‘How Can I Keep From Singing’: Pete Seeger exhibit at the Woody Guthrie Center

Published March 2017
Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, 1943. Photo courtesy of Woody Guthrie Archives

Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are among two of the more esteemed US100 club members for their contribution to the folk movement that led to This Land Is Your Land, as well as to the music of Bob Dylan that was to follow. My excitement that there is an exhibition on Seeger coming to the Woody Guthrie Center is tinged with regret that I’m unlikely to be able to fly to Oklahoma to view it – so instead I spoke to Chief Executive of the Center, Deana McCloud, about the exhibit and its wider themes. 

JZ: Tell us about the exhibit coming to the Woody Guthrie Center this year. What kind of Seeger related things can visitors expect to see? 
DM: The exhibit opens to the public on April 6, and features items from throughout Pete’s lifetime as he worked to build community, both through song and with his work with the environment. In addition to documents, flyers, posters, letters, and lyrics, the Center will have 3-dimensional items, such as Pete’s banjo with a neck that he hand-carved, clothing, and hand-carved instruments. There will also be two interactive stations where people can sing along with Pete and take a banjo lesson from a video monitor, with Pete instructing.

JZ: Sounds great – I wish I could make it. Just how influential was Pete in regard to folk music and the wider cultural impact it made in his lifetime?
DM: Pete was highly influential to folk music. When he was blacklisted and couldn’t perform on TV or radio [due to the McCarthyist scare], he took his music to the students, and his work became the building block for the folk revival movement of the 60s. Those students understood the power of their voices and took Pete’s instruction to use them to enact positive change in society. He was a vocal opponent to the war in Vietnam and a supporter of the civil rights movement in America. His encouragement for everyone to join and sing along to galvanise change was, to use his words, a “machine that surrounds hate and forces it to surrender”.

JZ: How close were Pete and Woody, and how profound was their influence on one another?
DM: Woody and Pete were the closest of friends. Pete said of Woody: “We all read about music being a part of people’s lives, but I hadn’t seen it in action until I met him. The words that came out of his mouth and the music he made all flowed together with the life that he had led, and I was greatly attracted to it and kind of tagged along after him for several months.”

JZ: I personally found the footage of Pete singing This Land Is Your Land on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the inauguration of the first African-American President to be a very heartwarming moment. After a lifetime of civil rights campaigning, what do you think this experience meant to him?
DM: I try to avoid putting words into others’ mouths, but I’m sure it was a proud moment for him. One thing that’s important to note was that Pete insisted in singing all of the verses to This Land is Your Land, just like Woody wrote them, including the social justice verses that were so important to them both.

JZ: Do you think today’s America needs more Woody Guthries and Pete Seegers to stand up for social justice and the marginalised in society?
DM: Today, more than ever before, it’s vital for us to look at the messages of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Their voices supporting diversity, equality, and social justice are just as relevant, and are needed in order to empower those who feel disenfranchised in our society. Our mission is to continue sharing the legacy of these two social advocates and invite others to sing and work alongside us!

For those reading fortunate enough to be closer than Jarek to Tulsa, Oklahoma, you can visit the ‘How Can I Keep From Singing: The Work of Pete Seeger’ exhibit from April 6 through to August 21. More information on accessing the Center can be found through its website

US100 Track 2: Woody Guthrie – This Land Is Your Land