There are so many rich stories to tell about Pete Seeger, the folk music standard-bearer who died three years ago at 94, that a Kennedy Center tribute concert to him Saturday could barely fit them—and all the artists slated to play. As it was, Pete Seeger and the Power of Song: Tribute to a Folk Legend, produced with the Grammy Museum, stretched on four hours to nearly midnight.
And still it didn’t quite provide a complete overview of the Pied Piper of folk music, whose devotion to causes caused him to be blacklisted for more than a decade. Five years before his death, Seeger sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at President Obama’s inauguration alongside Bruce Springsteen (who of course had his own Seeger-tribute album, band and tour in 2006).
Though he’s played Seeger tribute shows in the past, Springsteen was missing from the show, though many of the more than a dozen acts were closely associated with him, from Judy Collins, 77, who began the show with his standard “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (co written with Joe HIckerson); the surviving fellows from Peter, Paul and Mary, who made a hit of “If I Had a Hammer” and were inspired enough by the moment (and its locale) to sing a couple of new topical songs; and Roger McGuinn, who put his 12 string electric guitar to perform Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” more than a half century ago after he made it a hit with the Byrds.
There were also close friends from the folk and banjo circuit, from Tom Paxton, now 79, who was aided by Seeger adapting one of his early songs, “Ramblin’ Boy”; and Tony Trischka, 68, the five-string ace who made a convincing case of having heard the last song Seeger might have sung on earth.
But it wasn’t entirely made up of performers who were at the retirement age of the audience (One Seeger story had him complaining that he couldn’t sing and play as well when he was older; he was told, “Look at your audience; they can’t hear as well either”).
Indeed, some of the most remarkable performances of the long night—and a considerable part of any future hope for music as a rallying cry for progress—came from younger people. That included the sincerity of Canadian banjo player and singer Kaia Kater, the clear power of vocalist Delila Paz in the New York duo The Last Internationale, and especially the swagger and unpredictability of Luther Dickinson, the lead guitarist of the Mississippi Allstars, who performed as a duo with his childhood friend Sharde Thomas on drums, vocals, and flute.
It was a great swaggering little performance that included a fife and bass drum march around the audience, but largely relied on Dickinson’s peerless licks and spontaneous approach to vocals. Thomas was carrying on a tradition older than the blues—the fife and drum band—of which her father Otha Turner was one of the last representatives.
Dickinson, of course, is son of producer and musician Jim Dickinson, who also played piano on Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans,” we learned from Sarah Lee Guthrie, the Arlo offspring who is also a granddaughter of Woody, performs with Johnny Irion (grand-nephew of John Steinbeck, if you wanted even more pedigree) and told a touching story about Seeger nudging her into her first public performance of “Sailing Down this Golden River” at 14.
If folk music is soundtrack for generations of activist families, it is literally family for a lot of those on stage. Not just Seeger grandson, the filmmaker Kitama Cahill-Jackson, who had the most pointed political remarks to make, but Josh White Jr., son of the great bluesman, who has been recording himself for 70 years (!) and Rosanne Cash, an event headliner, who mused about her dad and Pete trading songs in heaven.
Both Johnny Cash and he had a lot in common, she said: antiwar activists, did jail time and were supporters of Bob Dylan, whose “Girl from the North Country” she sang. Dylan’s name was never mentioned all night, lending credence to those reports that Seeger was fixing to take an axe to the power cord when Dylan went electric at Newport. But his songs were sung, not only by Cash but by White, who did a big singalong to “I Shall Be Released.”
Singalongs were a big thing for Seeger throughout his life, so a lot of the performers got the audience involved, singing along to “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” by Guthrie, Irion, and Dickinson; clapping to the Last Internationale’s “Oh Freedom,” or joining in the full cast finale “If I Had a Hammer” and “This Land is Your Land.”
Not all the highlights were from young people. David Amram at 86 was a revelation. The fellow rider with Jack Kerouac was also a remarkable composer, incorporating jazz into classical music, writing movie scores for “Splendor in the Grass” and “The Manchurian Candidate” and working with artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Langston Hughes.
Accompanying himself on jazz piano, his choices Saturday were rich ones, which Seeger would have approved: Phil Ochs’ “When I’m Gone” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
Many of the songs Seeger sung are still timely, and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and the Guthrie songs on immigration cut deepest, with “Pastures of Plenty,” sung early in the show by Collins, to “Plane Wreck at Los Gotos” sung late by Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, whose new topical songs surrounded the Trump era the way Seeger’s banjo used to say “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.”
For rockers, the great moment came when Roger McGuinn came on in a rakish hat and a 12-string electric Gretsch to ring out one more time “The Bells of Rhymney” (this time with correct pronunciation of the Welsh town) and the indelible “Turn, Turn, Turn,” solo. But the most touching moment may have come when Trischka revealed the last song Seeger sang to him before his final hospitalization. As sung by Carmen Cusack from the bluegrass musical “Bright Star,” it closes with the words, “Through all this world of joy and sorrow / We still can have singing tomorrows.”
Will there be a tomorrow for this performance? Though the programming had the feel of a PBS-meant special, there didn’t seem to be cameras around to capture it all. But as the final show in a trilogy of tribute concerts to folk legends by the Kennedy Center and the Grammy Museum that began with Guthrie and Lead Belly, they certainly found the right guy to salute.
The Set List for Pete Seeger and the Power of Song: Tribute to a Folk Legend was:
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Pastures of Plenty
Both Sides Now
One Grain of Sand
Tom Paxton (with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer)
Well Make the World Go
The Honor of Your Company
The Last Internationale
I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song
Workers of the World Unite
Luther Dickinson (with Sharde Thomas)
Prayer for Peace
The Bourgerois Blues
Glory Glory (Lay My Burden Down)
When I’m Gone
What a Wonderful World
Josh White Jr.
May the Light of Love
I Shall Be Released
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion
Sailing Down This Golden River
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
I Am The Mountain
Blue Skies (with Tom Paxton and Josh White Jr.)
Cindy (with Carmen Cusack)
Quite Early Morning (with Carmen Cusack)
Rosanne Cash (with John Leventhal)
Girl from North Country
Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow
The Wayfaring Stranger
Bells of Rhymney
Turn, Turn, Turn
Peter Yarrow & Noel Paul Stookey
Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
The Children are Listening
If I Had a Hammer
This Land is Your Land