By WGBH News
BOSTON — May 3 is the birthday of an extraordinary American artist. Pete Seeger was born in 1919, and he turns 93 this year. WGBH's Bob Seay spoke with folk music writer Scott Alarik about Pete Seeger and his relationship to Boston and Cambridge, part of the big folk music revolution in the 1960s.
SEAY: Tell us about Pete Seeger and Boston and Cambridge.
ALARIK: I can tell you from interviewing [Seeger] for many years for the Boston Globe that he had a real soft spot for Boston and Cambridge. He really loved this town and the people in it, and he loved to perform here. He went to Harvard to study journalism, but then the music just swept him away. He told me his aunt misguidedly offered him $5 to sing at her school and he walked back to Harvard thinking, "Why am I going to Harvard when I can make $5 going to my aunt's school and singing folk songs?" Then next thing he found out he could make $10 some places, and the music just drew him away. But he always had a great respect for the cultural curiosity of the Boston–Cambridge area, and how open-minded people are, and how curious they are, how willing to hear something new. It's an important part of who Pete is, the way he values people who are just willing to try something new.
SEAY: When I think of Pete Seeger, I think of singing along.
ALARIK: Pete Seeger likes to turn performances into a show where he's not performing at an audience but with them. I think with Pete, that gets to something very central about who he is and his tremendous importance as a modern music performer. Because Pete believed not only that these folk songs are common possessions, and he gets on stage and he wants to return them to their rightful owners, but also he believes that sharing music in a communal way is a powerful way for us to realize (as President Obama loves to say) that what unites us is much more important than the things that separate us.
SEAY: Now what about Pete Seeger in his later years. Here's a performer that keeps performing right into his 90s.
ALARIK: Yeah, he's indefatigable. He's made a career out of just being himself, and it's a lot easier to keep going when you're just being yourself all the time. It's like I remember when people would ask the great comedian George Burns in his 90s if he planned to retire. He would look at them quizzically and say, "Retire from what?" You know, because this was just his life. And Pete — I think this is one of the great rewards of a commitment to this kind of authenticity. That Pete just kept being Pete. Everybody gets to know him now. He's sung "This Land Is Your Land" at the inauguration of the first African American president, and he's become the embodiment of the great tradition of folk music, and he gets to just be who he is and doing what he's always done. I doubt that Pete sees much different about what he is doing in his 90s than what he was doing in his 40s.
SEAY: Tell us about the recording that you have of Pete Seeger.
ALARIK: In the early '90s, Pete wanted to do a concert showing his techniques of group singing: how he brought people together and how he got people singing. He wanted it basically for other performers to be able to use all of his tricks. He recorded it at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge in 1992. There is a version of him singing his own "If I Had a Hammer" with the audience in full swing, and it is just Pete at his Pete-i-est.
Scott Alarik is a folk music writer and author of Revival: A Folk Music Novel. This interview has been condensed and edited.