Celebrating Pete Seeger: Voice Of The People

By: Tim Donnelly

When a show runs four hours long and close to a hundred participants take to the mic, it's not easy to write about it. So, in order to keep the highlights "high" and to keep the meaningful, well, meaningful, I am stealing a page from ESPN's Bill Simmons, the O.G. of event diaries.

Buckle Up...

Pete Seeger
WHAT: Clearwater - Creating The Next Generation of Environmental Leaders: Benefit Concert in Celebration of Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday.

WHERE: May 3, 2009,Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

5:20 PM: Pete Seeger takes the stage with a wooden flute, i.e. a recorder for "Menomenee Love Song" to kick off the show to benefit The Clearwater, a sloop (sailing vessel) that Seeger co-founded in 1969 as a teaching aid to educate about the pollution of the Hudson River.

5:30 PM: Emmylou Harris is standing two feet away from me. She is as beautiful and glowing now as she ever was. She recounted a story from her teenage days in Virginia. "I was thinking that I wanted to perform folk music but I was self-conscious about being an interloper - I was 16, never had any problems, hopped a freight train, never been hungry. I wrote to Pete to ask him, I guess, permission, asking him how can I play folk music if I haven't suffered? He wrote me back, saying not to worry about suffering, it will come. Oh, to read 'Bound for Glory' and relax."

5:32 PM: John Mellencamp does the "Hammer Song." Come on, ya know it by heart, "If I had a hammer..."

5:37 PM: Ani DiFranco and Bruce Cockburn perform "Which Side Are You On." Tonight, the house is decidedly leaning to the left.

5:38 PM: Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers has never liked music that doesn't matter and this is why he is at MSG tonight. "I've always been drawn to music with a political undercurrent," he says, "and Pete is synonymous with that."

5:42 PM: Tom Morello, Tom Paxton, Eric Weissberg and Jacob Silver perform a mighty version of "John Henry."

5:45 PM: Michael Franti played at Tipitina's in New Orleans until 8:00 a.m. this morning. He's now onstage at MSG with Patterson Hood reworking "Dear Mr. President." He's changed the lyrics that attacked the last president to praise the current one. "I'm glad to be singing this for this president instead of the last one," says Franti.

But more importantly, he tells me, "Pete Seeger was the person to make it possible and made it okay for artists to give a shit. He made it possible for an artist to stand on the stage and speak from the heart."

Reagon, Haynes, Pete and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger MSG
By Bruce Mondschain/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
5:50 PM: Tom Morello does not mince or waste words, and I love him for that. "Pete Seeger is a tremendous inspiration," he observes, "not just for activist musicians but I believe for all Americans, a shining example of someone who combines uncompromising activism with heart, soul and generous spirit."

5:55 PM: Billy Bragg is the European Union's version of Pete Seeger as he recounts how honored he was that Pete asked him to change the global anthem of worker's rights "The Internationale." I've decided Billy Bragg should have the same clout as Bono. "It's ironic that a labor union now owns a car company isn't it?" says Bragg.

6:00 PM: If the soul can percolate this would be the temperature it steams at as Taj Mahal, Warren Haynes, Steve Earle, Toshi Reagon and Pete Seeger perform "Sailin' Up, Sailin' Down."

6:05 PM: Billy Nershi (The String Cheese Incident) grew up close to the Hudson River in Teaneck, NJ and was turned onto the music of Seeger when his older brother sailed on the Clearwater back in 1969, which made him aware at a young age. "A lot of the stuff I learned from my first songbook were Pete Seeger tunes," Nershi says.

6:10 PM: I run into Keller Williams, who says this about Seeger: "His music was always around me, but it came later to me, like a good memory coming back, which was easy to pick up on. It's important and obvious that Pete's music is going to live on; it's so engrained and easy to be passed down to generations, especially for kids."

Ben Harper & Tom Morello at MSG Seeger Celebration
By Bruce Mondschain/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
6:11 PM: Steve Earle, Warren Haynes and Guy Davis burn on "False From True."

6:16 PM: Emmylou Harris, Teddy Thompson, The McGarrigle Family, The Sparrow Duo and The NYC Labor Choir perform "The Water Is Wide."

6:25 PM: One of the top musical highlights of the night: Taj Mahal and Tom Morello doing the anti-war anthem "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," the song that got Seeger banned from network TV during the Vietnam War.

6:30 PM: Another highlight that really got the old hippies singing: Joan Baez doing "Where Have All The Flowers Gone."

6:34 PM: I am moved to tears when legendary actress/activist Ruby Dee reads the poem "The Torn Flag" accompanied by Béla Fleck.

6:40 PM: The world famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Warren Haynes, Patterson Hood, Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses) Tyler Ramsey and Tao Rodriguez Seeger give fuel to the fire to bring our troops back to native soil on "Bring 'Em Home."

6:45 PM: I meet life long hero, Oscar The Grouch, who flat out tells me to have a "miserable evening." I am honored.

6:46 PM: Led by the influential leader of Sweet Honey In The Rock, Bernice Johnson, a throng of musicians, including Dar Williams, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Billy Bragg, do "We Shall Overcome." Evidently, it was originally "I Shall Overcome" but Pete changed it to "we" back in the day, and there ain't no "I" in "we."

INTERMISSION

Oscar the Grouch and Tom Chapin at MSG Seeger Celebration
By Bruce Mondschain/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
7:15 PM: Kris Kristofferson and Ani DiFranco do a hilarious take on "Hole in the Bucket." Ani's comedic timing lights up the room and Kristofferson, well he's another national treasure deserving of an honor like this.

7:20 PM: Irish folk legend (that ain't easy considering we Irishmen think we are all are legends) Tommy Sands brought Irish step dancing to the world's most famous arena with his son Fionan and his raven haired beauty of a daughter Moya do Eire with "Little Boxes."

7:28 PM: Richie Havens has the softest hands in the world, and that ain't no joke. Ironically, the strength that comes out of those long fingers and soft palms is absolutely spellbinding as evidenced by his soul-stirring rendition of "Freedom."

7:40 PM: Actor Tim Robbins and his son Miles continue their family legacy. Tim's deceased father Gil was a folk singer, a member of The Highwaymen, who sang Seeger songs. Onstage, the Robbins Clan and The Wainwrights (Rufus and Martha) perform the tune that Robbins' father did so well, "Michael Rowed His Boat Ashore."

Backstage, Robbins beamed with both paternal and political pride. "Music cannot only lift up the spirits but it can also enlighten and spread the message of peace and civil rights, environmental justice," Robbins says. "Pete is someone I have admired for a long time. He's been a significant part of my family."

Guthrie, Springsteen, Morello, Baez
By Bruce Mondschain/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
7:44 PM: Of course, Warren Haynes is in the house. Folk music was the first genre to capture a young Haynes in Western North Carolina. "Pete Seeger paved the way for all of us; the barriers were broken down," Haynes says. "From the very beginning, he was someone who believed in causes enough to take it to people and tell them we have a voice and make things happen."

Some flack asks him how he keeps it all straight playing with The Mule, ABB and The Dead. "I have no intentions of keeping it all straight," he retorts, and I laughed so hard I shoot coffee out of my nose.

7:53 PM: The man of the hour comes by and he's still tough as nails. 90-years-old and he wears every winter spent in the Hudson Valley in his wrinkled face. He's honored by all the attention but still bristles against anything large scale like this event.

"Normally, I am against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too may things can go wrong when they get big," Seeger says. "Look at the scalpers that got into the act this particular evening, doubling the price of tickets. Needless to say it was a great honor with these absolutely fantastic musicians."

Guthrie, McCoury & Rep. John Hall at MSG Seeger Celebration
By Bruce Mondschain/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
7:55 PM: Taj Mahal is an activist, fisherman and a musician who learned a long time ago what "it" is about from Seeger. "This man is still doing it. He's stayed in. He shows you what it is about," Taj says. "It's about the people, the music and the causes and you don't hold back."

8:00 PM: Ani DiFranco has the answer that I've been looking for all day, namely how do you get all these people in one place without a payday?

"Somebody was remarking earlier that it's amazing to gather this many people, this many very notable people, together and there is no attitude," DiFranco says. "I think that has a lot to do with why we are here and the man we are here to thank. I just don't think any ego would act up in the presence of Pete Seeger, and it is a beautiful thing."

8:01 PM: Arlo Guthrie makes me smile. Just lookin' at him makes my teeth show. He's onstage ripping through "Mary Don't You Weep" with Del McCoury, Rep. John Hall (D-NY) and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

8:06 PM: Ben Harper is here and brought his mother with him for this historic occasion. Harper lit up the hearts of moms everywhere with "My Own Two Hands." Afterwards, he says with a hug, "I can't believe this. This is unreal."

Guthrie, Boss, Baez, Matthews, Tao & Pete Seeger at MSG
By Bruce Mondschain/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
8:15 PM: Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Kris Kristofferson, Warren Haynes, Keller Williams, Richie Havens and Taj Mahal don't wanna work on "Maggie's Farm" no more.

8:20 PM: The first show Dave Matthews ever saw was Pete Seeger, and he repaid his debt with love and honor to both his mother and Pete Seeger with "Whiskey, Rye, Whiskey."

8:30 PM: Bruce Springsteen knows Pete. Before his tremendous duet with Tom Morello on The Boss' "The Ghost of Tom Joad," he shares some thoughts from the stage about Pete.

"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 of the power of song and culture to push American events to more humane and justified ends," Springsteen says. "He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people. Despite Pete's somewhat benign grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism."

"Inside of him he carries a steely toughness that belies a grandfatherly façade, and it won't let him take a step back from what he believes in. He remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself," Bruce continued. "Pete's gonna come out and he'll look like a granddad, a granddad that will kick your ass."

8:40 PM: Springsteen, Matthews, Mellencamp and Seeger bring down the already rocking house with "This Land Is Your Land."

9:00 PM: During the grand finale of "Irene, Goodnight" and "When The Saints Go Marching In," the floor of MSG actually sways. The building moved, something I'd experienced only twice before, once for the Grateful Dead and once with Pearl Jam.

Swaying next to me was legendary New York Ranger hockey goalie Mike Richter, who has heard and felt almost everything at MSG and offers, "I have never, ever felt this place rock like this." FYI, the dude won a Stanley Cup in this building. Now what does that have to say for this night?

Special thanks for use of the MSG photos to Bruce Mondschain, courtesy Smithsonian Folkways Recordings/Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

For more coverage of the Pete Seeger Celebration at MSG go here.

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[Published on: 5/6/09]

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