a drive-by sunday with pete seeger and friends
This picture was taken yesterday, in the early afternoon of Sunday June 16th in the year 2013. The photographer was Elizabeth Daza and it ran in some editions of Newsday. The man is ninety-four years old and he followed a spirited song-dance performance from a friend from the past, Buffy Sainte-Marie, who at seventy-two is still a mere child. Father’s Day with Pete Seeger and my boys…I wrote that it was not like being in church, it was church.
We pulled into the parking lot of the Dobbs Ferry train station beside the river about ten in the morning to the sound of bagpipes. A lone woman stood at the far end as if to send us off on our trip north to Croton-on-Hudson, New York and the 35th annual Clearwater Festival. Or as it’s also known, the Great Hudson River Revival.
You can go here to read about the origin of the festival, and how Pete began a movement in the sixties to not only clean up the “dead” and polluted Hudson River, but brought the spotlight on all of our country’s waterway disasters which resulted in the passing of the Clean Water Act. So as you might imagine, the festival is part music, part celebration, part local, part international, part social justice, part arts and part crafts. And all fun for all ages. With five stages, including a dance tent, areas devoted for storytelling, song circles and children, boat rides on the river and a sprawling park along the banks to explore, it is closer to the spirit of the sixties than probably many of the post-Woodstock gatherings, although certainly not the only one by far. Summer festivals are the new black, right?
Coming up on stage with his old friend and musical partner Lorre Wyatt (they released a great recording last year called A More Perfect Union with guests that include Earle, Springsteen, Emmylou, Dar Williams and Tom Morello) Pete looked stronger yesterday then the last time we saw him, three years ago on the same stage. That day he only stood for a couple of songs, and sat on a stool for most of the time, letting a group of young locals lead and perform. But yesterday…Pete stood front and center for a full hour and did what he has done best for most of his life: lead a few thousand of us in song. And not just any ol’ songs, but his best known tunes including “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”, “Turn, Turn, Turn” with five extra verses written by his wife Toshi and “If I Had A Hammer”. And there were many more…and he spoke and told us stories and jokes that made us laugh. An amazing sixty minutes that I’ll not soon if ever forget.
The children in the audience were not all that interested in Pete, as their parents and grandparents pointed to him and said things like “That’s Pete Seeger…you need to remember that you were here so you can tell your children and grandchildren.” I think they would have rather gone over and watched Dan Zane or Tom Chapin if they had a choice, but most of the folks from their teens to those of many-multiple-decades seemed entranced and enchanted by this man. He’d probably be the first to tell you he is just a guy with a banjo, but c’mon…he is the generational link of America’s 20th century musical pathways and one of our greatest leaders in the area of social justice. And to watch and hear him at age ninety-four is akin to sitting forward in your seat during a high wire act, and hoping for the best. And trust me…we got it.
I want to note that joining Pete and Lorre onstage for a couple of songs were David Amram (if you don’t know him or his story, go find out) and Josh White, Jr. And the rest of the day and the day before that were filled with hundreds of performers who spanned time and age. It would be hard not to have found something to make your spine tingle.
Aside from Pete, for me it was pretty special when Patterson Hood climbed up onstage where Jason Isbell was performing, and added his voice in harmony before grabbing the man and hugging him tightly. Five minutes after Jason turned in a blistering acoustic set on the smaller stage by the riverside, Patterson began his own on the main stage….sadly to a sea of empty lawn chairs and Mexican blankets. People do get hungry and thirsty at festivals and often miss some of the better moments. And forgive me, but as I got up before it was over and began to walk over to the Richie Havens tribute, Jason came out with his guitar and returned the favor.
Yep…just another drive-by Sunday with Pete and friends.