Stars hit all the right notes at folk hero's 90th birthday bash

 

For Pete’s sake: celebrating Seeger at Madison Square Garden:HALFWAY through his 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, Pete Seeger urged everybody in the 18,000-strong audience to join in an a cappella version of Amazing Grace.

“There’s no such thing as a wrong note as long as you’re singing it,” he said.

Fifty of the biggest names in American music, including Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson, joined Seeger onstage for the 4½-hour event. It had less the feel of a concert, however, than of a giant sing-along with a group of old friends.

Seeger has been singing and campaigning on behalf of progressive causes for almost 70 years, standing with trade unions and migrant workers in the 1930s and 1940s, opposing the Cold War in the 1950s, marching for civil rights and against the Vietnam war in the 1960s, joining the struggle against South African apartheid in the 1970s, and focusing on environmental activism ever since.

His songs, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone?and If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)became anthems for a generation of political dissidents but his career as a recording artist was cut short because of politics. After a series of hits with his band The Weavers (named after Gerhard Hauptmann’s pro-labour play Die Weber) Seeger, who had been a member of the Communist Party, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Unable to perform at conventional concert venues, he turned to schools and colleges, introducing children and young adults to American folk music.

Sunday’s event opened with Seeger onstage, lit so dimly that he was little more than a silhouette as he played the Menomonee Love Songon a wooden flute. When the lights came up, they revealed the outline of a sloop, the single-masted vessel Dutch traders introduced to the Hudson River in the 18th century.

Seeger only agreed to a 90th birthday celebration because all the proceeds went to Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the environmental group he founded to clean up the river.

Dressed in a pink flannel shirt, blue jeans and his trademark woolly hat, Seeger looked at least 20 years younger than his 90 years. He has, he says, about 10 per cent of his voice left and he did little singing on Sunday, shouting out the words of songs for the audience and other artists to sing.

Most of those who crowded Madison Square Garden were baby-boomers, many still wearing their grey hair long and dressed in the wardrobe they wore in their youth. Many took their teenage children along, explaining the significance of each venerable folk icon that took the stage.

Seeger’s own songs and those of Woody Guthrie dominated the repertoire onstage, although Billy Bragg sang the Internationaleand Kristofferson sang a playful duet of There’s a Hole in my Bucketwith Ani DiFranco.

Canadian folk singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle and two of Kate’s children, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, provided the musical highlight with a wrenching performance of Fare Thee Well. One of the most powerful moments came when Joan Baez led the vast audience in We Shall Overcome.

President Barack Obama sent a letter congratulating Seeger, winning a cheer from the crowd. In January, Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen in Washington to perform Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Landat Obama’s inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Seeing an African-American elected president was, said Springsteen, a cause of great joy to Seeger and a sign of how far his country had moved. “It was like, Pete, you’ve outlived the bastards, man,” Springsteen said.

In the longest tribute of the evening, Springsteen spoke of Seeger as a personal role model and a unique figure in America’s musical and political history.

“At some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history,” he said.

“He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscious; a testament to the power of song and culture, to nudge history along, to push American events toward more humane and justified endings. He would have the audacity and courage to sing in the voice of the people. And despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in. He remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.”