Many of the top names in American music, including Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson and literally dozens more will be performing at the Madison Square Garden 90th birthday tribute to folk music legend Pete Seeger on Sunday.
While the show is a fund-raising benefit for Clearwater, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson River ecosystem, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate the life and work of the guy who co-wrote folk music masterpieces such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and played a major role in the American folk music scene of the mid-20th century that influenced countless young musicians and songwriters.
No one scheduled to be on that stage Sunday night has done more to popularize the work of Seeger than Roger McGuinn, whose band the Byrds took “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to the No. 1 spot on the pop charts back in 1965. By the time of the Byrds hit, McGuinn knew the song well — as well as Seeger’s entire songbook — having played guitar on Judy Collins’ version of the tune in 1964 and having been, says McGuinn, “a big fan of Pete’s since I was a teenager.”
One early McGuinn encounter with Seeger was typical of the artist’s populist political leanings.
“I was a student at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago back in the ’50s, and Pete was supposed to do a big concert in Chicago,” McGuinn tells Variety. “But the concert was canceled at the last minute, so Pete invited all the fans to an impromptu free concert out on a loading dock. He was my hero then and he still is.”
McGuinn also sees the creation of Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as emblematic of the man’s unique mix of deep political convictions, spirituality and hunger to reach the masses with messages of hope and brotherhood.
“Pete’s publisher back in the late ’50s was complaining to him that all Pete was writing were ‘protest songs’ and he was having trouble selling them,” recalls McGuinn. “Pete told him, ‘I have bad news for you. That’s what I do.’ But it did inspire him to look past the protest songs for something else. So he picked up his Bible and found the passage in Ecclesiastes that he turned into the song.
“As Pete describes it, ‘All I did was add a little nursery-rhyme melody to it.’ But you notice that there is a line at the end of the song where Pete got his protest message in. It’s Pete’s words, not the Bible’s, that says, ‘A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.'”
What: Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday
When: Sunday, 5 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
Wattage: Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder, John Mellencamp, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Kris Kristofferson and Roger McGuinn, among many others