Clutching his banjo, and offering a wry apology for a voice that was raspy even during its pre-war heyday, Pete Seeger rolled back the years to devote his 90th birthday to what he’s been doing for most of the previous 89: attempting to change the world through the medium of folk music.
The legendary singer was joined by 40 of his most prominent disciples, including Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Kris Kristofferson and John Mellencamp, at a fundraising concert celebrating his achievement in having, as headline act Bruce Springsteen put it, “outlived the bastards” who turned him into the father of 1960s counterculture.
Helped, perhaps, by the public recognition of President Obama, who asked Seeger to perform at his inauguration concert in January, the ensemble drew a sell-out crowd of 18,000 to Madison Square Gardens on Sunday, where they belted out some of his best-known hits, including “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “We Shall Overcome”.
The left-leaning crowd’s anger has mellowed with advancing years. But while the cause of environmentalism has eclipsed Communism, nuclear disarmament and the Vietnam War as their rallying cry (the event was in aid of a charity protecting the Hudson River), the four-and-a-half-hour concert showed that they retain plenty of their old staying power.
It ended with Seeger, who still looks and dresses like a man 25 years younger, leading all 40 of the musicians, together with most of the crowd, in a full version of Woody Guthrie’s protest song “This Land is Your Land”, including the stanzas tackling poverty and social injustice, which turned it into one of the most contentious anthems of its day.
“He sings all the verses all the time,” Springsteen explained. “Especially the ones we might like to leave out in the history of our people.”
Though the mood was one of cheery nostalgia, the songs served as a reminder of the often tortured path that once turned Seeger, a former Communist and still-ardent social activist, into a national pariah who was once threatened with prison for his political beliefs.
He was born into a comfortable New York family in 1919, but dropped out of Harvard in 1938 and began wandering America with Woody Guthrie, with whom he formed the Almanac Singers, and started writing pro-union protest songs. Later, after achieving some fame, he formed his own group, the Weavers.
During the era of McCarthyism, Seeger was “blacklisted” because of his former membership of the Communist Party. In 1955, he refused to co-operate with the Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating the supposed radical activities of left-wing public figures.
He was later sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress. Although a sharp lawyer eventually prevented him serving time in jail, the lawsuit served at least some of its intended purpose, since he was banned from many large venues and wasn’t shown on US television between 1950 and 1967.
Despite the right’s attempts to silence him, Seeger became one of the most influential voices of the 1960s, inspiring singers like Bob Dylan and Springsteen. His record “We Shall Overcome” was perhaps the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, while “Bring ‘em Home” was sung by a generation of anti-Vietnam protestors.
These days, however, the times have a-changed. Thanks in part to a collaboration with Springsteen on the 2006 album The Seeger Sessions, and to the success of his album At 89, which was released last year, Seeger is now feted as a left-wing icon.
In a BBC interview last week to mark his birthday, he demonstrated that at least some of the old fire still burns, though. “The danger now is people say, 'Oh, we can relax and let the new president do the work'," he said. "The most important part of Obama's inauguration speech was when he said WE have to do the job - all of us!"