Photo © Elliott Landy/www.LandyVision.com
I interviewed Pete Seeger recently.
He’s a great man, Pete Seeger.
I agree. He said, “All songwriters are links in a chain.” Without your link in that chain, all of songwriting would have evolved much differently. You said how you brought folk music to rock music. Do you think that would have happened without you?
Somebody else would have done it in some other kind of way. But, hey, so what? So what? You can lead people astray awfully easily. Would people have been better off? Sure. They would have found somebody else. Maybe different people would have found different people, and would have been influenced by different people.
You brought the song to a new place. Is there still a new place to bring songs? Will they continue to evolve?
[Pause] The evolution of song is like a snake with its tail in its mouth. That’s evolution. That’s what it is. As soon as you’re there, you find your tail.
Would it be okay with you if I mentioned some lines from your songs out of context to see what response you might have to them?
Sure. You can name anything you want to name, man.
“I stand here looking at your yellow railroad/In the ruins of your balcony.” [from “Absolutely Sweet Marie”]
[Pause] Okay. That’s an old song. No, let’s say not even old. How old? Too old. It’s matured well. It’s like wine. Now, you know, look, that’s as complete as you can be. Every single letter in that line. It’s all true. On a literal and on an escapist level.
And is it truth that adds so much resonance to it?
Oh yeah, exactly. See, you can pull it apart and it’s like, “Yellow railroad?” Well, yeah. Yeah, yeah. All of it.
“I was lying down in the reeds without any oxygen/I saw you in the wilderness among the men/I saw you drift into infinity and come back again.” [from “True Love Tends To Forget”].
Those are probably lyrics left over from my songwriting days with Jacques Levy. To me, that’s what they sound like.
Getting back to the yellow railroad, that could be from looking some place. Being a performer you travel the world. You’re not just looking off the same window everyday. You’re not just walking down the same old street. So you must make yourself observe whatever. But most of the time it hits you. You don’t have to observe. It hits you. Like “yellow railroad” could have been a blinding day when the sun was bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind. These aren’t contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out. You know, if it’s in there it’s got to come out.
“And the chains of the sea will be busted in the night.” [from “When The Ship Comes In”]
To me, that song says a whole lot. Patti LaBelle should do that. You know? You know, there again, that comes from hanging out at a lot of poetry gatherings. Those kind of images are very romantic. They’re very gothic and romantic at the same time. And they have a sweetness to it, also. So it’s a combination of a lot of different elements at the time. That’s not a contrived line. That’s not sitting down and writing a song. Those kind of songs, they just come out. They’re in you so they’ve got to come out.
“Standing on the water casting your bread/While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.” [from “Jokerman”]
[Blows small Peruvian flute] Which one is that again?
That’s from “Jokerman.”
That’s a song that got away from me. Lots of songs on that album [Infidels] got away from me. They just did.
You mean in the writing?
Yeah. They hung around too long. They were better before they were tampered with. Of course, it was me tampering with them. [Laughs] Yeah. That could have been a good song. It could’ve been.
I think it’s tremendous.
Oh, you do? It probably didn’t hold up for me because in my mind it had been written and rewritten and written again. One of those kinds of things.
“But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency.” [from “Slow Train”].
Now don’t tell me … wait … Is that “When You Gonna Wake Up”?
No, that’s from “Slow Train.”
Oh, wow. Oh, yeah. Wow. There again. That’s a song that you could write a song to every line in the song. You could.
Many of your songs are like that.
Well, you know, that’s not good either. Not really. In the long run, it could have stood up better by maybe doing just that, maybe taking every line and making a song out of it. If somebody had the will power. But that line, there again, is an intellectual line. It’s a line, “Well, the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency,” that could be a lie. It just could be. Whereas “Standing under your yellow railroad,” that’s not a lie.
To Woody Guthrie, see, the airwaves were sacred. And when he’d hear something false, it was on airwaves that were sacred to him. His songs weren’t false. Now we know the airwaves aren’t sacred but to him they were. So that influenced a lot of people with me coming up. Like, “You know, all those songs on the Hit Parade are just a bunch of shit, anyway.” It influenced me in the beginning when nobody had heard that. You know, “If I give my heart to you, will you handle it with care?” Or “I’m getting sentimental over you.” Who gives a shit! It could be said in a grand way, and the performer could put the song across, but come on, that’s because he’s a great performer, not because it’s a great song. Woody was also a performer and songwriter. So a lot of us got caught up in that. There ain’t anything good on the radio. It doesn’t happen. Then, of course, The Beatles came along and kind of grabbed everybody by the throat. You were for them or against them. You were for them or you joined them, or whatever. Then everybody said, ‘Oh, popular song ain’t so bad,’ and then everyone wanted to get on the radio. [Laughs] Before that it didn’t matter.
My first records were never played on the radio. It was unheard of! Folk records weren’t played on the radio. You never heard them on the radio and nobody cared if they were on the radio. Going on into it further, after The Beatles came out and everybody from England, rock and roll still is an American thing. Folk music is not. Rock and roll is an American thing, it’s just all kind of twisted. But the English kind of threw it back, didn’t they? And they made everybody respect it once more. So everybody wanted to get on the radio.
Now nobody even knows what radio is anymore. Nobody likes it that you talk to. Nobody listens to it. But, then again, it’s bigger than it ever was. But nobody knows how to really respond to it. Nobody can shut it off. [Laughs] You know? And people really aren’t sure whether they want to be on the radio or whether they don’t want to be on the radio. They might want to sell a lot of records, but people always did that. But being a folk performer, having hits, it wasn’t important. Whatever that has to do with anything … [Laughs]