On the day of his 90th birthday, May 3, 1919, both John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen pointed to Pete Seeger's courage, toughness and cultural greatness for standing up to the ultra-right wing and helping to lead, for more than 6 decades, the movement for peace and democracy.
Pete Seeger's Madison Square Garden birthday bash opened with Native Americans talking and singing their traditional songs. But, their message just wasn't a cultural presentation. They pointed to the injustices for miners in the Southwest.
Mellencamp then continued the opening of the Madison Square Garden event with some introductory comments concerning the Seeger song, "If I Had a Hammer." He said that that song was written and released in 1949, the year that the right wing escalated their attempt to destroy Seeger by redbaiting him. That was 60 years ago. Springsteen chose for his one song his not often heard "Song of Tom Joad," from the album of the same name. Bruce, always on the cutting edge, brought the economic crisis to the Garden. He, of course, being the most current and political of the assembled speakers made reference to Seeger's steadfastness and not letting the "bastards" getting him. His album, "the Seeger Sessions," is a great piece of history.
Springsteen talked about Seeger's and his trip to Washington, D.C. for the inaugural songfest prior to January 20th. He pointed to Seeger's insistence to put the original words of Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" back into the song when it is sung. And, he did.
This was truly an amazing evening; getting started with Mellencamp around 5:15pm and finishing with, "Good Night Irene" about 10:00PM. Organizers of the event moved the starting time to 5pm from 7pm, knowing the potential length.
In between they're some amazing combinations of singers.
Del McCrory, the great blue grass singer, joined the many individual and group singers and performers including: Emmy Lou Harris, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez and Rambling Jack Elliott.
Norman Lear read a congratulatory letter from President Barak Obama.*
Pete sang the very old song "Amazing Grace" which was written by a captain of a slave ship. It contained is original words from the 19th Century. That ship's captain, as Seeger relayed, stopped doing that job, became a minister and joined his wife in the anti-slavery movement in England.
On another historical note, Springsteen also reported that on his trip with Seeger, they discussed the great song "We Shall Overcome." Bruce reported to the 20,000 that the song was originally a labor organizing song before it was adopted by the civil rights movement. Bruce new how to put the class struggle at the forefront with diminishing either struggle. .
Taj Mahal, Richie Havens, Toshi Regan and other civil rights singers joined in throughout the evening. The McGarrigle Sisters with the Wainwright Family members gave the audience some memorable songs.
Even the Preservation Dixie Land Jazz Band was there to back up many of the performers.
Congressman John Hall from West Chester County, an accomplished folk singer, joined in a few times.
The highly popular rock singer, Dave Mathews, came and sang "Rye Whiskey." He told the crowd that his mother took him to hear Pete Seeger at an early age. He was raised around Croton, NY. At the conclusion of his song, he gave Pete a rousing, double fisted in the air, Happy Birthday.
While the audience heard authentic versions of Amazing Grace and This Land is Your Land, they were subjected to a sanitized version of "The International" with the words "working class" removed. Billy Bragg, the British folk/rocksinger, authored this version with Pete, sang this version.
All in all, it was a truly amazing evening. In 2009, just a year after finishing 30 years of Reagan/Bush/Gingrich/Bush rule, 20,000 people paid rather high ticket prices to celebrate Pete Seeger's birthday.
All proceeds of the evening went to the Clearwater effort to clean up the Hudson River.
In that regard Arlo Guthrie was the evening's most ardent and effective promoter of the Clearwater efforts. His words and voice put the whole evening in perspective when he placed Pete along side his father, Woody. Those were magical words for many in the audience.
The evening was mostly about Pete's civil rights and labor history. His internationalism where he brought the Spanish Civil War to the U.S. peace and justice movement; his decades support for socialist countries; his demand for justice for Cuba and in the Middle East were unfortunately missing. Pete's is one political performer who is able to bring all parties to the table in places like the Middle East. Let's hope he continues those important missions.
Toshi Seeger, Pete's wife and Peggy Seeger, Pete's sister were honored. Peggy Seeger appeared and talked of their relationship.
Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Peter's grandson, clearly played an important musical and administrative role in this amazing evening.
*The audience was not aware that longtime Seeger friend and world wide known Cuban singer, Silvio Rodrigues was invited to the USA and the Garden to help Pete celebrate his birthday. But, the State Department denied his entry. Here is the letter that he sent.
May 3, 2009
Admired and beloved Maestro Pete Seeger:
In these moments the tribute concert that dozens of singers are justly offering you is being celebrated. Passing through my mind are some of the times that I have had the privilege of enjoying your talent, which has seduced multitudes. I remember you in Havana, singing in solidarity along with the Sound Experimentation Group; I remember you in that tour that was dedicated to Victor Jara, through several cities in Italy; and I am also reliving that frosty night in February 1980 in which, responding to your call, we traveled from New York to Poughkeepsie and we listened to your "Snow, Snow," the masterwork of someone asking questions of a winter landscape.
I tried to come back to be with you today, but, as you well know, I was not allowed to get there by those who do not want the US and Cuba to get together, to sing to each other, to talk to each other, to understand each other. They are the ones who think that the world is divided into the powerful and the weak; the ones who only appreciate those who are rich and strong. They are the ones who do not forgive us for the fact that, even though we are small, we have decided to live standing up on our feet. Reality cries out that these brutes must be getting fewer and fewer in number, but somehow that minority still rules and gives the orders. Some of them saw danger in the idea that we would meet and that a simple act of brotherhood would symbolize two neighbor peoples who can agree in song and in affection.
But not just me, dear Pete: all my worthy and no doubt improvable people admire you, respect you, and celebrate your honorable nine decades defending social justice, peace, and culture. Here no one sees you as a danger, but as an extraordinary friend whom we are not allowed to embrace as freely as we would like. That is why not just I, but all of this Cuba that loves you, blockaded still by the abusers, is at your side now singing your prophetic `We Shall Overcome' and the `Guantanamera' of our Martí.
A kiss for Toshi and a big hug for you from
Silvio Rodriguez Dominguez