Pete Seeger’s Big Birthday Bash! Madison Square Garden, New York City, May 3rd, 2009
ALL ABOARD THE PETE TRAIN! On an early May evening at Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York City, the people came to celebrate a birthday. And was it ever a party! Pete Seeger turned 90 and close to twenty thousand of his closest friends showed up to pay tribute and sing out loud. Oh yeah, and about 50 performers, including Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, Tom Chapin, Bela Fleck, Ani DiFranco, Del McCoury, Roger McGuinn, Steve Earle and a host of others (see below for full program).
There was also a Congressman, an actor or two, a legendary director, and a Grouch. Oscar the Grouch that is, who appeared on stage surrounded by trash bags as he and Tom Chapin sang a rousing version of a song that speaks for itself, “Garbage”, only it was written many years ago, long before the current Green movement. Oscar must have thought he was at a roast when he said, “He’s only 90?! I thought he was 100!” Guess Oscar can get away with that. The Congressman was John Hall, also known as the singer from the group ORLEANS. Oh yes, and there was a letter from a certain President Barack Obama, read by the inimitable Norman Lear, wishing Pete a most Happy Birthday.
The evening opened with a documentary excerpt, and lights outlined to look like the Clearwater’s sails, followed by Pete playing a Native American flute that rang through the Garden like a whistling wind upon the river. Next was an introduction song by the Native American Indian Culture Alliance, including Bill Miller and David Amram. The stage was set for an incredible night to come, and we didn’t have to wait long. John Mellencamp was next, singing “If I Had A Hammer”, and a second original song that he said was inspired by Pete. Imagine that.
When Bruce Springsteen emerged at the end of the second sent and sang “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, he spoke about what it was like to sing with Pete at the Concert for the Inauguration on that bitter cold day in January. On their way there, Pete shared stories of his 90 years, and Bruce said to him, “Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!”
One of the most inspiring parts of the evening was listening to musician after musician talk about how Pete had influenced them. I felt very close to that emotion. Pete has been a big influence to me as has my mother, who also sang in a folk trio in the 50’s in NYC! I recently did a music program sponsored by the Philadelphia Folksong Society in a Philadelphia elementary school, and outlined the program by teaching the children about Pete Seeger. Bruce Springsteen said it best when he spoke of Pete’s influence not only in music, but in activism and his outlook on life. “Despite his Grandfatherly demeanor, he (Pete) is a creature of stubborn defiance and nasty optimism.”
Pete has built his life around song, activism, sharing, learning, and teaching. His love of the Hudson River was the other reason for the gathering. The storied Sloop Clearwater is also celebrating a birthday. Launched 40 years ago, she has been sailing up and down her golden river. Built on a wing and a prayer, donations and volunteers, Pete’s dream of building a replica of a River Sloop came true. As Arlo so eloquently described, even when scores of naysayers said it couldn’t be done, Pete never wavered and for the last 40 years, the Clearwater has sailed the Hudson, educating thousands of children and adults about why it’s so important to keep the river clean. The annual Hudson River Revival Festival, fondly referred to also as “Clearwater” is held every June on the banks of the Hudson. Thousands attend to hear more than the great musical line-up. They also come to hear about the river.
Ok, back to the show.
The second half of the concert opened with famed Director Norman Lear reading an excerpt of President Obama’s letter to Pete. How would you follow that? With Pete leading the audience in “Amazing Grace”, that’s how! He taught the entire audience how to sing harmony by assigning a different note to three giant sections before him in the stadium. then he raised up his arms and everyone hummed a beautiful three part harmony. Just before the start of the song, Pete exclaimed, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note as long as you’re singin!”.
There were classics galore throughout the night. Roger McGuinn singing the classic and perhaps most main stream Pete song, “Turn Turn Turn”. Joan Baez singing a solo of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” John Mellencamp singing “If I Had A Hammer”, and on and on, captivating the crowd and giving a new definition to the term, “you could hear a pin drop”.
Speckled within the songs, actor Tim Robbins told some stories. One was about Pete in the winter of 2003. On a freezing cold January day, in the lead up to the start of the war in Iraq, Pete stood on a corner near his home in Beacon, NY, with a handmade sign that simply said, “Peace”. There were no cameras, there were no reporters. Just Pete. Being Pete. Pete’s wife Toshi was also honored in the program, as a segment of a documentary spoke about their amazing relationship, and how Toshi has stood with Pete at every step.
A shout out to the stage crew, sound crew, and whoever was stage managing and ferrying people to and fro. The evening flowed like a river. The night ran unbelievably smoothly, especially for all the parties on stage. There were certainly over 100 at times, with the house band, and the NYC Labor Chorus joining in left and right, and it was seamless. Prior to the show, we were discussing how they would ever be able to get through all those performers without having a 7 or 8 hour concert. Our friend Jimmy nailed it on the head. Performers were grouped together in a myriad of ensembles, and it was an incomparable menu of music in an incredible array of combinations. Imagine. all at one time on stage: Arlo Guthrie, John Hall, Tony Trischka, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Or how about Emmylou Harris, Guy Davis, Billy Bragg, Joan Baez, Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson-Reagon, actress Ruby Dee, and Bruce Cockburn, singing “We Shall Overcome”. Indeed.
And of course, there was the encore. The end of the night was like a new beginning. As anyone may have guessed and hoped, every performer, including Springsteen and his wife Patty Scalfia, joined the honoree on stage for the quintessential folk song by Pete’s friend, Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Your Land”. And Pete didn’t slow down for a minute as he joyfully corralled the audience in song. This was the finale, and it seemed to end there. As the audience began to pour out, the stage began to fill up again, and the crowds stopped where they stood, eyes and ears focused back to the stage, just in time to hear Pete’s grandson Tao lead the way in the first of three encores. He called Pete to the stage, as well as the rest of the family, including Pete’s OLDER brother of 95, who remarked, “I’m 95, but Pete’s gonna live to be 100!” He proceeded to sing along too. And speaking of singalongs, the evening wasn’t complete until we all joined in in an amazing and spontaneous rendition of HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the man of the evening. I can hardly wait for the DVD.
One could only imagine what this night meant to Pete. It would be near to impossible to go into all of the reasons why; perhaps it would take 90 years. Being the true giving soul that he is, it’s likely that he was more excited by what the night could DO, for the river, for the songs, for the people of the world, than for his own glory. As the famous Margaret Mead quote reads, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Well, when nearly 20,000 people come to celebrate one of those “one people”, it’s a true testament to the proof that it is indeed time. As a footnote to that, there is a movement to get Pete nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. (website below).
There were moments galore at every turn of the evening; too many to mention. But one of the treasures of the night came in the very last seconds of the very last encore. One that I’m sure Pete would look at as a bridge to the future. From the mouths of babes, literally. Ruthy Ungar (daughter of fiddler, Jay Ungar) and her husband Mike Merenda, along with Pete’s grandson Tao are longtime members of THE MAMMALS, a great and rockin’ band. Ruthy and Mike have a baby named Will, and Ruthy brought the baby out to the stage with her for the last encore. At the end of “Goodnight Irene”, she put Will up to the microphone, and he sang, sang, sang! For Pete’s legacy. For Pete’s sake, that says it all!
Take some time to learn about Pete and the Clearwater effort to save the river: www.clearwater.org
Nominate Pete for the Nobel Peace Prize: www.nobelprize4pete.org
Mini-doc about Pete and the Sloop Clearwater
Pete opens show solo playing a Native American flute
Native American Ensemble, including BILL MILLER, and DAVE AMRAM
JOHN MELLENCAMP – “If I Had a Hammer”, “Hey Jesus” (original song inspired by Pete)
Actor TIM ROBBINS & NYC Labor Chorus
ANI DEFRANCO and BRUCE COCKBURN – “Which Side Are You On”, from the 1930’s by Florence Reese
TOM MORELLO (RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE), TOM PAXTON, ERIC WEISSBERG,
MICHAEL FRANTI, PATTERSON HOOD – “Dear Mr President”
ABIGAIL WASHBURN, TOSHI REAGON, BERNICE JOHNSON-REAGON, GUY DAVIS, JACOB SILVER, PATTERSON HOOD, ERIC WEISSBERG, NYC LABOR CHORUS – “Oh Freedom”
BILLY BRAGG, DAR WILLIAMS, MIKE MERENDA, RUTHY UNGAR, LENNY PICKETT, MOLLY MASON – “Union Maid”.
PETE, STEVE EARLE, TAJ MAHAL, TOSHI REAGON, WARREN HAYNES, TAO RODGRIGUEZ – “Up and Down the River”.
STEVE EARLE, WARREN HAYNES, GUY DAVIS – Blues (Didn’t get the name).
EMMYLOU HARRIS, TEDDY THOMPSON, MCGARRIGLE FAMILY, JAY UNGAR, SPARRO DAY – “The Water is Wide”.
BRUCE COCKBURN, THE MCGARRIGLE FAMILY, INCLUDING RUFUS WAINWRIGHT – (missed the song title)
BELA FLECK, TONY TRISCHKA – 3 song banjo medley of songs they learned from Pete, followed by a banjo version of Happy Birthday!
TAJ MAHAL, TOM MORELLO – “Big Muddy”.
JOAN BAEZ – “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
TIM ROBBINS – Short talk about Pete.
RUBY DEE, accompanied by BELA FLECK – reading the Pete Seeger poem, “The Torn Flag”.
TAO RODRIGUEZ-SEEGER, BEN BRIDWELL, TYLER RAMSEY, PATTERSON HOOD, WARREN HAYNES, PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND – “Bring ‘Em Home”.
BRUCE COCKBURN, JOAN BAEZ, EMMYLOU HARRIS, GUY DAVIS, BILLY BRAGG, TOSHI REAGON, ANI DIFRANCO, RUBY DEE, BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON – “We Shall Overcome”, (first set finale).
NORMAN LEAR – Letter from Barack Obama.
PETE, TAO, JACOB SILVER – “Amazing Grace”.
TOM CHAPIN ENSEMBLE, AND OSCAR THE GROUCH – “Garbage”.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, ANI DIFRANCO – “There’s a Hole in the Bucket”
TOMMY SANDS & HIS IRISH BAND – “Little Boxes”.
TIM ROBBINS, MILES ROBBINS, MCGARRICLE FAMILY, RUFUS WAINWRIGHT, TONY TRISCHKA, JACOB SILVER, CASEY DRIESSE – “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”.
RICHIE HAVENS – “Freedom/Motherless Child”.
JOAN BAEZ, SCARLETT LEE MOORE, JAY UNGAR & MOLLY MASON, MIKE MERENDA, RUTHY UNGAR, LARRY LONG, JACOB SILVER – “Jacob’s Ladder”.
ARLO GUTHRIE, DEL MCCOURY. JOHN HALL, TONY TRISCHKA, PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND – “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”.
ARLO GUTHRIE, RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT, TAO, MIKE & RUTHY – “Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song”.
BEN HARPER, ELLEN VERDRIES, SUE CHASE – “Gather ‘Round the Stone”.
PEGGY SEEGER – Letter to her brother Pete.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT, RICHIE HAVENS, TAJ MAHAL, WARREN HAYNES, KELLER WILLIAMS, TAO, MIKE MERENDA, JACOB SILVER – “Maggie’s Farm”.
ROGER MCGUINN, BEN BRIDWELL, TYLER RAMSEY – “Turn, Turn, Turn”.
ARLO, EMMYLOU, TONY TRISCHKA, PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND, TAO, JACOB SILVER – “Victory Song/Precious Friend”.
DAVE MATTHEWS – “Rye Whiskey”.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, TOM MORELLO – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”.
EVERYONE! – “This Land is Your Land”
ENCORES: “Well May the World”, “This Little Light-o-Mine”, “Goodnight Irene”.