Cover Story

Singer Pete Seeger's commitment to psychology is as big as a barn.

Thirty years ago, a couple of teen-agers found a quotation from psychology founding father William James in a peace magazine and painted the sentence onto the side of the barn on Seeger's property in the Hudson River Valley. Now weatherbeaten, the four-foot high letters say, "I am done with big things and great things, and I am for those tiny, invisible, molecular forces that creep from individual to individual like so many rootlets, or like the capillary action of water, yet which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monument of man's pride."

For Seeger, the words point to the power of organizations like APA to change the world.

"I'm absolutely convinced that if there's a human race here in 100 or 200 years, it will be because of millions upon millions of small organizations," he explains. "They might be academic disciplines or scientific organizations, political organizations or sports organizations, religious organizations or artistic organizations."

Seeger will give the keynote performance at the APA Convention in Washington, D.C., at 6 p.m., Aug. 4. Now 81, the man who wrote such songs as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "If I Had a Hammer" will combine music and storytelling in a joint performance with his grandson Tao Rodriguez. Their goal? To get the audience singing along.

"Making music is more important than listening to it," says Seeger.

According to APA President Pat DeLeon, PhD, JD, Seeger was his number-one choice for the keynote.

"Seeger is right out of the 1960s, when I was in graduate school," he explains. "His emphasis on social awareness and social change really reminds me of why we became psychologists. He represents why the vast majority of psychologists went into psychology: the desire to make society a little bit better."

Fusing music and social protest

Although Seeger is best known as a folksinger, it's a label he rejects.

"People forget there's as many different kinds of folk songs as there are different kinds of folks," says Seeger, who received a National Medal of Art in 1994. The songs Seeger has sung during six decades of appearances at college campuses, union gatherings, peace rallies, civil rights marches and other venues reflect that diversity.

The son of a musicologist and a concert violinist, Seeger discovered folk music as a teen and dropped out of Harvard University in 1938 to sing and help organize the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Songs. In 1940, he, his trademark banjo and Woody Guthrie roamed the country combining folk music and social protest in what they called "the music of the people." They eventually formed the Almanac Singers.

After serving in World War II, Seeger launched the magazine "Sing Out!" to encourage the burgeoning folk revival. In 1948, he and other musicians came together as the Weavers. Their renditions of Huddie Ledbetter's "Goodnight Irene," Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and the South African song "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" sold millions of records.

The group also attracted the attention of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, however. Dubbed subversive and blacklisted, they broke up in 1953. Seeger--who had joined the Communist Party in 1942 but drifted out after learning of the millions killed by Stalin and Mao--launched a solo career. In 1955, he was forced to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. After refusing to discuss his politics, he was blacklisted for the next 17 years.

The antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s revivified Seeger's career. Although it was other musicians who made many of his songs famous, he in turn was busy popularizing everything from blues to Bantu folk music, from union songs to Civil War tunes.

"With most of my songs, I borrowed somebody else's words and put them to a tune or borrowed somebody else's tune and put words to it," explains Seeger, pointing to "We Shall Overcome" as an example. "I was just the matchmaker that brought the two together."

Today Seeger devotes most of his energy to environmental concerns, especially pollution in the Hudson River. "We owe a responsibility to where we've been born and raised," he says. By helping to found an organization called Clearwater that maintains a 106-foot sloop of the same name, Seeger has helped introduce thousands of schoolchildren to environmental issues and helped make the Hudson safe for swimming again.

Although he claims his voice is half gone, Seeger often performs at benefits for this and other organizations. At the APA Convention, he hopes to learn more about a discipline he confesses he doesn't know much about. According to DeLeon, the performance will have a dual goal of making the convention fun and reminding psychologists about the importance of social change.

"If I didn't believe music could make things better, I wouldn't be a musician," says Seeger, the author of a musical autobiography called "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" (Sing Out Publications, 1993) and several how-to books on subjects ranging from building a steel drum set to playing the five-string banjo. "I've been rewarded many times over by people writing letters about how their lives were changed after hearing my songs."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.