BWW Review: Stars Shine for Lyrical Tribute to Music and Legacy of Pete Seeger at Kennedy Center
For one night, folk music legend Pete Seeger's legacy in song was celebrated by a diverse array of musical talent. The Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage held a who's who including multiple Grammy winners, living legends and up-and-coming artists performing in tribute to the singer and activist Pete Seeger.
Hosted by Larry Groce of National Public Radio's MOUNTAIN STAGE, the long and satisfying evening was officially entitled Pete Seeger AND THE POWER OF SONG: TRIBUTE TO A FOLK LEGEND. No frills, no fuss, just great music performed with the same simplicity and power Seeger was known for during his own long career. Surprisingly, the songs performed were not just folk standards or traditional tunes; a number of brand new songs were included, pointing even more to Seeger's legacy living on in artists old and new writing songs that tell poignant stories and comment on the current state of affairs. (More on that later.)
Several artists wielded banjos, Seeger's signature instrument, reminding the audience of the instrument's range of expression, especially in the hands of skillful pickers such as Tony Trischka, renowned as one of the most influential banjo players in the world. Trischka took to the stage playing the Irving Berlin standard "Blue Skies." Later he was joined by soprano Carmen Cusack for the traditional folk song "Cindy, Cindy" and the Arlo Guthrie tune "Quite Early Morning." Broadway fans may remember Cusack as the star of the short-lived musical BRIGHT STAR (by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell). Her soaring voice was right at home with Trischka's rollicking banjo.
Young Canadian born Kaia Kater was another banjo player and vocalist who took the stage with an expressive rendition of Seeger's lullaby tune "One Grain of Sand," sung a cappella and with a sonorous alto voice. She also introduced a new song, "Rising Down," an anthem about the struggles people of color continue to face, accompanying herself on the banjo.
Another group that skewed younger was The Last Internationale a New York-based band consisting of singer Delila Paz and guitarist Edgey. They certainly looked edgy - hip black wardrobe - but their songs were in the strong tradition of folk story-telling and concerns for the working class and the faded American dream, as evidenced in their fiery song "Workers of the World Unite!" Paz's expansive and soulful voice also made a strong impression with the old Mahalia Jackson song "I'm Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in My Song."
For the traditionalists, such legends as Judy Collins and Tom Paxton brought their years of experience to their sets, proving their voices and the spirit of their music still has power. Collins opened the evening with "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Both Sides Now," singing in her unmistakable voice, surrounded by her cascade of white hair. Collins got the crowd singing from the very beginning and the audience had plenty of chances to sing-along throughout the nearly four hour concert. Collins shared several personal stories of her close friendship with Seeger and the memories she shared with the late legend, who passed away on January 27, 2014, at age 94.
Tom Paxton was joined by two other folks music specialists, the duo Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. Playing a variety of instruments, Paxton, Fink and Marxer shared "Well May the World Go," Thank You for the Honor of Your Company," and "Ramblin' Boy," a song he first recorded in 1963.
Grammy winners Roseanne Cash and John Leventhal brought forth "North Country," the old Carter family tune "Bury Me Beneath the Willow," and another standard, "Wayfarin' Stranger." Another singer with a family connection to Seeger and other folks legends also took the stage: Sarah Lee Guthrie. She is the daughter of Arlo Guthrie and granddaughter of Seeger's friend and mentor, Woody Guthrie. Performing with her husband Johnny Irion, the duo harmonized on "I Was Never Alone," and a new song they wrote, "I Am This Mountain."
Roger McGuinn, of the Byrds, brought his own personal stories and renditions of two signature songs: the Seeger penned "Turn, Turn Turn" and "The Bells Of Rhymney." Multiple-instrumentalist and musician David Amram took the stage to share the late activist and topical singer Phil Ochs' "When I'm Gone." The composer (film scores such as SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) and musician shared a few stories about Seeger, including his love for Louis Armstrong's late career song hit "What A Wonderful World," which Amram warbled and played on the piano.
As the evening wore long, two living legends took the stage to close out the tribute to their late mentor and friend. Walking into the spotlight arm in arm, two thirds of Peter Paul and Mary entered to a rousing ovation. Still performing together (and separately) years after the passing of their former partner Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey introduced themselves with the traditional "600 Miles" and Woody Guthrie's "Deportees." Speaking to the enthusiastic audience, Yarrow talked about the contentious election season of 2016 and the heated rhetoric which permeated the airwaves. He then introduced a new song in response to the volatile rhetoric, "The Children are Listening," warning against bullying language and hate-speak. Yarrow was not the only one to respond to current events. Rather than sing yet another of their greatest hits, Stookey took to the microphone to introduce a song extolling all the things he will not work together to eliminate or compromise on in the present: affordable health care, the rights of immigrants, reproductive rights, Muslim Americans, education, and many other issues in the spotlight.
Several times during the evening, the quote Seeger emblazoned on his banjo was
mentioned: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." Kater and the other artists who graced the stage Saturday night certainly continue Seeger's work, touching hearts and minds through the power of song. Stookey and Yarrow, along with other artists, keep the traditions of Wood Guthrie and Pete Seeger alive not just by singing the traditional favorites, but writing and sharing new music and pointed lyrics just as they have for many years.
The evening ended with the entire roster of singers and musicians returning to the stage for a rousing sing-along version of "If I Had a Hammer" lead by Peter and (Noel) Paul. From what I could tell, Pete and Woody were singing along too.
If you missed this evening, co-sponsored by the GRAMMY Museum and the Kennedy Center, look out for a broadcast of Pete Seeger AND THE POWER OF SONG: TRIBUTE TO A FOLK LEGEND at a later date.
Follow Jeff Walker on Twitter - @jeffwalker6