At 91, Pete Seeger doesn’t like to travel anymore, preferring performing in front of school children in his hometown of Beacon, New York, to big journeys into the city. But last night, the folk legend played a short but spellbinding set for 400 fans at New York’s Gotham House, an old converted bank, and received WhyHunger’s Chapin award in recognition of his work on hunger and poverty issues.
After a dinner in the sprawling banquet hall, Tom Chapin outlined Seeger’s 70-year career and still-active life upstate, joking, “He poisons the minds of children with his subversive attitudes about poverty and human rights.” Seeger didn’t give much of an acceptance speech, choosing instead to strap on his rustic banjo for a politically charged set that began with his 1970 track “We’ll All Be A-Doubling.” He still picks masterfully, and his voice sounds gloriously ragged. When Rolling Stone told him the performance recalled his legendary 1963 Carnegie Hall recording, Seeger laughed, “I can’t remember that far back — it was 50 years ago!”
During the opening number, Seeger told the crowd he recently asked a local politician to help slow down his hometown’s growing population. The reply? ” ‘Pete if you don’t grow, you die,’ ” Seeger recalled. “I didn’t know what to say. Then at one o’clock in the morning I woke up. I said, ‘It’s true, if you don’t grow, you die, but doesn’t it follow that the quicker you grow the sooner you die?’ ”
Seeger switched to a 12-string guitar and began a hymn-like finger-picked version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He told the story behind the classic Wizard of Oz track, recounting how lyricist Yip Harburg and composer Harold Arlen held a successful two-man protest to get the studio to include the song in the film. Seeger looked up at the ceiling and apologized to the deceased Harburg for having to change the lyric “Why can’t I” to “Why can’t you and I?” and explained his logic: “If I’d been there when little Dorothy said, ‘Why can’t I?’ I’d tell her, ‘Dorothy, it’s because you only asked for yourself. You’ve got to ask for everybody, because either we’re all going to make it over that rainbow or nobody is going to make it.’ “
After his set, Seeger locked away his banjo in its case and told RS he still likes to perform, even though “my voice is gone. I just shout or whisper.” He still looks back fondly on the frigid inaugural concert for Barack Obama, where he led a joyous version of “This Land Is Your Land” alongside Bruce Springsteen. Saying he remains supportive of the president, Seeger mused on the nature of American electoral politics. “If you do what in the long run is the best thing, you may not get elected,” he said. “But you could get elected four years from now because people like George W. Bush get in and do so bad, that the whole country will realize what shortsighted people they are. I always say God only knows what the future’s going to bring. But he gave us brains. And fundamentalists do as bad things here as they do in the Muslim countries. Some miracles are going to happen.”
Turning to talk about his upcoming disc Tomorrow’s Children (due July 27th), which features 19 songs recorded with local schoolchildren, Seeger’s mood lightened. “I find a 10-year old likes to sing alto because they can shout it,” he said, adding that the project is a major highlight in a half-century-plus career: “It’s the most inspiring thing I’ve ever done.”