“You outlasted the bastards, man,” Bruce Springsteen told the roaring crowd.
I think that was my favorite line at the rollicking birthday concert celebrating Pete Seeger’s 90th!
There were other uplifting, astonishing moments Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, at a five-hour concert which Seeger only OK’d because it raised much-needed funds for his Clearwater project–a non profit organization which the oft-maligned bard started in 1969 to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson River.
Fifteen thousand people, of all ages, (okay, median age was probably 55) danced, clapped and sang along as Seeger did a soaring version of “Amazing Grace” and the saintly looking Joan Baez sang ” Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
Arlo Guthrie reminded us that Pete, like his father Woody, “believed in the power of the people singing songs to change the world.” Richie Havens reminded us why “Freedom” is a great anthem for all times. Tim Robbins and his son, strumming the guitar, to “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore.” Ruby Dee entranced with her enchanting reading of a poem (for peace) written by Pete’s uncle before he joined the Foreign Legion. In between, a startlingly youthful Emmylou Harris recounted correspondence she had with Pete as a young folk singer; Tom Morello and Taj Mahal teamed up on “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”), and John Mellencamp offered up “If I Had a Hammer.” Congressman John Hall, once the lead singer for one of my favorite groups, “Orleans,” joined in several rounds.
Toward the end of the five-hour Seeger-apoza, Springsteen announced to the crowd, “Pete’s gonna come out,” and “He’s gonna look like your granddad–if your granddad could kick your ass.” If character and integrity keeps you youthful, and I believe it does. Seeger looked all of 25–of strong backbone and spirit and moxie and with keen eyes which are the stronger for having seen the best, and the worst, of our country’s history.
In so many ways, Pete is a repository of American history in himself. As Springsteen said, he has a “stubborn, nasty, defiant optimism,” and he serves as “the stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.”
Springsteen also told the crowd about his own youth, growing up in a town that endured race riots, and how times have changed: “Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man.”
He spoke about “This Land is Your Land,” which he said Seeger moved from an anthem of the labor movement to one of the civil rights movement, and he described preparing for their duet on the song at Obama’s inauguration, in freezing weather,( Pete had packed his long underwear), when Seeger said: “I know I want to sing all the verses–all the ones that Woody wrote, even the two that usually get left out.”
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;Sign was painted, it said private property;But on the back side it didn’t say nothing; That side was made for you and me.”
As Springsteen and Tom Morello sang a rousing, yet sober, version of ” The Ghost of Tom Joad,” it seemed that there was enough humanity in that one concert hall to fill all of nation with amazing grace in these hard times. As New Jersey’s and the nation’s bard summed it up: “Pete sings all the verses, all the time–especially the ones we’d like to leave out of our history as a people.”