peteseeger97copy_fsPete Seeger stirring a massive audience at an anti-war rally in Washington with a rousing rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

Pete Seeger performing “Turn, Turn, Turn” in a packed Yale University concert hall for a benefit for a Vietnamese hospital.

Pete Seeger playing his banjo and belting out “If I Had a Hammer” to a crowd of drenched listeners in a driving rain storm at a benefit for environmental causes at New Haven’s harbor front.

Sometimes in person, often through the tinny speakers of cheap record players, Pete Seeger’s voice and deft banjo picking got major airtime in the soundtrack of my youth.

As I waited to meet his plane at the Atlanta airport one day in the early 1980s, those memories flashed through my mind.

I had never met Pete (calling him Mr. Seeger just doesn’t sound right) but he had agreed to let me ride in his taxicab and do a short interview as he traveled from the airport to the King Center, where he was participating in a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

As we talked in the cab, Pete was polite but reserved. But when we reached the King Center, he did not shoo me off as I expected. Instead, I spent most of the day talking with him and his wife, Toshi, who was warm and funny. Pete was serious and intense but with no pretension. When Coretta Scott King came up to talk, he promptly introduced me to her. He continued to be reluctant to talk about himself but became much more expansive when the conversation turned to other performers, political activism, history and music.

During his performance that day, I joined with the crowd in singing along as he sang “We Shall Overcome.” But most of the people in the audience had not really come to see Pete Seeger. They were there for Stevie Wonder, who won a far more enthusiastic response.

Tonight in New York, however, an audience will be much more focused on paying homage to Pete and his long career as an American troubadour with a big heart.

Today is Pete’s 90th birthday, and a wide array of performers will appear in a concert in honor of the occasion at Madison Square Garden. Bruce Springsteen, who celebrated Pete’s music in the 2006 album, “The Seeger Sessions,” will be there. So will Emmylou Harris who says she learned to play the guitar after listening to Pete’s rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Steve Earle, Richie Havens and Kris Kristofferson will be among the other performers.

As most people know, Pete is as well known for his activism as for his music.  Typically, the only reason he agreed to the birthday event is because the proceeds will benefit the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater project, which he founded to help preserve and protect the river.

Since that long-ago day at the King Center, I have talked with Pete only three more times. Two of those conversations were by telephone. The other came at a reception following yet another benefit performance, this time a concert with Arlo Guthrie at the Atlanta Civic Center to aid the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee.

We exchanged a few brief pleasantries and moved on. But a friend, intending to surprise me with a gift, spoke to Pete after that, handed him an invitation to the benefit and asked him for an autograph that he would give to me later. Pete scribbled out a quote from George Bernard Shaw, signed it GBS, and handed it back to my friend.

“Uh, Mr. Seeger,” my friend said after reading it. “Would you mind adding your name, too?”

Reluctantly, Pete did.

Happy birthday, Pete. And thanks for being who you are.

Footnote: Those of us who miss the New York concert can watch it later this summer on PBS stations.

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Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at http://tartantambourine.com/