We should all be so lucky to have a 90th birthday party, especially one like Pete Seeger’s. Madison Square Garden filled to a near capacity crowd on a rainy Sunday night to join the celebrities of folk music to celebrate Mr. Seeger, who dedicated his life to celebrating others through song. The concert was hosted by Seeger’s Clearwater organization, the pioneering environmental group he founded in 1969 to preserve and protect the Hudson River.
During the concert, which was being filmed for a documentary, Seeger mostly took a back seat to his acolytes. He led a stirring, arena-wide harmony on a slowed-down “Amazing Grace” and a series of heartfelt singalongs through the end of the concert, including “We Shall Overcome,” “Let It Shine,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Goodnight Irene,” Seeger’s No. 1 Pop Single of 1950.
As an archivist of the American folk songbook, Seeger wrote or popularized most of the songs on the set list, which included many fresh arrangements of traditional blues ballads and spirituals. Roger McGuinn sang “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (a Seeger-penned No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965, as performed by McGuinn’s band The Byrds) with his signature Rickenbacker 12-string and a voice that sounds as clear as it did 45 years ago. Richie Havens performed “Freedom/Motherless Child,” the slave spiritual many would remember as the tune used to open Woodstock. Warren Haynes led an electric cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” a nod to one of the most infamous myths of the folk music movement when Seeger tried to cut Dylan’s power when he “went electric” with that song at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
But the concert wasn’t driven entirely by Sixties nostalgia. For better or worse, the performers tethered the songs to current events, including the continuing scourges of pollution and war, and the producers made efforts to address all generations. Oscar the Grouch, for instance, led the environmental jeremiad “Garbage,” which sounded as relevant today as when Seeger wrote it in 1969. Pete Seeger’s grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, whom many first saw during their historic singalong of “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before the inauguration of President Obama, led the rousing call to disarm “Bring ‘Em Home” with Tyler Ramsey and Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses, guitarist Warren Haynes, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band Horns Section. Joan Baez delivered one of the most wrenching performances of the night, the folk spiritual “Jacob’s Ladder,” in an unvarnished arrangement that daringly put on display some of her voice’s time-worn nuances. It was one of the most riveting moments of the night and true to the essence of Ms. Baez.
The actor Tim Robbins, who served as emcee through numerous segues, praised Mr. Seeger for his relentless optimism, and noted envelope-pushing television producer Norman Lear read President Obama’s birthday wishes to Mr. Seeger. Bruce Springsteen celebrated the man as the “stealth dagger through our illusions about ourselves,” and received the loudest cheers when he said to old Pete: “You outlived the bastards!”