By Mike Joyce
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Bruce Springsteen was a no-show when the Library of Congress celebrated the Seeger family at Coolidge Auditorium on Friday night, but he wasn't missed. In fact, had the Boss turned up he might have had trouble getting a song in edgewise.
Speculation that Springsteen, who released "The Seeger Sessions" last year and has championed folk music legend Pete Seeger's repertoire on the road, would be a surprise guest at the concert, amounted to naught. But it's not as if the Seegers -- siblings Mike and Peggy, half brother Pete and four generations of kin -- were in need of another singer. In addition to the performers, the capacity crowd was only too happy to oblige Pete and Peggy whenever they called for vocal support, which seemed to occur every other song or so.
At 87, Pete still views each audience he encounters as a choir waiting to happen, though the desire to teach the world to sing seems to have something to do with Seeger family DNA. Peggy asked everyone to "point your voice at your shoes," in order to produce a properly moaning tone for a Mississippi River boatman's song; Pete played conductor, guiding the audience across the signature octave leap that opens "Over the Rainbow." He also amended the last verse of the pop classic so that it would end on an all-inclusive note -- a classic Seegerism.
His late friend Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyric, wouldn't be happy with the alteration, Seeger told an audience that included Senate Majority Leader (and folk music devotee) Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But having spent most of his life tinkering with songs for the greater good, Seeger isn't about to stop now.
Given the setting, there were some formalities. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington succinctly placed the Seeger family's profound legacy -- as musicians, scholars and social activists -- in perspective. Pete later offered a rambling and awestruck tribute to his father, Charles Seeger, a noted musicologist with numberless passions, talents, causes and personality quirks.
Unaccompanied songs with African and European roots colored Mike Seeger's opening set, swiftly evoking a time before the world, as he put it, was "guitarized." You know you're dealing with a serious folk musician when he shows up onstage toting a banjo fashioned from an old wheat strainer. In his solo set and when teaming up with Peggy, Mike used jew's harp, fiddle, pan-pipes, autoharp and guitar to similarly evocative effect.
Obviously enjoying the company and the occasion, Peggy punctuated her delightful performance with amusing ditties and weird newspaper clippings. She silenced the hall with her tender, heart-aching ballad "Love Call Me Home." As for Pete, he's still indefatigable after all these years. He performed alone and with various members of his family, plucking banjo and 12-string guitar, his voice wrapped in the harmonies it inspired on the self-penned "Take It From Dr. King" and other anthems.
By far the most polished and affecting vocal blend was produced by the Short Sisters, a group that includes Kate Seeger, niece of Pete, Peggy and Mike. (Keeping track of family names and ties could give Tolstoy a headache.) The ensemble's splendid harmonies more than compensated for a few microphone glitches during the concert, and like their elders, the women conveyed abiding affection for songs that possess lasting power and charm.
Not surprisingly for a Seeger tribute, the Bush administration inspired some barbs and broadsides; an audience that applauds passing mention of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace's run for the presidency in 1948 is a Seeger kind of crowd. War in Iraq? Blunders in Kyoto? Fish in a barrel.
Still, lest anyone go home thinking the Seegers view the political world without a keen sense of irony, Peggy returned to the stage following the evening's final standing ovation with words to ponder: "The world is divided into people who think they are right."