“I didn’t really start writing songs till I met Woody Guthrie. And I suddenly learned that something that was awful important. And that was: Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no great crime in changing a little.”
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Senior Editor Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting (Da Capo) is currently in its fourth edition. Overflowing with candid interviews, Zollo’s keen questions with 62 songwriters provides an exciting and necessary read for anyone interested in the craft. From Bob Dylan to Frank Zappa, Merle Haggard to R.E.M., these interviews are nothing short of a treasure.
Now AmericanSongwriter.com readers can rediscover some of these classic Q&A’s. Check out the Paul Zollo Blog each Friday to read excerpt from Songwriters on Songwriting. We’re proud to kick of this bi-weekly blog with a section of Paul Zollo’s interview with Pete Seeger.
Pete Seeger’s songs are some of the most heartfelt a country has heard, songs that seem to have been born with the earth because we grew up not only hearing them but singing them, songs such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer.” He’s written songs of protest and outrage, like “Last Train to Nuremberg” and “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”; songs of love and simplicity, like “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Rainbow Race”; and he’s introduced us to songs that are enduring anthems for humanity, such as “We Shall Overcome.”
Do you remember writing your first song?
I wrote poems as a kid. My uncle was a poet and there was a tradition of poetry in our family. My grandfather wrote light verses and one of my brothers and I, from time to time, would try to write a poem.
But I didn’t really start writing songs till I met Woody Guthrie. And I suddenly learned that something that was awful important. And that was: Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no great crime in changing a little.
I saw Woody doing it with song after song. It wasn’t long before I heard him sing [sings] “T for Texas, T for Tennessee…” It was the fall of 1940 so I sang, [sings] “C for conscription, C for Capitol Hill, C for the Congress, pass that goddamn bill…”
So that, you might say, was one of my first songs. I used the same melody, which Woody had copied from Jimmie Rodgers, and the same verse which I heard Woody sing from Jimmie Rodgers. And I built on it.
Did you and Woody discuss songwriting?
No, we didn’t discuss it theoretically. We just went out and did it. And we didn’t always agree. I was influenced by Caribbean music. And in 1942 I made up a song about a woman who had organized a domestic worker’s union in Harlem, New York. And the melody I used was a distinctly Caribbean pattern. Woody was furious. He said, “Oh, that’s not our kind of music. Let those people sing that kind of music. They know how to do it well.” And he refused to sing the song and eventually I stopped — it wasn’t that great a song.
But this is true with most songs you write. You have to assume that you write dozens if not hundreds of songs and you’re lucky if one out of ten is worth singing a year later.
Was Woody a happy person?
I’d say basically he was. He was an optimistic guy, a thumbs-up guy. He was looking for the silver lining — at the same time he didn’t want to ignore the dark side of the cloud. He was not one who always looked for the dark side.
But Woody was a realistic guy and he wasn’t going to ignore the sad side. The greatness of his lyrics, I believe, is that he was able to combine these in one song, often. “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” has the tragedy of the Dust Bowl in it but it also has the humor of the situation. The sweetheart sings, “Oh honey, I’m not talking about marriage, I’m saying, ‘So long, it’s been good to know you.'” “They hugged and they kissed, they sighed and they cried…” and so on, but then, “So long, it’s been good to know you.” [Laughs]
Paul Zollo is currently working on a new edition of Songwriters on Songwriting. You can order the most recent edition, containing the full version of this interview at Amazon.com.