Pete Seeger Celebrates 90th With a Concert
Published: May 4, 2009
The celebrator who made the most noise and aroused the strongest sentiment during Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party at Madison Square Garden Sunday night was the one who couldn’t make it.
No, President Obama was not there, but his presence loomed large over this gathering of progressives. In an updated version of the 1930s labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” Ani DiFranco sang, “Now there’s folks in Washington that care what’s on our minds.” Bruce Springsteen told of rehearsing for the recent presidential inauguration with Mr. Seeger, who had relayed the story of “We Shall Overcome,” crucial to both the labor and civil rights movements. Watching the transfer of power, Mr. Springsteen said, “was like, ‘Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man.’ It was so nice.”
The new president did send a letter, though, praising Mr. Seeger for voicing “the hopes and dreams of everyday people.” And, as was evident throughout this four-hour-plus event — a birthday party masquerading as a fund-raiser for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a preservation charity founded by Mr. Seeger — many have tried to follow in that path, or at least capture some of his refracted glow. More than 40 performers gathered to pay tribute to Mr. Seeger — one of the lions of American folk music and still indefatigable — who, save for a handful of exceptions, outworked them all.
Here rising to the occasion (formally called “The Clearwater Concert: Creating the Next Generation of Environmental Leaders”) meant more than showing up and breezily soldiering through a classic protest tune or two, as plenty of singers — Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Emmylou Harris — gladly did, in performances that often felt dutiful, not exuberant.
Some, though, shook off the oppressive nature of good intentions to create transcendent moments. Richie Havens revisited the “Freedom/Motherless Child” hybrid he performed at Woodstock 40 years ago in devastating fashion, closing with a high kick and a twirl of his guitar. Billy Bragg fiercely sang part of his revised version of “The Internationale,” lyrics he wrote at Mr. Seeger’s behest and that later appeared in the Industrial Workers of the World’s “Little Red Songbook” alongside the originals.
In group settings — most performances included several singers — Rufus Wainwright and Abigail Washburn stood out, as did Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock and her daughter Toshi, as well as Ben Bridwell and Tyler Ramsey of Band of Horses.
In one of the night’s most riveting moments, Béla Fleck and Tony Trischka played dueling banjos, closing with a clever variation on “Happy Birthday to You.” In the postwar era Mr. Seeger helped popularize the banjo, which was as much an object of celebration here as Mr. Seeger himself, with at least a half dozen musicians picking at their beat-up five-strings.
There was also Oscar the Grouch from “Sesame Street” singing “Garbage,” a reminder of Mr. Seeger’s belief that no voice should go unheard. His commitment to singalongs was refortified throughout the night, decentering the authority of those onstage in true folk style. Encouraging those in the sold-out arena to chime in with their voices, the actor Tim Robbins assured them, “Nothing would make Pete happier on his birthday.”
Mr. Seeger led the crowd in “Amazing Grace,” calling out lines in a spooky, hole-filled, appealingly weathered voice. It was one of several brawny, moving exercises in mass vocalizing: “We Shall Overcome,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Well May the World Go,” “This Little Light of Mine.” (No “Kumbaya,” though — something of a relief.) Ninety years after Mr. Seeger’s birth, 50 or so years after the height of the folk music movement, 40 years after the civil rights movement, and 104 days after the swearing-in of the country’s first black president, those songs no longer sound defiant or expectant, but instead matter-of-fact.