Pete Seeger's all-star 90th birthday concert: Springsteen, Baez, Matthews, and many more salute an American hero

Peteseegerconcert_lYesterday was Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday, an occasion that meant a lot to a lot of people, myself included. As a kid I attended a summer day camp whose direction he helped guide, and every year we’d go to upstate New York to help the legendary folk singer, peace activist, and environmentalist clear the Hudson River of weeds and debris before joining him in a spirited singalong. Seeger has made many friends over the decades with that inclusive spirit of his. A few dozen of the most famous ones turned out last night to honor Seeger with a birthday concert at Madison Square Garden — which, in typical Pete fashion, was also a fundraiser for his green education ship, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. As you can see above, there were some very big names crowded next to Pete on to the stage, which had been designed to resemble the Clearwater’s magnificent mast and sails. Bruce Springsteen. Tom Morello. Joan Baez. Dave Matthews…

Last night wasn’t really about star power, though. It was about all of us, there in Madison Square Garden and across the globe, and if you think that sounds corny, you don’t understand Pete Seeger. "I’ve been asked to remind you that this music is your music," Tim Robbins told the crowd early on. "Nothing would make Pete happier on this 90th birthday than to hear your voices rise up in their collective beauty, filling the Garden with a celebration of song." How could we say no to that? Read on after the jump for more on an amazing night.

Truthfully, we didn’t need Robbins’ encouragement. The entire Garden had already been singing out all the words to "If I Had a Hammer" when John Mellencamp took the stage a few minutes earlier, and we kept singing all the way through the group encore of "Goodnight, Irene," four hours later. It’s difficult to say which of the moments between those two was the most moving. Was it when Springsteen and Morello conjured up "The Ghost of Tom Joad"? When Roger McGuinn came out to join Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and Tyler Ramsey on "Turn! Turn! Turn!", the Seeger composition that McGuinn’s Byrds made a hit in 1965? When Joan Baez sang Seeger’s "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", as haunting as it’s ever sounded? When Billy Bragg belted out "The Internationale" a capella? When Oscar the Grouch, the actual Muppet himself, perched in his can in a mountain of trash bags, joined Tom Chapin to decry a world filled with "Garbage"? When Dave Matthews added a little humor to the night with "Rye Whiskey"? When Arlo Guthrie, Del McCoury, U.S. Representative John Hall, and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined for "Mary Don’t You Weep"? When a veritable summit of elders including Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Warren Haynes ripped through "Maggie’s Farm," igniting hopes that maybe, just maybe, Bob Dylan would do the right thing and make a surprise visit to honor Pete? (He didn’t.)

No, if I had to pick one, I think the most powerful song last night was "We Shall Overcome," an old union organizing tune before Seeger taught it to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early sixties. Nearly everyone came out on stage for that one — Ruby Dee, Baez, Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, Bragg, Toshi Reagon, Scarlett Lee Moore, Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and probably a few others I’m forgetting. I’m still hoarse from crying out in unison with the thousands of audience members on those choruses.

I’m short-changing some great songs here — "Whose Side Are You On," "Union Maid," "Bring Them Home," "Sailing Up, Sailing Down," "Amazing Grace," and of course "This Land Is Your Land" — and I haven’t come close to mentioning all the performers who wowed the crowd. But I could go on forever if I tried to do that. (For a full list of artists, check the concert website.) The important thing is to recognize the unique contributions Pete Seeger has made to this country’s music and culture in the past 90 years. Pete was blacklisted for decades because he dared to stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee; last night, by contrast, we saw a warmly worded birthday letter that President Obama recently sent him. He’s sure come a long way.

During his brief set, Springsteen recalled sitting with Seeger and Obama on Inauguration Day a few months back: "He was so happy on that day. It was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!" In the closing moments of a concert that none of us wanted to end, Pete’s 95-year-old brother John said he believed Pete would make it to age 100. Here’s hoping he keeps outlasting ‘em that long, and that we can gather again in ten years for another spectacular celebration. In the meantime, tell me: Were any of you there last night? What were your favorite parts of the evening?

More from EW’s Music Mix:
Wilco covers Woody Guthrie for charity: Wall Street fat cats, get out your wallets!
Noel Gallagher sings in the shower for charity
We goofed! Ten heartbreaking songs we wish we’d included on our list

addCredit(“Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images”)


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  • adj

    My favorite moments—When Kate McGarrigle told her kids (Rufus and Martha) to “sing pretty cause it’s Pete Seeger’s Birthday, to which they replied “Yes mother” and seeing Arlo Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen sharing a mic on This Land is Your Land.

  • corina

    make sure you’ve signed the petition nominating pete for a nobel peace prize:

    http://www.nobelprize4pete.org/

  • Matt

    I was at the concert last night, and it was really something special. Here’s a short clip of Pete leading the audience in an “Amazing Grace” sign-a-long:

    http://www.gotchamediablog.com/2009/05/pete-seegers-90th-birthday-concert.html

  • Horatio

    Was this broadcast on one of the pay stations, or will it be broadcast? Sure would be nice for those of us who live too far away to have gotten there…

  • Arthur

    To me the most amazing part of the night was when the entire stadium was singing This Land Is Your Land with Pete leading. It was an immensely powerful moment. Seeing Pete’s face getting red with pure happiness and joy knowing that everyone there supports and loves him was enough to even choke me up a little. I was waiting for that song the entire night and it was certainly worth it. This was the concert experience of a lifetime.
    I agree here that there was hope for Bob Dylan to join in at some point but he does have a new album out so I’m sure he must be a little busy.
    Seeing Richie Havens play was amazing but when he did that amazing jump kick with his guitar in hand at the end it was one of the coolest moments of the concert and everyone immediately stood up and he received a standing ovation. One of the many standing ovations of the night.
    I will remember this concert for the rest of my life it was simply amazing. If there ever is a 100th birthday concert, I’m there!

  • seegerfan

    Horatio: It’s going to be broadcast on PBS this summer according to the intertubes… i have to agree with other commenters re: richie havens kick, bruce and arlo, and all the old-timey organizing songs. I’m stickin to the union indeed!

  • kaydevo

    Sounds like a wonderful show for a good cause, honoring a great American national treasure.
    I read on another site that the show will be shown on PBS, and that Dylan is on tour in Europe with a show tonight. Don’t know if that’s accurate, but there it is.

  • Jodi

    The concert will be broadcast on PBS in late summer.

    http://www.musicnewsnet.com/2009/05/pete-seeger-90th-birthday-concert-to-air-on-pbs-.html

    I was at the concert last night, and am also a former summer camp kid who yanked weeds out of the Hudson River with Pete. He’d do free concerts at camp every summer, too. It was pretty awesome to be able to give back to him and Clearwater last night.
    Cool to see another camp kid felt the same. Good job on the review!

  • Patty Howard

    and now, on to the Newport Folk Festivl 50 that will honor Pete this year!!!

    http://www.musicnewsnet.com/2009/05/newport-folk-festival-2009-final-line-up.html

  • deb hart

    THANK YOU! Fabulous to hear from people who were there..I’m on martha’s vineyard..we had a great gathering with several of our local musicians leading us in songs we think of as Pete’s and a man whose name i don’t remember(Richard Knoebel?) told us wonderful stories of his times working and traveling with pete. Pete is and has been my hero for years, a national treasure, a gift in our lives. I’m guessing Woody and Lee Hays were smiling down last night. Grateful to be able to look forward to seeing it last night’s concert and celebration on PBS soon. Sing, sing, sing!

  • ESP

    At the end of the concert after being led by Pete in “This Land Is Your Land,” all of the audience in Madison Square Garden spontaneously sang “Happy Birthday To You” to Pete.
    This was an authentic and touching moment, a true expression of affection for Pete Seeger.

  • silent bear

    A Note From Native American Political Prisoner Leonard Peltier to Pete Seeger:
    Hello my OLE friend and Happy Birthday! It fills my heart with happiness to see you’ve endured all these years. I hope your celebration is well attended and worthy of your life’s accomplishments. If i could be there, i’d embrace you as the longtime friend and hae been to me. Perhaps one day soon.
    Unfortunately as you know, i cannot attend due to being unjustly incarerated now for more than thirty years. I continue to struggle for my freedom despite attempts to silence me through my detention, and even most recently an assault. But my voice will continue to sing out for real justice and freedom, as opposed to the illusion we have been force fed. Real justice means justice for all and real freedom includes freedom of the truth. I have been able to hold on all these years thanks to the support of friends like you.
    I hope you and your circle of friend are able during your revelry, to find a few moments to renew your support of me and my case. Please contact my sister
    Betty Ann at the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee and pledge whatever support you can, as it continues to be desperately needed. One day we’ll be able to share such a celebration properly. May the Creator bless you and keep you, my bother, as we are all related.
    In the spirit of Crazy Horse,
    Leonard Peltier.
    Kari Ann
    Assistant Coordinator
    Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee
    http://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info

  • loveya pete

    It was a TERRIFIC concert, I flew in from Chicago to see it. If I never see another concert ever, I will be happy to have been there to sing along with Pete. To the writer who asked, YES the entire concert was filmed and is to be aired on Public TV this summer, I believe, so support your PBS stations!

  • Ariel Gordon

    Doesn’t matter where you were sitting or your beliefs in politics or life, the show was beautiful and moving. I am only 18 years old and consider myself one of the luckiest people alive for having the opportunity to see some of those performers live and on stage singing beautifully. Thank you Pete for your commitment, love, and genius! <3 Peacee to all and be well

  • BrianNYC

    Richie Havens singing “Freedom/Motherless Child” blew me away. Also, Dave Matthews cover of “Rye Whiskey” was chillingly good. A great night!

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