The crowd at the Hill Auditorium, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, erupted into a standing ovation the second 89-year-old Pete Seeger took to the stage. For many, like myself, this was the first time they’d seen the folk elder – a contemporary to Woody Guthrie – perform live. And he didn’t disappoint. Seeger’s performance on Jan. 31 was part of the two-day Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
Without really knowing it, as a small child, Pete Seeger was part of the culture I was eagerly soaking in, albeit through popular covers of his songs. Most notably, I recall my Dad listening to the Kingston Trio’s version of Seeger’s song "Where Have all the Flowers Gone," which played countless times in our house. And of course, what child of the 1980s doesn’t remember Fred Penner’s version of "This Land is Your Land," which was originally written by Woody Guthrie, but has been performed by Seeger for decades.
Last year, another road trip took me to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. Here, lining a wall near the entrance to the main exhibit, is a number of modest black and white photographs, each honouring an artist who was a precursor to Rock and Roll. Among artists who are long gone – Leadbelly and Billie Holiday among them – is Pete Seeger, who is very much still alive and performing.
It seemed only natural to pack my bags and load into a van, en route to Ann Arbor, to see Pete Seeger take the stage at the 32nd Ann Arbor Folk Festival. The festival seamlessly blends the old and the new, featuring traditional roots musicians and contemporary folk-inspired singer songwriters. Among the performers at this year’s festival were Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Kris Kristofferson and Canada’s Luke Doucet.
The festival was a perfect fit for Seeger, who took up the banjo and began playing in the late 1930s. A pro-union, antiwar leftist at the core, Seeger’s politics resonate in his passionate songs. He was investigated for Communist involvement by the HUAC and Senator Joseph McCarthy in the late 1950s and he has spent his entire career acting as a social activist, folklorist and singer songwriter.
Seeger was accompanied on stage by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and by Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo Guthrie and granddaughter of Woody Guthrie.
Seeger’s uplifting song "Midnight Special" kicked off the set, followed by a humourous cover of a song called "English Is Crazy," which points out the unpredictability of the English language. However, one song stood out among the others – "Amazing Grace." Keeping with his tradition of storytelling, Seeger told the audience the story behind this well-known song, leading in to a sing-along, where 4,000 audience members acted as Seeger’s back-up choir. By far, the audience at the Hill Auditorium was the most attentive crowd I have ever seen at a concert, barely uttering a word, or even a cough, during Seeger’s set.
Seeger was spry and enthusiastic as he bounced to and from the stage before performing his encore. First was an antiwar protest song called "(If you Love Your Uncle Sam) Bring Them Home," which was originally written during the Vietnam War. However, Seeger’s lyrics in this song still resonate today.
Last, but hardly least, Seeger was joined on stage by the rest of the festival’s Saturday night performers, including Kris Kristofferson, to lead the crowd in a sing-along of "This Land is Your Land." Seeger recently performed the same song with Bruce Springsteen at the Lincoln Memorial as part of Barack Obama’s Inauguration Concert.
With his 90th birthday only a few months away, Seeger isn’t playing as many concerts as he used to, but for those lucky enough to see him, one thing is clear – Pete Seeger is still just as politically charged as ever, whether he’s singing and talking about Vietnam or Iraq. It was an honour just to sit in the audience and listen to the stories of this legendary folk troubadour.