Pete Seeger, the legendary folk musician and political activist, turned 90 on May 3. A host of musical and show business luminaries, including Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Joan Baez, and Emmy Lou Harris helped him to celebrate yesterday at Madison Square Garden.
Seeger used his singing, writing, and playing ability to entertain generations of Americans and to stand up for social justice for those who could not fight for themselves. He has been at the forefront of the labor, civil rights, peace, environmental, and women's movements. And his music has spanned generations, from before World War II, when he began, to the 1950s, when he played with The Weavers, to the turbulent 1960s, and on until present, when he played at President Obama's Inauguration, with Bruce Springsteen. In the 50s, he, along with the Weavers, endured the blacklisting of the McCarthy era and enjoyed a triumphant return to the stage with his controversial appearance on the Smothers Brothers Show on CBS in 1968. The previous season, Seeger's appearance was censored because he chose to sing "Waist Deep in the Muddy," an anti-war song. But a public outcry led to CBS' censors relenting and Seeger made his historic appearance and sang that song on February 25, 1968. He went on to become a hero to a new generation of young political activists in the 60s and early 70s in the nascent environmental movement.
For more on Seeger and his contribution to America's musical traditions, culture, and politics, check out this heartfelt memoir on the AFL-CIO blog from Mike Hall, whom I am proud to call a long time friend.
Like Mike, I have had the privilege of hearing Seeger in person and of meeting him. I grew up in a town that was a few miles away from Beacon, New York, where Pete Seeger lived. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Seeger was involved in one of the first ecological projects to clean up the Hudson River. To publicize the plight of the great and mighty river, which was dying because of its pollution, Seeger started sailing up and down to all the Hudson River Valley communities in a sloop called the Hudson River Clearwater. Every summer, they would hold shad festivals. Not to be confused with Virginia's shad planking, the point of these gatherings was to highlight the fact that shad were once again able to survive in the Hudson River, an indication that the waterway was being cleaned up.
So, to celebrate the success and keep it going, Seeger and a very young Don McLean (of "Bye Bye Miss American Pie" fame) held folk concerts, with food, vendors, and fun all summer long. I saw both Seeger and McLean at many of these outdoor events. Besides McLean, Arlo Gutherie, whose father, Woody, had been one of Seeger's best friends, frequently showed up to jam at these all star folk festivals, which were held annually, just minutes from my home. In fact, because of Seeger's presence along the Hudson River, a young folkie, like me, was able to see some of the most renown folks musicians of the time for free.
To share some of the camaraderie Seeger's concerts always produced, enjoy the video from the Inauguration and join me in wishing Pete Seeger 90 more years!