Tuesday, May 5, 2009
‘There’s no such thing as a wrong note when you’re singing from your soul’
It was a genuine pleasure to be at Madison Square Garden on Sunday evening for the concert celebrating Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday.
A remarkable evening reflecting a remarkable life.
As John Mellencamp said from the stage to open the show, just to have survived for 90 years is an accomplishment in itself, one that most of us would take now if it was offered.
But to live that long, and fill those years with such passionate devotion to worthwhile causes like the environment and labor rights, all the while being guided by fundamental and unwavering precepts of peace, justice and equality, is akin to a gift from heaven.
On top of which, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that Seeger is one of the five or six most important songwriters in American history.
And the influence of both his craft of songwriting and his life of activism was on full view at this benefit show for Clearwater, dedicated to preserving the Hudson River and expanding environmental education.
Of the artists who trace their lineage of inspiration back to Seeger or his contemporary Woody Guthrie, many shared the stage on Sunday, with probably the most obvious absentees being Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan.
Legendary veterans performed, like Taj Mahal, Kris Kristofferson, Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, the McGarrigle Sisters and the amazing, ageless Joan Baez
Then there were the “middle-agers” who came of age in the 1960s, like Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle.
But also, significantly, there was a new generation of performers who bring whole new audiences to the table: people like Ben Harper, Dave Matthews, Ani Di Franco, Tom Morello, Michael Franti, Patterson Hood, Band of Horses and Rufus Wainwright.
Their sincerity and respect for the material and for Seeger’s inspiration proves that his influence endures and offers decent evidence that his songs will resonate as long as there are singers.
And there were plenty of crossover collaborations. For example, Turn Turn Turn was performed by Roger McGuinn, whose Byrds made it famous, alongside Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, who was born two years after Pete Seeger wrote the song in 1962.
Hearing Seeger’s canon of songs in such a timeless environment, you’re struck by their enduring nature, and also their profound simplicity.
Little Boxes was probably the first one of his I can remember hearing as a kid, but of course back then I didn’t appreciate the subtlety of how it held a mirror up to the futility of the middle-class American dream; just as other classics from our childhood, like If I Had A Hammer, or Where Have All The Flowers Gone, take on a greater meaning as we grow in understanding.
Pete Seeger, more than anyone else I can think of, is the embodiment of the notion that songs are meant to be shared. They’re meant to be sung together and they’re meant to be passed along, in the grandest storytelling traditon.
And Sunday was the perfect setting for that.
Seeger himself spent more time onstage than most of us were expecting, with perhaps the most moving moment his version of Amazing Grace, which literally turned the arena into a cathedral, the rafters ringing with notes of joy.
That he found it necessary to preface the song with the history of its writer John Newton - a reformed slave ship captain who subsequently worked with the abolitionist William Wilberforce - tells you all you need to know about how to put a song in context. It doesn’t exist in isolation at the time it is written, but if we’re lucky, its message will span generations.
Pete looks well for his age - as Bruce Springsteen said: “He looks like your granddaddy, if your granddaddy could kick your ass” – and the man of the hour closed the show by leading the stage and the crowd in a spirited version of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, including “the verses that never get performed”.
In his remarks, Springsteen reminded us that throughout his life Seeger has always found ways of forcing America to confront itself and face up to those times when it falls short.
This new American world, with its historic young president and an almost unprecedented opportunity to remake itself, would do well to find a standard-bearer half as articulate, or half as passionate as Pete Seeger.
(The New York Times review of the show is here.)