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Appreciations - Still Singing

May 5, 2009; New York Times; Appreciations - Still Singing; by Lawrence Downes.

I saw Pete Seeger Sunday night, alive as you and me. They threw a birthday concert for him at Madison Square Garden. John Seeger, age 95, said from the stage that he expected his 90-year-old younger brother to make 100, which seems reasonable. Standing there, banjo off his shoulder, head thrown back, Pete looked eternal, in that pose so engraved in American memory it should be on a coin.

More than 40 artists, including John Mellencamp, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen, joined in a stage-clogging sing-along. When its four-plus hours are edited down to highlights, from “This Land Is Your Land” to “Goodnight, Irene,” it will be a PBS special made in pledge-week heaven.

I wonder, though, how many of the angry moments will survive.

Will we hear the Native American musicians pleading for support in their battle with Peabody Energy? Peabody is a giant strip-mining company that has been at the center of lawsuits by Southwestern tribes over drinking water and income from mineral rights.

Will we hear the praise for the Clean Water Act of 1972, or the acid remark from one of the Indians: “Ever since that man by the name of Hudson went up that river, it’s gone to hell.”

The evening was, after all, a benefit for Clearwater, the name of an organization and a boat, both built by Mr. Seeger, that have fought for decades to rescue the Hudson River from life as an industrial sewer. The job isn’t done. Remember PCBs? General Electric dumped tons of them in the river. The company is about ready to dredge them out, but for now they are still there, seeping downriver and into fish.

That’s one hot issue. But issues and leftist anger were mostly confined to the first half of the evening. Under a sweet, heavy nostalgia glaze, the show summoned but never lingered on bygone days when folk singing was considered both relevant and dangerous.

Mr. Seeger has walked the walk for so long that he has outwalked most everybody who would ever want to beat him up, throw bricks at him or denounce him as a Red.

He’s “outlasted the bastards,” Bruce Springsteen said. But others will outlast him, and it will be up to a new generation to write and sing songs to fight power with truth. Will they? Or will they close their eyes and sway to “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” forgetting the part of folk singing that was never sweet for its own sake?

“Behind Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly facade,” Mr. Springsteen said, lies a “nasty optimism,” a great way to describe the steel-willed Seeger method, the geniality that others mistake for softness.

Mr. Seeger is “a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself,” Mr. Springsteen said, getting it exactly right.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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