Report from Madison Square Garden
Pete Seeger (and Friends)
Still Singing Out at 90
By Edward Shanahan
Under the potent influence of strong drink and loud music pumped from hi-fi components, I was sprawled on the rug in our dining room in a floor-through apartment in Staten Island nearly 50 years ago.
I got it into my head I’d send off a check to Pete Seeger, whose folk music sounds and pro-union, pro-justice songs I was moved by and who I had first seen perform while in college a few years earlier.
So I tried, as carefully as conditions allowed, to write out a check for my musical and political hero, a mere $5 as I recall and to what purpose I can’t summon.
By morning when the music had stopped and a bright day dawned, I no idea how to deliver the crazily scrawled check that expressed my admiration for Pete, so I had to tear it up.
And how many times over the years had I played his records and those of the Weavers, but especially Pete’s take on newspapers and newspaper publishers, which resonated with me as a young reporter when he sang “newspapermen meet such interesting people,” while also stressing something he called ‘presstitution.”
When possible, Ann and I made it a point to get to Pete’s concerts and appearances, large and small, throughout the Northeast, especially in the Berkshires.
So how could we not travel to New York City recently to join throngs of other partisans to celebrate Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday. The event, it turned out, was big, very big, luring nearly 20,000 to Madison Square Garden to hear more than 40 performers pay tribute to Pete by singing his songs and theirs and testifying to the seminal role he played in their musical lives.
Among the performers there were many voices I did not recognize, but there were plenty who we grew up with as they too had been inspired by Pete’s musicology and his persistent struggle against political repression and economic and racial inequality. He was their beacon, and is it mere coincidence that he has lived much of his adult life in Beacon, NY?
From our generation those on hand included: Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Cockburn, Taj Mahal, Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, you get the picture. And the songs: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Michael Row Your Boat,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Goodnight Irene,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and “Bring Them Home.”
And there were the younger voices, Steve Earle, Rufus Wainwright, the McGarrigle family, Dave Matthews, Teddy Thompson and many more.
It was beautiful, and there was Pete strumming his banjo and leading the audience in such anthems as “Amazing Grace” and “This Land is Your Land.” Ninety years old and just as we remember hearing him so many times, leading us in songs of protest and affirmation. His fixation always appeared to be to get people to sing together, because eventually the power of song would bring people together. Progress was always slow, but Pete did not yield. He was endlessly optimistic.
Besides the music there were videos of Pete being interviewed, tributes to his work as an environmentalist with the creation of Clearwater, the organization he created to clean up the Hudson River. With stands of lights in an outline of a ship’s sails, the Madison Square Garden stage mimicked the shape of the sloop Clearwater, the organization’s familiar craft plying the Hudson.
There was abundant political bite to the proceedings – from Native Americans, African Americans, union songs, Billy Bragg offering a version of the “International,” peace songs and environmental messages and some pointed barbs at President Bush and praise and goodwill for Barack Obama.
Of course, many in the audience were there to hear particular performers, especially Bruce Springsteen, who kept his fans waiting in their seats for more than four hours, until the dimmed stage brightened and Springsteen made his entry without any fanfare.
But before Springsteen sang “The Ghost of Tom Joad” from his album of Seeger songs, he had a few thoughts about Pete, which were both honest and true.
He and Pete had sung at the Washington Monument on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, Springsteen said and Seeger clearly conveyed the strong sense that after all of his years of struggle “we outlasted the bastards.”
Moreover, said Springsteen in an affectionate way, Pete might seem to have a grandfatherly “ façade” but he has a “steely toughness.” Pete has always been a “stealth dagger” through the “heart of our nation’s illusions.“ In addition, “he’s going to look like your grandfather if your granddad could kick your ass.”
Then it was Springsteen singing, and then Pete coming out and taking us through “This Land Is Our Land,” and then there was some dancing and hugs and kisses, and a lingering on the stage because no one wanted it to be over, and then it was.
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.