One of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century, the late folk music icon Pete Seeger was born 100 years ago this month and his legacy was celebrated in song Thursday (May 23) in Albany, N.Y. — not far from the waters of his beloved Hudson River — by Arlo Guthrie, Dar Williams, Dan Zanes, Guy Davis, his goddaughter Toshi Reagon and others.
The Pete Seeger Centennial Concert at The Egg, the performing arts center in Albany, was one of scores of events that have taken place nationwide and internationally this month marking Seeger’s birth on May 3, 1919. But the Albany event felt most like an intimate gathering of Seeger’s musical family, sharing songs and memories of the man they knew and loved deeply.
“What a night,” said Guthrie, who led the evening’s bill. “I don’t do a lot of tribute things. But this is one I could not say no to.”
At a time when many musicians seek to link their art to activism and climate change is the most urgent issue of our time, Seeger’s legacy is more relevant than ever.
Thursday’s concert was a benefit for the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, a 106-foot-long wooden replica of a Dutch sailing vessel, which Seeger launched 50 years ago on May 17, 1969. The most-enduring activist organization with its roots in music, the Clearwater is widely recognized for its role in the decades-long cleanup of the Hudson, for its advocacy of environmental and social justice campaigns and for its education programs to train a new generation of environmental activists.
The concert also raised funds for WAMC, Northeast Public Radio, and Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., known as the longest continuously operating folk music venue in the United States and now run as a nonprofit organization.
To support the Clearwater, Seeger and his late wife, Toshi, guided the creation four decades ago of the Great Hudson River Revival — better known as the Clearwater Festival — which each year brings scores of artists and thousands of fans to a riverfront park 30 miles north of New York City. (This year’s event June 15-16 features headliners Mavis Staples, Ani DiFranco, the Wailers and Railroad Earth.)
Longtime festival performers, Bill and Livia Vanaver of Vanaver Caravan, whose work mixes music and dance, opened Thursday’s show, accompanied by Linda Richards, who sang “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song).” Seeger’s lyrics — written in 1966 but no less relevant now — describe his desire to clean the Hudson as a metaphor for healing the nation.
Native American folk/blues artist Cary Morin offered Seeger’s version of the Irish ballad “Fare Thee Well.” Amythyst Kiah, whose rich vocals brought Odetta to mind, sang a breathtaking rendition of the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize” and, fittingly, ahead of Memorial Day, the anti-war classic “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream.”
The sets by Puerto Rican singer/songwriter and activist Taína Asili, banjo player Tony Trischka and the banjo-violin duo of Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton paid tribute, respectively, to Seeger’s love of music of all cultures and his considerable versatility on his signature banjo.
David Gonzalez, before reading part of his epic poem “Oh! Hudson,” recalled the night in 2011 when Seeger performed at a theater on 95th Street in Manhattan, then walked down Broadway to join Occupy Wall Street demonstrators at Columbus Circle, a distance of nearly 40 blocks. Seeger was 92 years old at the time.
Davis, who accompanied Seeger on his final tour in 2008, performed “Midnight Special,” recorded by the great folk/blues artist Lead Belly, who mentored a young Pete Seeger and taught him the 12-string guitar after the two met in the 1940s.
Dan Zanes and his wife Claudia Eliaza Zanes sang “Stewball” a cappella, in the style of Lead Belly and Seeger’s group the Weavers, accompanied only by clack sticks — a nod to Seeger’s love of chopping wood at his mountainside home in Beacon, N.Y., said Dan Zanes. The couple also sang “Turn! Turn! Turn! (“To Everything There Is A Season”) but with the lyrics written for children by Toshi Seeger.
Living not far from the home that Seeger built for his family in Beacon, Williams recalled the singer as a neighbor she ran into at the post office or saw putting out his trash. She remembered a day in 1998 when they had performed on Late Night With Conan O’Brien — and Seeger was eager to leave to get back home to attend a Clearwater meeting. In her lovely song “The Hudson,” Williams sang: “Even for us New Yorkers, there’s a time in every day/ the river takes our breath away.”
Reagon, the daughter of civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock and named for Seeger’s wife, remembered when she was a young singer aspiring to perform at the Clearwater Festival. “Come be a litter picker” first, Toshi Seeger replied. Reagon urged the audience to remember the extraordinary contribution Toshi Seeger played in her husband’s global career. “All hail, Toshi Seeger,” she said.
For her set, Reagon chose to open with a song she said she first learned from an Earth, Wind and Fire album “and it was really shocking to me to learn my godfather wrote it.” The song was “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and its message endures, said Reagon. “Let us all remember to grieve and then come back and fight for freedom.” Then, accompanied by Dan and Claudia Zanes, Richards, Williams and Davis, Reagon turned “Sailing Up, Sailing Down” into a blues romp.
No living artist had closer ties to Seeger than Guthrie. His father, Woody, was Seeger’s longtime friend, and Arlo toured with Seeger for some four decades. “He brought humanity together with his actions, not just as a performer but as a human being,” Guthrie told Billboard after Seeger’s death in 2014.
At Thursday’s concert, Guthrie opened with a driving version of Lead Belly’s “Alabama Bound” on 12-string guitar — but his choice of songs was almost secondary to his delightful, detailed, rambling tales of lifelong encounters with Seeger.
There was the day a young Guthrie bought a vintage English sports car from Seeger, which the older singer took for a test drive — on the wrong side of a two-lane road. “I thought I was in England” Guthrie says Seeger declared afterward. “That’s when I started to mistrust authority,” deadpanned Guthrie.
Or that time at the folk festival in Denmark where Seeger played so many sing-a-longs that Guthrie questioned how to possibly follow his act. Guthrie said he decided to introduce a song “by that great American folk singer, Elvis Presley.” Seeger glared at him — then played along on the banjo. As the audience did that day in Denmark, the Albany crowd beautifully sang along to Guthrie’s version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
For the show’s finale, Guthrie was joined by all the artists for a song which his father had written but Seeger had popularized. It is best known for its imagery of “wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling” from “California to the New York islands.” But the song’s lesser-known final verse is more important than ever now.
Affirming Seeger’s lifelong vision of a just and caring nation, the audience joined the artists to sing:
“Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.”