“Pete, you’ve outlasted the bastards.”
– Bruce Springsteen
Pete Seeger’s legacy is the power of song: for over 70 years he taught that singing brings us together and together we can affect change. I first saw Pete as a young camper at University Settlement Camp in Beacon, NY, just a stone’s throw from his rural house in the Catskill Mountains. He strongly supported the camp’s ideals which were to bring inner city and suburban kids together to share experiences and learn about each other’s cultures and progressive causes. He’d visit a few times each summer and lead the entire camp in song. It’s hard to describe how moving and meaningful that was to a bunch of 10 year old kids learning about each other and about the world around us for the first time as the civil rights movement was evolving and the cold war was raging. Since I grew up with folk music so much a part of my life, it also felt like a special honor and privilege to see him in such an intimate setting. He was, after all, THE rock star of folk music at the time – before Joan Baez and Bob Dylan emerged. His enthusiasm was (and still is to this day) infectious, his ability to reach out and connect with the audience uncanny, and most of all his easy going style of teaching made you think and feel passionate about the world around you.
What makes Pete such a rare and important figure in American culture is his role and contributions to folk music for these many years, together with his drive and dedication to so many social movements. Pete is a born community organizer and has been a catalyst in the struggles of the labor, civil rights, anti-war, and environmental cleanup movements. It hasn’t been an easy road. For many years in the 1950s and 1960s he was blacklisted. During his remarks at the concert, Bruce Springsteen commented on Pete’s inclusion in Obama’s inaugural and said, “Pete, you’ve outlasted the bastards.”
I’ve attended many a concert over the years. Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Clearwater Benefit Bash at Madison Square Garden on May 3 was without a doubt one of the most memorable and most significant of all (probably second only to Woodstock)… Meaningful from the perspective of paying tribute to a man who made a difference in so many ways to so many causes for so many years… From the perspective of sampling the best of his long and prolific musical legacy which took almost 5 hours to explore… And from the perspective of seeing and hearing so many of the best musicians of three generations perform his work and work that Pete inspired and influenced while humbly expressing what an honor it was to be part of the festivities. The guest list included Seeger, Baez, Arlo, Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Mathews, Richie Havens, Emmy Lou Harris, Taj Mahal, Dar Williams, Bruce Coburn, The McGarrigle family (including Rufus Wainwright), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Steve Earle, Annie DeFranco, Tom Paxton, Kris Kristofferson, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, to name less than half the performers. And in typical Pete Seeger fashion many of the songs featured audience participation.
Tickets for the show disappeared quickly – it was a complete sellout at the Garden. They were priced at either $90 (his age) for floor seats or $19.19 (the year he was born) for the rest. But since we didn’t respond quickly enough we wound up having to purchase previously owned tickets (hardly a scratch on them) on E-Bay, paying considerably more than face value for seats behind the stage. It turns out our seats were not bad – we were close enough that the performers didn’t seem like little ants on stage (albeit mostly from the back) and three huge video screens were right in front of us so we got great views (projection TV has come a long way – the resolution was crisp). It felt a little bit like being back stage – I could even read the teleprompters with our binoculars: the lyrics for every song were displayed along with who was supposed to sing or play. When Pete’s sister came out it read simply: “Peggy, please keep it short”.
In between performers at the Garden there were video clips highlighting some of Pete’s accomplishments and featured his work on the Clearwater Sloop and Hudson River cleanup (to which all proceeds were donated). The Clearwater project is just one example of how Pete immerses himself and his music in social activism. Pete Seeger embodies the power of song and the potential to affect progressive change and seeing him 50 years after my first encounter with him was every bit as moving.