It was a cold night in Manhattan November 30 as I made my way to Carnegie Hall for what would be the last annual Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger holiday show. Seeger, 94, died January 26. The show was a family tradition that outlasted most of my family, save for my son and me.
As Guthrie, Seeger and youngsters from both families came to the stage, an appreciative audience responded warmly. Seeger used canes in both hands but moved briskly to his chair at center stage. Guthrie announced, “We are going to play Pete songs tonight.” Another warm audience response as Seeger smiled and waved.
Guthrie, with his guitar, and Seeger, with his banjo, sat side by side at center stage. Guthrie sang into his microphone as Seeger sat and sang softly away from his microphone.
Seeger, proudly a lifelong political liberal and devout union supporter, gently strummed his banjo to some of the powerful folk songs that inspired our nation during economic and political hard times including the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the anti-union 1980s, and at other times of national crisis when his voice and banjo helped heal our national hurt.
I first heard Pete Seeger sing as a little boy in civil rights era Alabama in the 1960s. He always had large crowds singing with him, especially when he sang his friend Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
“That man sure can sing,” my dear grandmother, in her thick Southern accent, told me once during a news report on a civil rights rally where Seeger sang loud, proud and clear during the dangerous times that claimed the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Tennessee, Medger Evers in Mississippi and civil rights marcher Mrs. Viola Liuzzo on the dark Alabama highway between Montgomery and Selma in 1965.
There was no mention of our nation’s hard times at Carnegie Hall only the power and comfort of Seeger’s songs. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Goodnight Irene,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Sailing down My Golden River,” and other “Pete songs” delighted the Carnegie Hall audience as we sang along. Pete sang softly from his seat. In my seat, I also sang softly as tears ran down my cheeks and long ago Alabama family memories ran through my mind.
Seeger, in frail voice, offered two stories during the Carnegie Hall holiday show. One was about “crazy English” where he asked humorous questions such as “If a vegetarian eats only vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?” The other story had a social justice message from English history. He spoke softly and the audience hung on his every word and applauded in appreciation.
Guthrie deviated from “Pete songs” to perform his Hobo’s Lullaby album classic “City of New Orleans” on a keyboard. He also performed Ledbelly’s “Alabama Bound,” another song from my Alabama childhood.
When Guthrie suggested they were at the end of the performance, Seeger joined the audience in calling for more. After two additional songs, the two-hour holiday show ended and the legendary singers left stage. Seeger rose from his chair with assistance from the kids, but walked briskly with his canes off stage.
The audience expected only Guthrie would encore with his long anti-Vietnam classic “Alice’s Restaurant.” When both Guthrie and Seeger returned, it was clear something different was in store.
Guthrie took his seat as Seeger stood behind him with aid of his canes and they sang a rousing “This Land is Your Land.” Pete felt he should stand for this song regardless of his weak legs and failing health. I am proud to say I saw his last public performance of this incredible American classic. A standing ovation lasted long after Guthrie, Seeger and their kids had left stage.
At Stage Door a small group of admirers, including me, waited to have a word with the singers. Guthrie had already left and Seeger wearing a bright red knit cap due to the biting cold quickly made his way to his RV, whose rear bumper stickers declared: “War is NOT the Answer,” and “If the people lead long enough, leaders will eventually follow.”
As several of us stood in the cold, Seeger’s driver lowered her window and we had a few precious moments with Pete Seeger. It was a blessing for me to thank him for his music and his civil rights work in the dangerous days of my youth. He gave me something akin to a salute and a smile and that was another blessing that warmed me from the cold.
Former Washington diplomat James Patterson, who attended Alabama’s segregated schools, is a San Francisco-based writer/speaker. Contact him at JamesPatterson705@gmail.com