In the course of his 75-year career of promoting and enhancing the world’s folk music traditions, Harvard dropout Pete Seeger has become their most vital exemplar. His music is the music of struggle with a beacon of hope at its heart. His influence is unmeasurable. As he walked onto the stage of Proctors Theatre last Sunday, the full house rose in an entirely justified ovation. Had they been asked to go home just then, I suspect they would have been happy merely to have won a glimpse of the 94-year-old icon.
Instead, we got a three-hour concert that also featured Pete’s 78-year-old half-sister, Peggy, herself a troublemaker and an icon. The Seeger family is filled with such folk. But a Seeger concert is about its audience, who are transported from concert hall to living room as they’re invited (commanded, exhorted, cajoled, enticed, conscripted, inspired) to sing.
John Seeger, brother to Peggy and Pete, ran a Vermont summer camp called Killooleet for 50 years before passing the directorship to his daughter, Kate, and her husband, Dean Spencer. The concert was held to raise funds to repair damage the camp suffered from Hurricane Irene, and Kate and Dean joined a small choir onstage at the beginning of the second half to sing Peggy’s tribute “It’s Pete!”
“He’s not onstage with us,” Peggy explained, “because he’d be mortally embarrassed.” For that number only, the instrumental forces included Bill Vanaver and Happy Traum. The rest of the concert was Peggy and Pete.
Pete’s singing voice has diminished to a quavery reminiscence. His playing—on 12-string, six-string and banjo—has simplified. Peggy had to feed him a lyric or two. I was worried, going into it, that his performance would be a shadow, the kind of show you get through by shutting off your ears and playing the old recordings in your head. The voice is gone, but the spark is there, and Pete seemed to pick up energy as the evening progressed. A medium-tempo “Worried Man Blues” started things off with some tentativeness, but the two of them came back with “Wee Cooper o’ Fife” with such fun and such a high degree of conviction that it could have been a Verdi duet.
Given Peggy’s considerable talent as performer and songwriter, I doubt if she could be overshadowed by anyone other than Pete (“Pop,” as she affectionately called him). And her several solo moments included “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” (actually a duet with Pete, who has long championed the song), “Everyone Knows” (a witty tribute to menses and men) and, of course, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” written for her by Ewan McColl, as well as the timeless “Young Hunting,” also known as “Henry Lee,” which featured her impressive banjo picking.
Other traditional numbers included the comic duets “Five Nights Drunk” and “There’s a Hole in My Bucket” and, saluting John Lomax and upstate New York, “The E-Ri-E Canal” (the one without the mule named Sal).
It’s easy to think of folk-music legends like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Alan Lomax as figures from a disconnected past, but Pete hung out with these guys and modestly shared some stories about them, closing the concert’s first half with Woody’s “Union Maid” (a re-lyricking of and the best thing that could have happened to the horrible song “Red Wing”). Pete described Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as “the most extraordinary man I ever met,” and performed his affecting tribute, “Take It From Dr. King.”
Other Pete originals included “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (although he’s quick to credit its co-author) and “Quite Early Morning,” which closed the concert as it swept the crowd into a high point of musical exhilaration. Topped by the encore, another original, co-written with Weavers partner Lee Hays: “If I Had a Hammer.” As if we needed any more reminding that, like the banjo and guitar, Pete and Peggy are ineluctable components of what defines the music that defines us.