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Legendary singer, songwriter and activist Pete Seeger died Monday at age 94. During a musical career that spanned seven decades, he performed at union halls, protests and concert venues across the country, and helped launch the American folk revival. Grammy Award-winning musician Tom Paxton joins Kojo for a musical tribute and a look at Seeger’s enduring impact on American music and politics.
- Tom Paxton singer-songwriter
Remembering Pete Seeger Through Song
Tom Paxton performs “Peace Will Come” in tribute to fellow musician Pete Seeger, who died this week at age 94.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. His extraordinary music career spans seven decades. He was perhaps as well known for his belief in the power of music to spark social change. He performed at union rallies and folk festivals and was an inspiration for generations of folk and rock musicians, including Bob Dillon and Bruce Springsteen, who drew inspiration from Seeger's political activism, as well as his music. One of the musicians who counted Pete Seeger as a friend and mentor, is Tom Paxton. He joins us in studio this cold January day, to mark Seeger's passing and remember his legacy.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITom Paxton is a Grammy-nominated folk singer and songwriter. Tom received a 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy during the 51st Annual Grammy Awards. Tom Paxton, good to see you, again.
MR. TOM PAXTONThank you, Kojo. Nice to be with you.
NNAMDII've got the warm feeling I get from you on this cold day.
PAXTONIt's a sad day, though, my goodness.
NNAMDIIt is a very sad day. Pete Seeger passing at the age of 94. You and he were friends.
NNAMDITell me, how did you meet?
PAXTONLet me just say that I wouldn't be sitting here if not for Pete. Pete was my inspiration to take this music to heart and try to make it and try to create it. We've really lost our poll star.
NNAMDIFor seven decades around this country. Your music career began in the '60s.
NNAMDIJust how did Pete Seeger's music and politics influence you at that time?
PAXTONIt influenced me enormously. Pete was the person -- I mean, I grew up loving the songs that Burl Ives used to sing, which were little ditties. You know, folk songs like "The Blue Tail Fly." I still like that music, but Pete added a dimension to it -- oh, I hate to use the word gravitas, but there was a deeper resonance when Pete sang this music. He was all about humankind and that resounded in his music. And I remember there was a very, very popular book of photographs back in the '50s. It was called "The Family of Man."
PAXTONAnd it was glorious black and white photographs from around the world of families, of people doing -- and it was like Pete's music in photographs. He would sing lullabies from Sri Lanka, and Jewish folk songs, songs from the Spanish Civil War. And I just thought, this is so exciting. The possibilities of this music are inexhaustible.
NNAMDIHe mostly played a 12-string guitar or a banjo. Can you talk a little bit about his musical legacy?
PAXTONWell, he could play the 6-string guitar very well, but he liked the contrast -- couldn't have been more extreme. There was, you know, the solemn roll of the 12-string guitar, like on "Turn, Turn, Turn." It's almost like an organ playing. And then the cheek, the fun of the banjo sound and exciting. He could play, like, I remember the opening bars of "Darling Corey," on the wonderful classic -- when he was at Carnegie Hall album. It was exciting and fun. It made you want to dance.
NNAMDII remember hearing him say that he was taught to play the 12-string guitar by Huddie Ledbetter, also known as Lead Belly.
PAXTONWell, he was Mr. 12-string, wasn't he?
NNAMDIHe sure was.
PAXTONI mean, Lead Belly was all 12-string guitar.
NNAMDIThe Pete Seeger songbook is long, but for you is there a particular song that perhaps embodies the spirit of his music best? It's hard to identify any one song.
PAXTONI would say "Where Have All the Flowers Gone."
NNAMDIHow about one that you want to play for us right now?
PAXTONI'll do that. I'll do a little of that.
NNAMDI"Where Have All the Flowers Gone."
NNAMDIPete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," being performed by Tom Paxton. Pete Seeger wrote that in the 1950s, a turbulent era during which he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
NNAMDICited for contempt of Congress. That conviction was eventually overturned. But that song still holds up today, doesn't it.
PAXTONOh, does it ever. I mean, when would this song not be timely?
NNAMDIYeah, he was in part responsible for what's considered a folk music revival. Can you talk about the evolution of folk music over the past half a century or so, and what Pete Seeger's role in all of that was?
PAXTONI think what Pete did -- and I repeat, I don't think any of my friends would be doing what we're doing without his influence. And I think that what Pete did was make this music relevant. Before Pete and say, Woody Guthrie, folk music was something for just a very specialized taste, like mine, I guess. But what he did was he took it onto the campuses. He made young people understand how relevant this music was, how it reflected the ideals of a younger person who cared about what happened in the world, that this was a way to express those ideals. And what a service he performed.
NNAMDIFor Pete Seeger, music was inseparable from activism and from politics. Can you talk a little bit about that?
PAXTONWell, folk music, there's always been folk music associated with activism. I mean, in our own country there were many songs in Colonial days excoriating the English for their policies…
PAXTON…to us poor Colonists. And I remember one, "What a Court Hath Old England." That was in the Burl Ives songbook. But there were lots of very angry songs that people sang in the taverns. So it's an old, old tradition.
NNAMDIThat's the tradition that Pete Seeger was certainly a part of. He died yesterday at the age of 94 years old. Before we go, can you play us one more song, one more Pete Seeger song?
NNAMDITom Paxton, remembering Pete Seeger, who died on Monday, at the age of 94. Tom Paxton, good to see you again. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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