When Emmylou Harris was a young girl trying to figure out whether she could have a career in music, she decided to seek advice from the wisest man she could think of: Pete Seeger.
Seeger was already approaching legendary status, while she hadn’t recorded a single tune. Harris was inspired by his integrity, and she’d learned to play the guitar by listening to his classic, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
“I actually wrote him a letter, hand-printed, front and back, I don’t know how many pages, saying I want to sing folk music, but I don’t think I’ve suffered enough,” she said, laughing.
“He actually wrote me back … basically saying life will catch up to me, and encouraged me to be bound for glory. Just hearing from him was one of the most amazing things that had ever happened to me, up to that point.”
Today, Harris will perform at Madison Square Garden in a tribute concert to Seeger on his 90th birthday. The event will also feature Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder, John Mellencamp, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and dozens of others.
It’s an homage to one of music’s most revered voices, a man known for his poignant protest songs and social activism, from the fight for racial equality to labor rights and world peace.
The fervent anti-war activist is credited for popularizing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” His leftist politics (he was once a member of the Communist Party, which he later renounced) got him blacklisted during the 1950s.
But Seeger is not interested in celebrating past achievements. He says he only agreed to take part in the event because it will benefit the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a nonprofit organization he founded more than four decades ago to help preserve the river.
Funds from the concert will help restore the Clearwater, the huge boat Seeger built to draw people’s attention to the organization.
“We need to raise an endowment fund,” said Seeger, who lives along the Hudson River in Beacon, in upstate New York. “I agreed to the concert, although I don’t like big things.”
He will perform one song – but he’s not saying which one.
“No one knows except me. It’s a secret,” said Seeger, whose many iconic songs include “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
Seeger recently released a new album, “At 89,” his first in five years. He played during the inauguration festivities for President Barack Obama in January and performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last month.
But he prefers to sing and strum his signature banjo for children.
“For the rest of my life I hope to sing only for the children … and I like to sing with the kids in the school,” says Seeger, adding: “Kids are the hope of the future.”
The birthday bunch
Actress Ann B. Davis (“The Brady Bunch”) is 83. Singer Frankie Valli is 75. Sports announcer Greg Gumbel is 63. Singer Mary Hopkin is 59. Singer Christopher Cross is 58. Country singer Shane Minor is 41. Actor Dulé Hill (“The West Wing”) is 34. Dancer Cheryl Burke (“Dancing With The Stars”) is 25.
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