At 89, Pete Seeger isn't taking any chances. The folk music icon--he's among the last living links to Woody Guthrie and the labor movement, and has been around so long that he remembers the House Un-American Activities Committee before he remembers the cafés of Greenwich Village--knows that he has to take it easy, to be careful not to overwork himself. According to his tour manager, Seeger hasn't been apart from his wife for more than a week at a time since the 1930s. That's why it's remarkable that for one of only about 10 tour dates this year he brought his banjo, his guitarist grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and the Delta blues singer Guy Davis to Westminster last Friday for a concert before about 500 people at the Common Ground on the Hill festival at McDaniel College. It wasn't the sort of mass exposure that someone with legend status like Seeger deserves, but that wasn't the point.
"I am more optimistic than I've ever been in my life," Seeger says after the show in his dressing room. "In America, there are so many small things going on . . . small businesses, small groups, small nonprofits. It gives me a lot of hope."
Common Ground is, to Seeger, one of those little things that give hope to an old man who isn't content with the state of world affairs. The word he uses is "cross-fertilize"--the festival is a place for many ideas to come together and stew. It isn't exactly clear how the festival, now in its 14th year, is making waves in the outside world, but it's certainly the type of place where Seeger got his start.
"I could have quit singing in the '60s," he says. "But I showed that you didn't have to go the usual route in music. You could go to a lot of college campuses and summer camps and not get rich doing it but have a wonderful time."
And have a wonderful time he did. Onstage at Common Ground, Seeger--rail-thin in jeans, sneakers, and a work shirt--was full of vitality. He threw his head back and shut his eyes, thrusting his neck toward the microphone with each song he sang. And when he wasn't singing lead, he sat and beamed at his grandson or picked out a banjo accompaniment to Davis' blues standards, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and "That's No Way to Get Along." About midway through the first 40-minute set, it became clear that Seeger didn't need to play anything at all. The awe in the concert hall was palpable, and it seemed that the aging hippies who filled at least 90 percent of the seats had simply come to commune with him. He could be sitting or standing, playing or not, and all eyes were waiting for his next move.
The group covered most of Seeger's standards--"If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "My Father's Mansion," and even a bilingual version of "Well May the World Go," sung by Rodriguez-Seeger--but also ran the gamut of nostalgic folk songs, encouraging the audience to join in as much as possible. "This Little Light of Mine" and the encore of "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" were sing-along powerhouses, and at some point it became impossible not to be swept up in it. Yes, it was cheesy--they're cheesy songs, after all--but here were 500 people reliving what appeared to be their most formative musical experiences, together and in public, and no one's manners were ever questioned.
All this is not to say that Seeger's entourage, Davis and Rodriguez-Seeger, were not impressive performers themselves. Davis is a born showman and, though he was the least politically outspoken of the three, managed to work some good one-liners into his stage banter: "My daddy bought me a banjo in 1960, which was exactly the time when a black man didn't need a banjo," and "I've got two little red books at home, but neither of them by Chairman Mao, and one of them is How to Play the 5-String Banjo, by Pete Seeger." And Seeger's grandson, now in his 30s, performed from a range of spirited Latin American activist songs, from Cuba and Argentina, which were presumably the result of his nine years of upbringing in Nicaragua.
At a meet-and-greet session after the show, Seeger moved slowly between tables filled with coffee and cookies, mobbed by dozens who wanted to tell him how much an album of his had changed their lives, or recall to him a 1964 concert in Minneapolis and a single song he'd sung there. After about 20 minutes, a teenage boy, who had been waiting in the wings of the crowd for his chance, finally buttonholed Seeger, pulled a guitar off his back, and leaned in to sing a song to the old man. The folk singer listened intently for a few minutes, then when the song was finished, put his hand on the teenager's shoulder and smiled broadly at him.