The concert was held to honor Pete’s 90th birthday, yet he only agreed to do this as a benefit for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a non-profit organization Pete founded in 1969 whose mission is to preserve and protect the Hudson River. The sloop itself a 106-foot-long tall ship, is a replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Clearwater has become America’s Environmental Flagship, and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 for its role in the environmental movement. In its 40 years the sloop has carried over a half a million young people upon her decks, initiating a sense of connection with the river and giving them the opportunity to feel empowered by it. The ultimate goal of the concert was to help kick-start an endowment to keep Clearwater operating in perpetuity.
The stage at Madison Square Garden was decorated with strings of lights to evoke a ship’s mast. Barrels marked the corners of the stage. Several large video screens were positioned above the stage to view the performers up close from the video camera’s perspective. We had pretty good seats and though the screens were seductive to look at I purposely made myself watch the smaller figures on the stage to remind myself that this was in fact a live event and I was one of eighteen thousand people that had gathered to participate.
The concert ran at a high emotional pitch and did not let up the entire evening. I am daunted at the task of recounting the songs of the 40-plus performers who graced the stage. The Garden erupted with applause every time a new singer, speaker, and poet’s names lit up the screens as they stepped up to a microphone. The four and a half hours of music went by so fast. As soon as one song ended the stage crew deftly brought up the next act and on it went.
The first note of the evening came unheralded under a single spotlight – Pete playing a Native American melody on his recorder. As his last note faded the lights came up on the Native American Cultural Alliance and he quietly slipped off stage. John Mellencamp followed with “If I Had a Hammer.” Songs like this, so simple, so direct, and relevant, like a tool with a purpose we take for granted until we need it and then appreciate how essential and useful it is.
If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening
All over this land
I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land
The night was replete with these songs of emotional directness. Bruce Cockburn and Ani Di Franco sang a rocking, “Which Side Are You On?” Roger McGuinn with “Turn, Turn Turn,” Billy Bragg’s stunning a capella, French socialist anthem “The Internationale,” with a verse he added at Pete’s behest.
A great portion of the night was a gumbo of music with singers and players trading off and backing each other up. Arlo Guthrie, Steve Earle, Del McCoury, Ben Harper, Taj Mahal, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Warren Haynes, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot sang songs like “Maggie’s Farm,” “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and Sailing Up – Sailing Down.”
Richie Havens brought down the house with “Freedom/Motherless Child.” Kris Kristofferson and Ani Difanco traded verses on the children’s song “A Hole in the Bucket,” improvising with some of the words and having a ball with it. Bela Fleck and Tony Trishka played a gorgeous banjo duet medley of Seeger ditties. Emmylou Harris sang “The Water is Wide.” Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Rufus & Martha Wainwright, Tommy Sands and Tom Paxton came up in turn – the night rolled on.
Tom Chapin sang Bill Steele’s song “Garbage,” with Sesame Street muppet Oscar the Grouch. Joan Baez sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and Bernice Johnson and Toshi Reagon’s indomitable and passionate voices thread through the night. What really got me was how Pete and Toshi Seeger’s grandson Tao Rodrigez-Seeger shone. His exuberance and command of the stage demonstrated how he is heir apparent to Pete’s talent of motivating the masses to sing.
Peggy Seeger veritably sparkled as she paid a touching tribute to Pete in the form of a spoken letter to her older brother. Knowing Peggy from her time in Asheville it was really fun seeing her in her element. Tim Robbins acted as occasional MC, Ruby Dee offered some exquisite poetry, and Norman Lear read from a congratulatory letter to Seeger from President Obama.
To begin the second set Pete came up by himself and conducted the multitudes in a slow version of “Amazing Grace.” With an intense passion and strength, Pete sang. A booming audience filled in the warble of Pete’s voice while he articulated the notes on his banjo for voices to harmonize with. What a moment it was. There’s something about the purposefulness of singing slowly and simply which gives attention to the very experience of singing. There was time to look around and appreciate the magnitude of this event.
Near the end of the night Bruce Springsteen spoke from the stage, “At some point Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing, reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament to the power of song and culture to nudge history along to push American events to more humane and justified ends.”
The beautiful thing about this night was that it was all about the songs. All of these great musicians humbled themselves and gave it up for a greater thing. It was a tribute in the most real sense. Even with Pete it’s always about the songs and the causes they serve. Without exception these songs palpably reached out beyond themselves, beyond the singers, and beyond us all in the seats of the arena. The music that night touched the universal and indomitable strength within all of us. With each and everyone on the stage dancing and singing “We Shall Overcome,” and “Goodnight Irene,” and “This Land is Your Land,” you could tell everyone was genuinely swept up in the moment of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
These songs are our songs. This land is our land. We only need to participate and communicate. Write about it, talk about it, and sing about it too. Man, what a night. These songs of unity and justice and struggle are part the fabric of this country and our common experience. They are in our DNA as a people living in America. They signal an awareness of Union rights, of equality and voting rights. They offer warning of hypocrisy and greed. These songs inoculate us from social pitfalls we’ve experienced and offer guidance and instruction on how to negotiate those tricky waters.
Someone was just telling me about how kids in elementary schools aren’t being taught any of these songs anymore. Songs like “John Henry,” “Follow The Drinking Gourd” and “The Water is Wide.” I think that’s a crime. These songs are not only our living history but they are also a body of deep psychological tools that bring people together to heal and transcend social ills. These songs extend a hand to our children who are not shy about their voices and give them a repertoire of songs to sing. That way when the need arises, when politicians forget and corporations get too comfortable, they will be there in the voices of our youth. I don’t know when. Hopefully it won’t take a crisis, but ultimately I trust these songs will awaken for us when we need them.
I see Pete Seeger as a big old tree in the forest who has weathered more than his share of lightning strikes. He is an oak or a redwood, one of these great oldtimers that can only be marveled at, so grand and sturdy its trunk and so frail now on top. Looking upon the stage at the concert I saw the trees surrounding Pete as tall and mature offspring of our granddaddy tree. Those trees are now populating the forest with yet more singing offspring. Pete has grown a veritable forest around him: a forest of singers swaying together, tall and strong.
Thanks for reading.... now, Sing on!