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Pete Seeger celebrates 90th with musician pals

Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris and more join in the festivities at Madison Square Garden.

May 04, 2009|Josh Getlin

NEW YORK — For a 90th birthday, it felt more like a political revival, an old-fashioned revival meeting. And as he stood in the wings Sunday, watching a parade of folk and pop music royalty sing the songs that he made famous, Pete Seeger wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

On a rain-soaked night, more than 15,000 people turned out at Madison Square Garden to salute the man who wrote or co-wrote some of the most influential political anthems of the last 60 years, including "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and "Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season)."

The roster of A-list performers -- including Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez and others -- also included appearances by Tim Robbins, Norman Lear and Ruby Dee, and a happy birthday message to Seeger from President Obama.

"Can you imagine life at 90 years and still going strong?" said Mellencamp, who helped kick off the concert, a fundraiser for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc., the environmental group that Seeger launched to help clean up the river. "Think about all he's accomplished. He wrote that song ["If I Had a Hammer"] back in 1949, when we were all afraid of the Reds."

The political mood heated up as the huge crowd cheered, rocked and swayed to anthems such as "We Shall Overcome," "Oh, Freedom" and "Which Side Are You On?" Billy Bragg got an ovation when he sang "The Internationale," the 19th century rallying song of the socialist and labor movements. Springsteen, appearing with guitarist Tom Morello, sang a powerful version of his "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

There were newer songs, too, including a biting Cajun vamp, "Dear Mr. President," performed by a band including Michael Franti and Patterson Hood. The song mocked former President George W. Bush and ended with a plea to Obama: "Now Mr. President you inherited a mess. But fixing things is what you do best."

Most of those packing the arena were middle-aged and older, but there was a smattering of younger people. As he stood in a long line to buy a Pete Seeger T-shirt, David Wong, an environmentalist and college student, said he'd heard about Seeger from teachers and was curious to hear his songs that had spurred political change.

"It's amazing what happens when all the people here get up to sing," he marveled. "If that helps us improve the environment, I'm for it."

Others were passionate about Seeger's legacy. Jeffrey Freiser, executive director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition, said the folk singer's advocacy of progressive causes -- and his trademark humility -- won him over at an early age. The 62-year-old boomer got emotional when asked how he wound up at Sunday's sold-out concert.

"For years I took my son to Pete Seeger concerts," Freiser said. "And then he surprised me, by buying us tickets to this concert. He knew this would be meaningful for us, with a real sense of community."

Seeger, wearing a plain red shirt, blue jeans and a blue hat, happily joined in with his guests on several numbers. At one point, he plunked out a lead on his five-string banjo during a driving, 12-bar blues. But he was truly in his element when he led the audience in an a cappella version of "Amazing Grace." The gray-bearded singer raised his arms in exultation as a rich three-part harmony filled the arena.

"There's no such thing as a wrong note as long as you're singing it," Seeger said. Then he gave a history lesson about John Newton, the author of the song and a former slave ship captain who became an outspoken opponent of slavery. "John Newton gave us all the greatest hope of all, that we can turn this world around," Seeger said.

That belief took root early in his life. Born in New York in 1919, Seeger was the child of two musical parents. He was fascinated by his father's work as a musicologist and developed a love for the banjo during field trips to the South. After dropping out of Harvard in 1938, he began what became his life's work -- traveling around the country, singing and writing songs about working people, and speaking out on political issues.

Soon he met Woody Guthrie, the legendary songwriter who penned "This Land Is Your Land," and the two of them helped change the face of American folk music. They formed the Almanac Singers, a left-wing singing group, and Seeger later co-founded the Weavers, who achieved mass success with 1950's chart-topping "Goodnight, Irene."

But the Weavers also drew heat during the anti-communist fervor of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Seeger, who had joined the Communist Party before drifting away from it in 1949, was blacklisted for his political sympathies.

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