The lyrics were taken from a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) in The Bible. They were rearranged and paired with Seeger's music to make the song. In a 1988 interview with Paul Zollo, Seeger explained: "I don't read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I'm amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn't a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically."
Seeger added: "I got a letter from my publisher, and he says, 'Pete, I can't sell these protest songs you write.' And I was angry. I sat down with a tape recorder and said, 'I can't write the kind of songs you want. You gotta go to somebody else. This is the only kind of song I know how to write.' I pulled out this slip of paper in my pocket and improvised a melody to it in fifteen minutes. And I sent it to him. And I got a letter from him the next week that said, 'Wonderful! Just what I'm looking for.' Within two months he'd sold it to the Limelighters and then to the Byrds. I liked the Byrds' record very much, incidentally. All those clanging, steel guitars - they sound like bells." (this appears in Zollo's book Songwriters On Songwriting