House of the Rising Sun

Next week Red House Records issues a momentous tribute album of Pete Seeger's songs. But after 15 years at the margins of American music, this St. Paul label proudly aims to stay there.

Now 79, Seeger lives in upstate New York, and is on a sabbatical from touring. Seeger reports that Musselman undertook the album because "he was unhappy people weren't singing my songs." And Seeger is obviously proud of it. "They've done a wonderful job, and I'm very proud that all these people want to sing my songs."

Yet, while rumors about his health abound, the Seeger I interview sounds blithe, and, as always, he is remarkably articulate. "My voice is about 70 percent gone," he jokes. "I tell people, 'From the shoulders down I'm about 80 percent here. From the shoulders up I'm about 20 percent here. Eyes gone. Ears gone. Voice gone. Brain--forget it.'"

Though this diagnosis is a charming piece of self-effacement, it doesn't ring true; this is a man with at least a couple lives left to lead. In 10 minutes, Seeger talks about his favorite South African pop song (the above mentioned "Mbube"), anarchism, and the apparent stupidity of record collecting ("I like to make music," he says).

A few albums that Seeger does listen to are steel-drum recordings: He likes to strap on skates and zip around the frozen pond behind his house with the melodic beat booming from an outdoor speaker. "That's the best music to skate to I might tell you; it beats Viennese waltzes. I once skated around to Bob Dylan's record of John Wesley Harding 'til I wore it out."

Though Seeger writes few songs these days--Feldman claims that the singer remains a prolific correspondent--his back catalog has lost none of its pertinence, as this latest album makes clear. And Seeger is ever the proselytizer. "I think the world can be saved by thousands of little organizations," he announces with the assurance of someone forecasting a sunrise. And who's to say it won't.

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