Farm Aid was positively blessed to have hosted one of the last public performances by Pete Seeger at our annual concert event on September 21, 2013, in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Planning the concert in his backyard, we knew we wanted to invite Pete to be part of the event, and we were lucky that his friends and neighbors reached out to us to make it happen. It was right for Pete to be there -- he was an inspiration to the artists on our board, to the many artists on the Farm Aid stage, and to the family farmers who fight for the same values which Pete stood tall for his whole life.
When we were making arrangements for Pete's surprise performance at Farm Aid 2013, his daughter Tinya, over the course of several conversations, essentially told me the following: Pete is nearly deaf, his voice is almost gone, he can hardly play his banjo and his memory is spotty. But when Pete took the stage, he transcended all that. To quote Ronnie Gilbert, the soaring female voice of The Weavers, "You got the sense that he was saying and singing way beyond the moment that he was in, the place he was in... Everybody got it. Everybody got his passion for music. People absorbed his passion and his ideals."
Transcendent is the best description of Pete Seeger's performance at Farm Aid. As John Mellencamp introduced him, Pete stood straight and tall offstage with his trusty "machine," that long neck banjo. Those of us backstage -- seasoned artists, longtime music industry execs, farmers and gruff stagehands -- stood hushed and reverential in the presence of a hero. When he took the stage the 25,000 concertgoers at Saratoga Performing Arts Center rose to their feet, many with tears streaming down their face, applauding, cheering and soaking in the tangible energy that Pete brought to the venue.
Taking the mic he said, "Friends ... friends, at age 94 I don't have much voice, but here's a song I think you know, and if YOU sing it, why, we'll make a good sound." He began to pluck out "If I Had a Hammer," singing in a low, gravelly voice. But when the time came to call out the next lyric in that trademark way of Pete's that involves the entire audience, his voice swelled and rang clear as a bell. The entire crowd sang along. Earlier in the evening it had started raining but Pete's grin, pure joy and strength warmed the whole place up.
Then the Farm Aid board artists, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews and John, joined Pete for "This Land Is Your Land," which has long been the unofficial song of Farm Aid and our mission to keep family farmers on the land. Pete's added lyric, "New York was made to be frack-free," ("A verse you never heard before," he called it), brought down the house. With these five iconic artists together onstage, each singing and playing with their shared values and belief in the power of music, every singer in the house was part of making history.
Photo credit: Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.
Pete once said, "There's not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands ... The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place." One of those places is Farm Aid. We remain humbled to have been in the presence of Pete Seeger, and to continue his work. We will keep doing what we do, chipping away at the power structure, the inequity, the industrial machine that threatens family farmers, our food system and all of us. For as Pete said, "It's all these relatively little things which are going to save the human race."
Pete Seeger created the current in a river where Farm Aid is one drop -- a river of shared beliefs. Beliefs in the importance of recognizing how connected we all are, in the power of standing up for what you believe, and in refusing to compromise your values, no matter the forces upon you. Like many of the people Pete Seeger sang for, family farmers have long been overlooked as the bedrock of our democracy and the essential caregivers of our land and food.
As we work with our hammer, we'll reflect often on a parable Pete shared with us backstage at Farm Aid 2013 about the sower of seeds. It's a powerful metaphor for the work we do with family farmers. The sower freely broadcasts seeds so they fall where they may in the spirit of faith and generosity. Those that land on good soil, he said, will be fertile and grow, while others remain furled in darkness for now. The thing, I think he meant, is not to have exact expectations for change, but to have the faith to sow seeds widely and let them sprout.
Social change is the cumulative result of this constant sowing, handful by handful, lyric by lyric, person by person. Pete Seeger was a fearless fighter for social justice -- for peace, for civil rights, for workers' rights, for the environment. He is an American hero who makes us stronger when we hear his voice and raise our own.