Reflections on Madison Square Garden
Pete Seeger's 90th birthday in Madison Square Garden, New York on May 3rd 2009, was one of those nights never to be forgotten. One of those occasions when a multi-aged audience of up to 20,000 would be enabled to say with pride to grandchildren and great grandchildren at varying times - be it present or very future... 'I was there'.
We traveled over from Ireland when we received the welcome invitation to come and no amount of Atlantics would have stopped us. To pay tribute to a far off hero who had inspired us down all the years was one thing, but to share the stage with this near and dear friend in the company of his relations and friends was something else. The idea had been resounding like something close to the bells of heaven's door since we had got the word.
There was a sense of rare excitement looking around and chatting with fellow passengers on the crowded bus as we made our way from the Park Hotel on Park Avenue to Madison Square Garden on Madison.
"I have been on many a bus but never one like this," said Bruce Foley, our uilleann piper from Pittsburg. "Would you be the Richie Havens that played at Woodstock?" he asked. "That's me," said Richie, leaning back from the seat before. It was he, alright, and it was Taj Mahal too on the other side and Billy Bragg behind that and Bernice Reagon from Sweet Honey on the Rock behind that. I had met many of these wonderful musicians before, some at The Festival of Political Song in East Berlin many years ago, a lifetime away. Now it was all feeling closer.
Joan Baez was just across from me with her Irish guitar player John Doyle. "Do you remember the time we ran up the mountain behind our house in Rostrevor?" I shouted. "Indeed I do," she smiled, "and will I ever forget?" In truth I had been doing the running, Joan was just walking fast. She still looked fit as a fiddle and beautiful as ever.
This was a gathering and a half. It was like a live and visible re-enactment of that wonderful CD series, "A Tribute to Pete Seeger," produced by Jim Musselman of Appleseed records.
I felt at home in more ways than one. My son Fionán would be playing banjoleen with me tonight and my daughter Moya would sing and play bodhrán. She would also dance a jig which we had constructed around our version of "Little Boxes." One long toothed and generous security man would later remark that she was "the purtiest dancer in the garden since Mohammed Ali."
The kids knew the ones that I didn't know, like John Mellancamp and Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. "Who does Dave Matthews play for?" I asked. "The Dave Matthews Band of course," whispered Moya with kind and daughterly disgust and three syllables on the word 'Dad'. Fionán was talking to Tim Robbin of Shawshank Redemption fame. I knew his father Gilhad played with the Highwaymen who had honoured our concerts with their presence on occasions with Dave Fisher. I looked at the set list again. They were all on board. Arlo Guthrie was there and the McGarrigles, the Wainwrights, The Ungars, Kris Krostofferson, Ani De Franco, Tom Paxton and Rambling Jack. David Amram and Roland Mousa with the Native American Indian Alliance and many more. Bruce Springsteen and Roger McGuinn were around somewhere too. This was a moving history of powerful North American folk music and culture, easing its way towards the centre once again.
Later Emmy Lou Harris would say that "everyone left their egos at the door that night." She was right... Like top coats on a warm night, I felt, because the fire had been well lit and long kindled by the great Fear an ti, the man of the house. For Pete's sake we were there and for the principles we shared with him we would sing and keep on singing. We watched a short video on the big screen between songs of Pete and Toshi getting together, kisses sweeter than wine. What a combination that was and is. Toshi, a little slower on her feet now but her eyes still glistening, listened and looked on quietly with their daughter Tania's son Katama, an award winning film maker. Tao, Mika's son and Pete and Toshi's eldest grandson, was up there too. Some who didn't know Tao said were were amazed at his musicianship, stage presence, and sense of leadership. We Irish ones who knew Tao were not surprised.
Just last Summer he had been to the Fiddlers Green Festival in Rostrevor at an event called The Music of Healing, based on a Pete-inspired song of the same name. There was tension in the room. I had been chairing a discussion between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley's right hand man Jeffrey Donaldson on hopes for the future. Jeffrey had two close relations killed by the IRA. He found it politically impossible to shake hands with Gerry Adams. Gerry had been shot too, by Loyalists. The TV cameras were running. Suddenly Tao was playing the guitar and he was singing, "Where have all the flowers gone?" The crowd were on their feet. So were Gerry and Jeffrey. And they were singing too. Together. People had tears in their eyes. Who cares about handshakes, said someone, If they can sing together then we can live together. It was a magical moment and for many Tao had defined the legacy of Pete Seeger.
I have sung along with Pete's songs in Berlin East and West, Moscow and Washington, Israel and Palestine when songs make something happen that is easier to feel than to define. We all felt it that night in Madison Square Garden and I think we will, always.