By Simon Vozick-Levinson
Updated May 04, 2009 at 08:35 PM EDT

Yesterday was Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday, an occasion that meant a lot to a lot of people, myself included. As a kid I attended a summer day camp whose direction he helped guide, and every year we’d go to upstate New York to help the legendary folk singer, peace activist, and environmentalist clear the Hudson River of weeds and debris before joining him in a spirited singalong. Seeger has made many friends over the decades with that inclusive spirit of his. A few dozen of the most famous ones turned out last night to honor Seeger with a birthday concert at Madison Square Garden — which, in typical Pete fashion, was also a fundraiser for his green education ship, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. As you can see above, there were some very big names crowded next to Pete on to the stage, which had been designed to resemble the Clearwater’s magnificent mast and sails. Bruce Springsteen. Tom Morello. Joan Baez. Dave Matthews…

Last night wasn’t really about star power, though. It was about all of us, there in Madison Square Garden and across the globe, and if you think that sounds corny, you don’t understand Pete Seeger. “I’ve been asked to remind you that this music is your music,” Tim Robbins told the crowd early on. “Nothing would make Pete happier on this 90th birthday than to hear your voices rise up in their collective beauty, filling the Garden with a celebration of song.” How could we say no to that? Read on after the jump for more on an amazing night.

Truthfully, we didn’t need Robbins’ encouragement. The entire Garden had already been singing out all the words to “If I Had a Hammer” when John Mellencamp took the stage a few minutes earlier, and we kept singing all the way through the group encore of “Goodnight, Irene,” four hours later. It’s difficult to say which of the moments between those two was the most moving. Was it when Springsteen and Morello conjured up “The Ghost of Tom Joad”? When Roger McGuinn came out to join Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and Tyler Ramsey on “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, the Seeger composition that McGuinn’s Byrds made a hit in 1965? When Joan Baez sang Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, as haunting as it’s ever sounded? When Billy Bragg belted out “The Internationale” a capella? When Oscar the Grouch, the actual Muppet himself, perched in his can in a mountain of trash bags, joined Tom Chapin to decry a world filled with “Garbage”? When Dave Matthews added a little humor to the night with “Rye Whiskey”? When Arlo Guthrie, Del McCoury, U.S. Representative John Hall, and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined for “Mary Don’t You Weep”? When a veritable summit of elders including Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Warren Haynes ripped through “Maggie’s Farm,” igniting hopes that maybe, just maybe, Bob Dylan would do the right thing and make a surprise visit to honor Pete? (He didn’t.)

No, if I had to pick one, I think the most powerful song last night was “We Shall Overcome,” an old union organizing tune before Seeger taught it to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early sixties. Nearly everyone came out on stage for that one — Ruby Dee, Baez, Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, Bragg, Toshi Reagon, Scarlett Lee Moore, Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and probably a few others I’m forgetting. I’m still hoarse from crying out in unison with the thousands of audience members on those choruses.

I’m short-changing some great songs here — “Whose Side Are You On,” “Union Maid,” “Bring Them Home,” “Sailing Up, Sailing Down,” “Amazing Grace,” and of course “This Land Is Your Land” — and I haven’t come close to mentioning all the performers who wowed the crowd. But I could go on forever if I tried to do that. (For a full list of artists, check the concert website.) The important thing is to recognize the unique contributions Pete Seeger has made to this country’s music and culture in the past 90 years. Pete was blacklisted for decades because he dared to stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee; last night, by contrast, we saw a warmly worded birthday letter that President Obama recently sent him. He’s sure come a long way.

During his brief set, Springsteen recalled sitting with Seeger and Obama on Inauguration Day a few months back: “He was so happy on that day. It was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!” In the closing moments of a concert that none of us wanted to end, Pete’s 95-year-old brother John said he believed Pete would make it to age 100. Here’s hoping he keeps outlasting ’em that long, and that we can gather again in ten years for another spectacular celebration. In the meantime, tell me: Were any of you there last night? What were your favorite parts of the evening?

addCredit(“Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images”)

Dave Matthews Band

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