My mother wanted me to learn how to read music. She'd given fiddles to my two older brothers, but they'd rebelled. I came along and my father said, "Oh, let Peter enjoy himself." What she did was leave musical instruments all around the house. Whistles, marimbas, squeeze boxes, a piano and organ. By age six or seven, I could bang out a simple tune on almost anything. I developed a good ear, so I didn't learn to read music until I taught myself at age eighteen, 'cause I was hearing so many good songs I couldn't possibly remember them all.
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And there's a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don't grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don't grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you've done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of?
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There are many people writing songs. That is absolutely wonderful. Who knows, there may be some kid in diapers and he or she might succeed in capturing in a few dozen words what great writers have spent years trying to say. Just the right word in the right place with the right melody behind it and the right rhythm. It might get around the world inch by inch, and people realize that this world is in danger, that we're in danger. That's the way "This Land Is Your Land" got to be so well known.
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John Adams and Thomas Jefferson corresponded for 13 years before they died on the same day. They asked, "How can one have prosperity without commerce? How can one have commerce without luxury? How can one have luxury without corruption? How can you have corruption without the end of the Republic?" And they really didn't know the answer.
Just as with other great words, the word environment means different things. You might say that a cave woman twenty thousand years ago sweeping out the cave was improving the environment. Many people improving the environment think only in terms of the air they breathe in their hometown and the water in the aquifer under their hometown. My guess is very few are thinking centuries ahead or thousand of years ahead, but that's what we have to do.
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My father urged Alan [Lomax] not to repeat the mistakes of the European folklorists who, a century ago, had collected these peasant songs and then arranged them for part choir and accompanied them on piano, and then told the young people of their country, "Don't change a note, this is our sacred heritage." Father said, whether it's a fiddle tune or a gospel song, learn it right off the record from the people who grew up with it. Don't just learn it from a piece of paper.
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If there's a world here in a hundred years, it's going to be saved by tens of millions of little things. The powers-that-be can break up any big thing they want. They can corrupt it or co-opt it from the inside, or they can attack it from the outside. But what are they going to do about 10 million little things? They break up two of them, and three more like them spring up!
There is something about participating; it is almost my religion. If the world is still here in 100 years, people will know the importance of participating, not just being spectators. Millions of small groups around the world, that don't necessarily all agree with one another, are made up of people who are not just sitting back waiting for someone to do things for them. No one can prove anything, but of course if I didn't believe it had some kind of power, I wouldn't be trying to do it.
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I was about 16 years old years when my father took me to a square dance festival in North Carolina. For the first time in my life, I found there was music in my country that you never heard on the radio, and you didn't hear on the juke boxes, and in theaters. I fell in love with it, especially the long-necked banjos.
He [Alan Lomax] started right off trying to find people who could introduce folk songs to city people. He found a young actor named Burl Ives and said, "Burl, you know a lot of great country songs learned from your grandmother, don't you know people would love to hear them?" He put on radio programs. He persuaded CBS to dedicate "The School of the Air" for one year to American folk music. He'd get some old sailor to sing an old sea shanty with a cracked voice. Then he'd get me to sing it with my banjo.
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Now any person who plays an acoustic guitar standing up on stage with a microphone is a folk singer. Some grandmother with a baby in her arms singing a 500-year-old song, well, she's not a folk singer, she's not on stage with a guitar and a microphone. No, she's just an old grandmother singing an old song. The term "folk singer" has gotten warped.
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I was 16 when I came to New York. I had graduated to a tenor banjo in the school jazz band, and it was kind of boring - just chords, chords, chords. Then my father took me to a mountain music and dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and there I saw relatively uneducated people playing great music by ear.
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Well, it's one of the things that will. Words are good, and words help us become the leading species on earth to the point where we are now ready to wipe ourselves off the earth. But I think that all the arts are needed, and sports too, and cooking, food, and all these different ways of communication. Smiles, looking into eyes directly, all these different means of communication are needed to save this world. But certainly a great melody
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I remember someone once saying, "Pete, you know you really should take voice lessons." And I said, "Well, if I could find any voice teacher that could teach me to sing like Lead Belly I'd spend every cent to study under him." But every time you'd go to a voice teacher, he'd teach you to warble, as if you'd want to be an opera singer, and that's not what I'm interested in.
In the United States, many people said you can't have folk music in the United States because you don't have any peasant class. But the funny thing was, there were literally thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who loved old time fiddling, ballads, banjo tunes, blues played on the guitar, spirituals and gospel hymns. These songs and music didn't fit into any neat category of art music nor popular music nor jazz. So gradually they said well let's call it folk music.
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It was Rachel Carson's famous book 'Silent Spring' that got me involved with the environment. I read it in The New Yorker, in installments. Up to then, I'd thought the main job to do is help the meek inherit the Earth. And I still, that's a job that's got to be done. But I realized if we didn't do something soon, what the meek would inherit would be a pretty poisonous place to live.
I feel most spiritual when I'm out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it's all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I'm not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes.
I would ask, "How can one have a technological society without research? How can one have research without researching dangerous areas? How can one research dangerous areas without uncovering dangerous information? How can you uncover dangerous information without it falling into the hands of insane people who will sooner or later destroy the human race, if not the whole of life on earth?" Who knows? God only knows!
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