Pete Seeger has always maintained that his greatest joy as a performer is to lead others in sing-alongs. At his 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden last night he must have been ecstatic since for nearly four and a half hours he and 51 other artists transformed the massive arena into an intimate campfire sing-along, where toddlers, senior citizens and everyone in between belted “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Turn Turn Turn” and many others songs Seeger wrote or popularized over his seven-decade career. “There is no such thing as a wrong note,” Seeger said after leading a group rendition of “Amazing Grace” midway through the show, “just as long as you’re singing along.”
The concert — a benefit for Seeger’s Clearwater environmental group that works to clean the Hudson River — began with Seeger playing a mournful tune on a recorder in front of a group of Native American musicians. “Ever since a guy named Hudson went up that river, it’s gone to hell,” one of them said. John Mellencamp then came out and performed a solo acoustic version of Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer.” “This song was written in 1949 and made quite a stir in 1949,” “Mellencamp said. “We were all afraid of the reds back then.” He then did his 2008 tune “A Ride Back Home,” which he said he wrote “after listening to a bunch of Pete Seeger songs.”
After brief introductory remarks by Tim Robbins, a long evening of musical collaborations kicked off — which included Tom Morello, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Patterson Hood, Taj Mahal, Warren Haynes, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie and others playing in many permutations. Highlights included Morello and Taj Mahal dueting on “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy,” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Hood, Haynes and Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger doing Seeger’s anti-war tune “Bring ‘Em Home,” Baez, Scarlett Lee Moore and Mike and Ruthy Merenda doing “Jacob’s Ladder” and Kris Kristofferson and Ani DiFranco’s playful duet on the children’s song “There’s A Hole In My Bucket.”
In keeping with the folk tradition, some songs were updated to reference current events, like the addition of “The curse of Reagonomics has finally taken its toll” to DiFranco and Cockburn’s version of the 1930’s union classic “Which Side Are You On.” The most surreal performance of the night was when Tom Chapin was joined by none other than Sesame Street‘s Oscar the Grouch for Seeger’s eco-friendly tune “Garbage.” “Have a rotten everything,” the muppet said while throwing banana peels and other bits of garbage onto the stage.
Dave Matthews first hit the stage around the four-hour mark. “What a night!” he said. “The first concert I ever saw was when my mom took me to see Pete Seeger,” he added, before breaking out his falsetto for an acoustic “Rye Whiskey.” He was followed by Bruce Springsteen, who released an album of Seeger tunes just three years ago. “Pete is a walking, singing archive of American history,” Springsteen said during a long, moving speech. “He had the audacity and courage to sing in the voice of the American people. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger into the country’s illusions about itself.” Along with Tom Morello, he did “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” which Seeger himself covered two years ago.
For the finale, every performer of the night crammed onto the stage for “This Land Is Your Land.” “I gave you the words and you sing along,” Seeger told the crowd. As he did at Barack Obama’s inauguration, he included the often skipped verses about the relief office and the private property sign. After leaving the stage to “This Little Light Of Mine,” everybody returned for “Goodnight Irene” — which Seeger’s group the Weavers took to Number One in 1950. Watching the nonagenarian at work is truly astounding. His energy and joy seem limitless, and he really doesn’t look a day over 70 — a point underscored when Pete’s older (!) brother John sauntered over to the microphone to address the crowd: “If I’m 95, Pete’s going to make it to 100!”