The Power of Music: Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen


Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden, 2009

By Ryan Hilligoss, Shawn Poole and Jim Musselman

May 1, 2019

“The approach toward song as the potential to reach people and to touch people’s lives and to change the world in the sense is something he’s held a deep belief in and he’s pursued it his whole life.” Bruce Springsteen on Seeger


My friend Shawn Poole from and Backstreets Magazine and I want to pay our respects to Pete Seeger, who would be turning 100 years old on May 3. Pete passed away on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94, having lived a long, full life fighting for social justice, racial equality, world peace, and environmental safety. But more importantly, Pete Seeger’s message was delivered in the form of music, played on the banjo and accompanied by the many voices of his audience who always joined in with Pete on the chorus. Pete Seeger was and remains an icon of musical history, greatly responsible for the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 60s. For his activism, Pete was once described by poet Carl Sandburg as being “America’s tuning fork”. Pete’s musical legacy and activism are reflected in many ways in the music and career of Bruce Springsteen. Bruce once said of Pete, “Pete was one of those guys who saw himself as a citizen artist, as a citizen activist. He had a very full idea of those things and how it connected to music and what music could do. The power that music had to influence and to inspire. That’s the power of folk music and that’s the power of Pete Seeger.”

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Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Pete Seeger and Tom Morello 5/3/2009 Madison Square Garden

What better way to start off  than watching Bruce Springsteen himself talking about the Pete Seeger’s legacy. Springsteen’s speech is taken from Pete’s 90th birthday celebration held at Madison Square Garden on May 3, 2009 where artists as diverse as Bruce, Tom Morello, John Mellencamp, Ani Defranco, Roger McGuin, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie helped celebrate Pete’s music and spirit. Pete insisted the concert be known as The Clearwater Concert and all the proceeds went to The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a foundation Pete and his wife Toshi helped create in 1966 to clean up the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands. At the birthday celebration, Bruce was joined by Tom Morello on a version of The Ghost of Tom Joad. You will see a version of The Ghost of Tom Joad featuring Pete Seeger trading verses with Bruce. I’ll talk about this a little more later, but it is of special note that longtime Seeger friend and mentor, Woody Guthrie, who also directly influenced Springsteen himself, wrote the song The Ballad of Tom Joad, inspired by John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Just as Woody was inspired by John Steinbeck, Springsteen was inspired by Guthrie and Steinbeck and wrote his own piece of art in the folk manner of adding lyrics and verses to a bit of pre-existing music. In 1995, Springsteen released his solo acoustic version of The Ghost of Tom Joad which was then covered by Rage Against The Machine in a much different version that cuts to to the anger and rage of a political situation. Later, Springsteen and RATGM guitarist Tom Morello would collaborate on a full band studio version which includes incredible guitar work from Morello that elevates the song to higher limits. The folk tradition is alive tonight.




Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions

In the liner notes to We Shall Overcome, Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions, released in 2006, Springsteen writes, “In 1997 I recorded, We Shall Overcome for Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger. Growing up a rock and roll kid I didn’t know a lot about Pete’s music or the depth of his influence. So I headed to the record store and came back with an armful of Pete Seeger records. Over the next few days of listening, the wealth of songs, their richness and power changed what I thought I knew about “folk music” Hearing this music and our initial ’97 session for Pete’s record sent me off, casually at first, on a quest.”


Shawn Poole from here.  I was very pleased and honored to be asked by my buddy Ryan Hilligoss to contribute to this special project celebrating the 100th anniversary of Pete Seeger’s birth.  As Ryan noted, Pete made an enormous, lasting impact not only on music but on social and political conditions in the U.S. and around the globe.  Pete Seeger is also the only musician to date for whom Bruce Springsteen has recorded an entire album’s worth of songs in tribute.   The person whose spark started the fire that became that album, entitled We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, is Jim Musselman, the founder and president of Appleseed Recordings. Appleseed is based in West Chester, PA, not too far from where I live, and recently I had the pleasure of visiting with Jim Musselman and chatting with him about how The Seeger Sessions happened, Bruce Springsteen’s relationship with Pete Seeger and Bruce’s continued relationship with Appleseed Recordings as one of their official recording artists, including his most recently released recording for Appleseed, a Seeger Sessions outtake recording of Lee Hays and Pete Seeger’s classic song “If I Had A Hammer.” I’ll be sharing with you some excerpts from our conversation. Here’s Jim talking about how The Seeger Sessions came to be, followed by a bit of recording that Jim made with Pete Seeger himself talking about The Seeger Sessions and its opening track. Take it away, Jim and Pete.

We Shall Overcome

Shawn Poole:  You just saw Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band’s version of Old Dan Tucker,“introduced” by Pete Seeger himself through the magic of technology, and thanks to Jim Musselman of Appleseed Recordings for sharing that recording of Pete with us for this special project. There is another version of “Old Dan Tucker,”  from Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band’s 2006 performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Bruce has listed that performance among his top concerts of all time and just last weekend while onstage with Thom Zimny in a special screening of archived footage at the Asbury Park Music & Film Festival, announced that he hopes to release a film of that entire 2006 Jazz Fest performance. Stay tuned, Seeger Sessions Band fans! The first recording of a Pete Seeger song that Bruce Springsteen ever contributed to Appleseed Recordings was his version of “We Shall Overcome,” the song that Pete helped to compose and popularize during the Civil Rights era. Bruce recorded his version of “We Shall Overcome,” with the musicians who later became The Seeger Sessions Band, for the 1998 Appleseed Seeger tribute album Where Have All The Flowers Gone?  “We Shall Overcome” is a song that has been used by so many people all over the world to give them strength and courage during their struggles.  When the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred, NBC News used Springsteen’s version of “We Shall Overcome” over a montage of video footage from the aftermath of the attacks. Here’s Jim Musselman talking about what that meant to Pete Seeger.

You just saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band along with guest Roger McGuinn of the Byrds covering Pete Seeger’s Turn! Turn! Turn!. This version was performed on April 23, 2008 and released officially shortly after. Roger McGuin and the Byrds were one of many artists to cover Pete’s songs back in the 1960’s as part of the folk revival. Turn turn turn was written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s. The lyrics – except for the title, which is repeated throughout the song, and the final two lines – are adapted word-for-word from the first eight verses of the third chapter of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. In addition to Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen was greatly influenced by Roger McGuinn, so once again, the music comes full circle with this recording.

During his blacklist period, one of the few ways Pete could earn a living to support his wife and kids was to teach music at summer camps and at schools. He also toured colleges, presenting his brand of folk music, teaching a great amount of American traditional songs to a new generation. Pete recorded several albums for Moe Asch’s Folkways Record label. He was a frequent columnist in the folk publication Sing Out! Pete also urged John Hammond at Columbia records to sign and produce Bob Dylan. As a founding member of the Newport Folk Festival, Pete was integral to pushing for the inclusion of many various artists as wide ranging as The Weavers, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Earl Scruggs, Odetta, Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary,  Cisco Huston and Joan Baez.

Next you’ll hear Jim Musselman discuss American Land and then hear a live version of the song played by Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions band taken from the Live in Dublin release.

The American Land- There’ll be diamonds in the sidewalks


Shawn Poole:  We are celebrating Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday today.  You just saw Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band’s live version of Bring ‘Em Home taken from the Live In Dublin release which is available on audio and video. Also, we included Pete Seeger doing his own Waist Deep In The Big Muddy taken from his appearance on The Smothers Brothers show in 1968. Pete Seeger and the other band mates in the Weavers were blacklisted from radio and television during the age of McCarthyism and Pete was banned from tv until 1968 when the Smothers Brothers went toe to toe with the CBS management, insisting Pete be allowed to perform or they would not produce any new episodes of their very popular show. Pete said and did things as he thought were right and for that, he paid an awfully high price. In 1992, Springsteen released the album Lucky Town along with Human Touch. The album contained The Big Muddy, which while very different in the story and arrangement, bears a very striking similarity to Pete’s song in the title.

Here’s very high compliment that Pete Seeger once gave Bruce Springsteen back in a 1997 New York Times Magazine profile of Bruce: ”He’s a very honest, gentle guy, not showoffish. I once read an interview with him where he said that a rock musician can stay honest if he can look down into the footlights and see his own face reflected there. I wrote his manager, Jon Landau, a letter after I saw that saying that it’s really great that you’ve managed to stay normal good people despite the huge amount of publicity and big sales. Think of how many people’s lives have been ruined by fame.”

Woody and Pete

This Train Is Bound For Glory- Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Springsteen

It’s hard to talk about Pete Seeger without talking about his friend, mentor, and kindred spirit Woody Guthrie. This Land Is Your Land is often identified with Pete, but it was written by Guthrie who had been out on one of his many cross country rambles, came home and wrote down the lyrics and wrote in the margins, “You can only write what you see”. Just like many other songs like We Shall Overcome, Little Boxes, Jacob’s Ladder and Goodnight Irene, Pete didn’t write them, he might have added some verses or words or covered them, but they are folk songs that he helped pass along to the next generation. As a young man, Pete Seeger worked at the Library of Congress along with Alan and John Lomax on their recording project wherein they went around the country recording every different kind of music they could find in the field including blues, gospel, bluegrass, and country. During this period, Alan Lomax invited Woody Guthrie to Washington DC to record some of his material. One day, Woody showed up with no notice as was his style, Alan introduced him to Pete who accompanied Woody on many of his recordings since Pete could play whatever instrument and style Woody required. Afterwards, Woody left Washington and headed for California and took Pete with him and showed him how to ride the railways, how to busk for money playing music on street corners and earning money for food and lodging, and teaching him all the music he knew. As a member of the Almanac singers in 1941, Pete invited Woody to join their group which he did and the group recorded several albums of 78s including folk music, union songs and anti-Fascist songs prior to the outbreak of World War II.


Many of Woody’s guitars sometimes had the words “This machine kills fascists” on the face. Pete learned from Woody’s message and turned his own into a message of love and hope and so on the head of his banjo, Pete wrote, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Woody Guthrie was very politically motivated and involved in many movements over the years as was Pete Seeger. In 1955, under McCarthyism, Pete Seeger was called in front of the House on Un-American Activities due to his outspoken support of civil rights, labor rights, racial equality, and anti-militarism. During his testimony, Pete said, “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers. I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”


Hobo’s Lullabye was written and originally recorded by Goebel Reeves in the early 1930’s and his song was covered by many artists over the years including Woody Guthrie who sang it often and turned it into a hit. Below is a link to hear Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions Band performing Reeve’s song with Pete on harmony and banjo. This is the only song Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions band actually recorded with Pete.




We’ve Got A Hammer, We’ve Got a Song

Shawn Poole: I want to share with you all one more clip from my conversation with Appleseed Records founder and president Jim Musselman, accompanied by another Bruce Springsteen Appleseed recording, before Ryan then closes out today’s show. Here’s Jim talking about Bruce’s most recently released recording for Appleseed, a Seeger Sessions outtake recording of Lee Hays and Pete Seeger’s classic song “If I Had A Hammer.” The track is available exclusively on the 3-CD set Appleseed’s 21st Anniversary: Roots & Branches. Visit for more information. Now here’s Jim.




Getting Clean again, From The Redwood Forests To The Gulf Stream Waters

My friends Shawn Poole and Jim Musselman and I would like to thank you for reading, watching and listening as we  paid our respects to one of America’s finest musicians and human beings of the last 100 years.

In 1972, after playing a concert a young man walked up to Pete and said, “Are you Pete Seeger? I’ve come here to kill you.” Pete had been threatened many times over the years by many different people for many different reasons, mostly political, but this seemed different, so Pete took the young man aside to talk to him. The young man had served in the Marines in Vietnam and had lost many friends in battle and the young man was outraged by some of the things Pete said and the songs he sang. They talked for a while and then Pete pulled out his banjo and together they sang “We Shall Overcome”. Afterwards the young man said to Pete, “I feel better now, I feel clean.” That’s the beauty of Pete Seeger, that’s the beauty of music. If you can sing along and you sing loud enough, you can make a difference and maybe you can even save a life. Maybe you can feel clean again.

Pete often described his work in this way, “I see myself as a planter of seeds. Some of the seeds land on the stones and don’t sprout. Some land on the pathway and get stomped on. But, some land on good ground, take root and sprout a 1,000,000 times over”.

The message of Pete Seeger and also of Bruce Springsteen is this, if you love your country and the world, you’ll find a way to speak up for what you think is right. Pete used his voice and music and that glorious banjo, just as Bruce Springsteen continues to use his voice and guitar to speak out for what is right, for what is good and true and decent in America and around the world. As long as music is played, as long as we sing along, there is hope. Even in the darkest times, let’s keep singing, even if we don’t know the words, Pete will give them to us and we just sing along and maybe we can raise the roof a little higher. So let’s all join in on one final song, and do me a personal favor and sing as loud as you can no matter who might be listening. It’s simple, Pete will give us the words and you just repeat after him. So here we go….a one, a two…a one, two, three, four….



Postscipt- Like a ripple from a pond

After Pete passed, Springsteen released this statement: “We deeply mourn the passing of Pete Seeger. We believe that nobody is truly gone until all those who are touched or influenced by that person are gone from the Earth…So Pete will live on in the hearts and minds of so many for years to come. His vision of peace and justice and equality for all will live on and continue to influence. His music has been used all over the world for social justice. From the Civil Rights movement to the anti-war movements Pete and his songs have been there on the front lines. Like a ripple that keeps going out from a pond Pete’s music will keep going out all over the world spreading the message of non-violence and peace and justice and equality for all. Wherever people are fighting to be free or fighting for equality Pete’s songs and Pete’s vision will be there with them.”



Pete Seeger entertains Eleanor Roosevelt and guests

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