As Pete Seeger lay dying at age 94 this past January, his wish was to have friends visiting his hospital room sing folksongs to him. And he certainly would have been pleased at the concert presented by Lincoln Center as part of its Out of Doors Festival in honor of Pete and Toshi, his wife of almost 70 years (who died in 2013).
The concert was not only a testament to Pete’s artistry but also to his and Toshi’s commitment to social causes. There were pro-union songs, anti-war, and pro-environmental pieces. Some of Pete’s songs on these subjects were performed while speakers recalled his extraordinary spirit and body of work.
The concert started with Judy Collins reminiscing about the first time she met Pete. Actually, he was sleeping between gigs on the couch of Harold Levanthal (the manager of Seeger and rising star Collins) and she was told not to wake him up. Collins sang one of his most popular and beautiful songs, “Turn, Turn, Turn” with Walter Parks on guitar. Mike and Ruthy performed Seeger’s haunting anti-war ballad “Where have all the Flowers Gone.”
Harry Belafonte spoke of Seeger’s introducing Martin Luther King to a song he had adapted from a spiritual and to which he added words. The piece, “We Shall Overcome,” became one of the anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. It was performed at the concert by an assembled group with Marcelle Davies-Lashley handling the lead vocal.
Fred Hellerman, the last surviving member of the Weavers (the groundbreaking folk group with Seeger, Lee Hays and Ronnie Gilbert) read a letter by Hays about the joy of performing with Seeger and the others. Hellerman sang the sardonic “Long Way to the Graveyard.” Seeger’s grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson, the organizer of this and other memorial concerts throughout the state, spoke, as did other family members.
The dance troupe Vanaver Caravan reminded the audience that Seeger met his wife at a square dance. Pete certainly wouldn’t have minded the updating of some of the songs to include references to Guantanamo and Dick Cheney. There were many references throughout the concert to Leonard Peltier, a native American in prison for the last 30 years on what is alleged to be a trumped up murder charge.
Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary led the audience in singing “If I Had a Hammer.” Martha Redbone sang “False From True,” with David Amram (who accompanied a number of performers at the concert) on pennywhistle. Sarah Lee Guthrie (the granddaughter of Woody Guthrie and daughter of Arlo) joined her husband, Johnny Irion; and their daughter Sophia in “Sailing Down My Golden River,” one of the many reminders of the Seegers’ commitment to environmental protection.
A children’s chorus from Washington Heights sang “Guantamera” with Dar Williams and others. The Weavers’ hit, a Leadbelly song, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” was performed in tribute to the Seegers’ long marriage. She also joined with others for “My Rainbow Race.” Tom Chapin and the Chapin Sisters (his daughters) and the superb banjo player Tony Trischka performed “Quite Early Morning,” which the audience was told was the last song Mr. Seeger sang before his last hospitalization.
A vital performer (whose greatest desire in performing was to induce everyone present to sing along), an idealist who struggled to make the world a better place and a songwriter of distinction, Seeger would have enjoyed the concert. So would Toshi, who shared his concerns and, according to many of the speakers, was an inspirational figure in her own right. They both would have appreciated the fact that the concert was free.