Nobody would have thought any less of Peter Seeger, if, as he stood in the January chill before the Lincoln Memorial at age 89, he simply led the crowd at the pre-inauguration concert in a couple of familiar, happy choruses of “This Land Is Your Land,” bowed and hauled himself and his banjo back to upstate New York.
But braced by his grandson, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and a gospel choir, Seeger took the gathered throngs through the whole of the Woody Guthrie anthem – signing the stanzas that usually get ignored, the ones that tackle poverty and social injustice, the ones that helped get Guthrie, and later Seeger, called commies and worse.
In the squares of the city, by the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office, I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me?
It was vintage Seeger, whose work only seems to resonate more with age. His legacy played out center stage at Madison Square Garden Sunday, when Springsteen, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Ani DiFranco, Richie Haven, Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, Taj Mahal, Kris Kristofferson, and many others paid musical tribute to our nation’s truest troubadour on his 90th birthday.
The all-star lineup performed many of the songs Seeger wrote or helped make popular: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “We Shall Overcome.” It’s a catalogue that provides an unflinchingly honest, yet hope-filled soundtrack for turbulent times of any era.
Seeger survived rocky times of his own, barely scraping out a living after being blacklisted for years, thanks to the McCarthy-era communist witchhunts. He re-emerged as a powerful voice in the 1960s, through the civil rights and anti-war movements, surviving and thriving to become an American icon.
“Pete, you’ve outlived the bastards, man,” Springsteen said at Sunday's show before launching into “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
The big celebration, a benefit for Seeger’s 40-year-old Clearwater environmental group, doesn’t mean his story is over. Seeger can still play that banjo. And even if his voice has turned raspy with age, he showed he can wow an audience, taking the crowd through a sing-a-long of “Amazing Grace” -- in the three-part harmony.
The sold-out concert was an affirmation that Seeger, like Guthrie before him, has passed the power of folk music onto new generations.
The duo shared a belief “in the power of people singing songs to change the world,” said Guthrie’s son, Arlo, who was among the concert performers. “Thank you Pete for teaching us what it means to be singing together.”
Near the end of the nearly 4 ½-hour show, Seeger, surrounded by his musical sons and daughters, led the Garden crowd in “This Land is Your Land” – with all the stanzas.
“He sings all the verses, all the time,” Springsteen told the audience. “Especially the ones we’d like to leave out in the history of our people.”
The times may be a-changin’, as Bob Dylan, another Seeger disciple, sang, but we’ll always need the Seegers of the world to hold an often-unflattering musical mirror to the times, and well as to inspire.
This kind of music – Pete Seeger’s music – was made for you and me.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.