NEW YORK — Pete Seeger has never paid attention to demographics or audience segments. His message has always been about inconclusiveness as a performer.
And he’s a performer in many senses of the word.
“A musician, singer, songwriter, folklorist, labor activist, environmentalist, peace advocate,” listed Tim Robbins at the start of an all-star gathering at Madison Square Garden last May to celebrate Seeger’s 90th birthday.
This celebration has been captured as a “Great Performances” special, and it’s full of passion and ideals, nostalgia for past gains and hope for the future. It premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday on PBS channel 45/49.
Joining Seeger are more than 40 artists including Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens, Roger McGuinn, Ani DiFranco, Taj Mahal, Steve Earle, Tom Morello and Dave Matthews.
Collectively, they sing of a joyous activism and love of country. At the same time, they help shed a little light (for those of us who need it) on Seeger’s remarkable impact.
The gathered talent invites the audience to join in singing “We Shall Overcome,” while reminding us that it was Seeger who helped convey it from a labor song to a signal civil-rights anthem.
“Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season),” a signature hit for the Byrds 40 years ago, was written by Seeger (in collaboration with the Bible), and former Byrds member McGuinn is on hand to perform it as if it had been recorded yesterday.
Mellencamp sings “If I Had a Hammer (the Hammer Song),” a peace song so immersed in the culture it’s hard to believe Seeger could have written it at the dawn of the militaristic 1950s Red Scare.
The concert was a benefit for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an organization Seeger started to preserve and protect the Hudson River and other natural resources. Indeed, the beautifully staged concert (and TV version) takes place on the “deck” of a “boat,” with strings of lights tracing its mast and sails that rise to the rafters of the Garden. This is a vivid representation of the organization’s own vessel, the gaff sloop Clearwater.
The Clearwater and its mission of conservation also inspire a song “Sailin’ Up, Sailin’ Down,” which declares, “The river may be dirty now, but it’s gettin’ cleaner every day.”
Baez sings “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Havens serves up his powerful “Freedom.”
And though he doesn’t sing onstage much anymore, Seeger does what he’s been doing as long as he’s been singing: Leads others in song. Wiry and ruddy-faced in his jeans, cap and bright flannel work shirt, he urges the audience to take part in “Amazing Grace,” heartily assuring one and all, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note, as long as you’re singing.”
The concert ends on a high note with another rousing singalong: “This Land Is Your Land.”
That’s shortly after Springsteen steps on stage to perform “The Ghost of Tom Joad” in duet with Morello, the former Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist.
During his spot, it’s Springsteen who perhaps best puts Seeger in perspective: “a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history ... a testament of the power of song to nudge history along.”
Then, with amused admiration, he adds, “Despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism.” That makes Springsteen chuckle. “And it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in.”
This concert special is convincing evidence. Seeger sails on, like the song says, “catchin’ fish and catchin’ hell,” in his 91st defiant, optimistic year.