, Salieri, desired and for which he gave his chastity and that God cursed only with the ability to recognize.

F. Murray Abraham does a magnificent job of portraying him, the man who considered himself the patron saint of the mediocre.  Sir Neville Mariner was an excellent choice as conductor and musical director of the score.  Needless to say, any resemblance between the characters in the film and anyone who ever lived was entirely avoided.  Nevertheless, it is a delightful film.

Some of the more scintillating and rewarding lines and scenes come as a reaction to Mozart.  The Emperor has only one reservation to one of Mozart’s operas: “Now and then, how shall I say, hmmm, too many notes, yes, that’s it, too many notes.”  Mozart is flabbergasted and eventually asked which notes the Emperor have removed.  “It doesn’t matter.  Just snip a few here and there and it will be perfect.”

Or when an opera fails, Mozart complains to Salieri about it and asks why it happened.  “You overestimate the audience, my good fellow, why you didn’t even give them a good ‘bang’ at the end of a song to let them know when to applaud.”

Contemptuously, Mozart says “Yes, maybe I should be taking lessons from you.”

Salieri looks at him with an expression that cannot be adequately described and says “I wouldn’t presume.”

At any rate, the key to enjoying the film is NOT to view it as a documentary.  Forget about a pedantic insistence on historical accuracy.  Just remember this is Salieri’s tale of his own revenge against God.

It is worth seeing again.






The School of Athens

I have chosen The School of Athens as our header, but I must apologize for it’s being cropped so shamelessly.  It was required by the rigidity of the blog site, so I am posting the entire scene here.  I can find no way to enlarge it, but it can be enlarged greatly if downloaded and processed off-line.