It was some garden party. Eighteen-thousand people packed into Madison Square Garden Sunday night to celebrate the first 90 years of Pete Seeger's life.
The legendary folk singer is a living history of the 20th century's grass-roots struggles for worker rights, civil rights, the environment and peace. Powerful, passionate performances and tributes rang out from the stage, highlighting Seeger's enduring imprint on our society.
Bruce Springsteen opened his set with a tribute to Pete, saying, "As Pete and I traveled to Washington for President Obama's inaugural celebration, he told me the entire story of ‘We Shall Overcome,' how it moved from a labor-movement song and, with Pete's inspiration, had been adopted by the civil rights movement. And that day, as we sang ‘This Land Is Your Land,' I looked at Pete. The first black president of the United States was seated to his right. I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. ... He was so happy that day. It was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man."
Springsteen recalled Pete's only request for the inaugural: " ‘Well, I know I want to sing all the verses [of ‘This Land Is Your Land']. You know, I want to sing all the ones that Woody [Guthrie] wrote, especially the two that get left out ... about private property and the relief office.' ... That's what Pete's done his whole life: He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people."
The oft-censored verses, for the record:
"In the squares of the city, under shadow of the steeple,
at the relief office, I saw my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling,
this land was made for you and me.
A great high wall there tried to stop me.
A great big sign there said private property,
but on the other side it didn't say nothing.
That side was made for you and me."
Seeger's unflinching commitment to social justice landed him before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He told HUAC, "I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, that I am any less of an American than anyone else." Seeger was blacklisted and didn't appear on television for close to 15 years until he sang on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."
Seeger told me: "The Smothers Brothers were a big, big success on the CBS television. And ... in the spring of '67, CBS says, ‘What can we do to make you happier?' And they said, ‘Let us have Seeger on.' And CBS said, ‘Well, we'll think about it.' Finally, in October they said, ‘OK, you can have him on.' And I sang this song ‘Waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on.' ... In New York, they scissored the song out. The Smothers Brothers took to the print media and said, ‘CBS ... censored Seeger's best song.' ... Finally, in late January of '68, CBS said, ‘OK, OK, he can sing the song.' " The song tells of an Army captain who drowned while ordering his troops deeper and deeper into a river-an obvious metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
In 1949, Pete Seeger and the great "whitelisted" black opera singer and actor Paul Robeson held a concert in Peekskill, N.Y., an upstate village with an active Ku Klux Klan. A vigilante mob stoned the crowd. Hundreds were injured. Pete took rocks from that assault and incorporated them into his fireplace-so that the stones meant to maim now just protect the flame.
Dear to Pete for his life has been the Hudson River, said to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. In 1966, Pete co-founded the environmental organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which uses a beautiful wooden boat and an annual celebration to engage and educate people on the need to clean the Hudson and protect the environment. There is a movement to nominate Pete Seeger for the Nobel Peace Prize.
At Madison Square Garden, Pete was center stage, playing his banjo. His singing voice is faint now, after 70 years of singing truth to power. He mouthed the words to the songs, but what came out were the voices of the 18,000 people in the audience, singing out. That's Pete's legacy. That's what will carry on.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.