An archetypal folk song from the godfather of folk, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" has been through many versions and recordings since Pete Seeger first penned a few verses 55 years ago. It is a song inspired by the words of a Ukranian folk song in Mikhail Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don. It is also the title of Seeger's musical autobiography.
The joint refrains "Long time passing" and "Long time ago" punctuate the song with sadness, complemented by the slow rhythm with which it is usually played. Seeger builds up a feeling of transcience, within which he places his moral: "When will we ever learn?"
The endurance of this straightforward folk melody befits the longevity of Seeger, who has been a pillar of American music and society since his group The Weavers were chased off the charts during the postwar red scare, and who allegedly threatened to cut the cables when Bob Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965.
The veteran of the civil rights movement regarded the concept of authorship in relation to folk music as irrelevant, the creation of songs rather involving the changing of melodies and words over time to fit new realities. He would refuse to discuss the meanings of his songs, seeing himself as just another milestone in an endless tradition:
No, I think I'll just let the song stand on its own two feet. You know, a song can mean a thousand different things to different people, and when people ask me what the song means, I say, "Whatever it means to you, it means". But I'm not going to tell you what it means to me because that's my ... well, I might destroy your illusions.