06/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For Pete's Sake

The huge party held just now at Madison Square Garden for Pete Seeger's ninetieth birthday, and to raise money for his eco-project, the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, was fun enough. Slapped together, consisting of one- or two-song appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Roger McGuinn, Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Bragg, and so on, and then recombinant recombinations of these and other performers, the event had an up-and-down impact on the allegedly sellout crowd . (It didn't look quite sold out.) But you didn't really go to see it it for the music. You went to it for the sentiment, and to honor a man whose important role in the life of this nation and in the world of music for the last seventy years won't be fully understood until he's gone.

The high points of this marathon -- it was four hours -- were Richie Havens singing "Motherless Child" and then there was Richie Havens singing "Motherless Child." I would have him sit in on no show that I wasn't ready to allow him to steal and carry away. Dressed in a purple robe, bald of head and long of beard, he was as ferocious and mesmerizing as I've ever seen him. Arlo Guthrie was great, as well, his geniality and ease as impressive as ever, his guitar computer-monitor blue, and his Seeger pedigree stronger than anyone else's except for Seeger's wife and the rest of their family. He led the audience in singing "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep" and "It Takes a Worried Man," with someone whose name I didn't catch performing perhaps the first and last Jew's-harp solo to be heard in the Garden.

The audience was gray but not all gray -- plenty of young people, too. Nostalgia, genuine and wishful, seemed almost as perceptible as the mist from the wood-preserving humidifiers that sent wispy clouds onto the stage. But for all the performers' claims of music's continuing importance to the struggles of the day, and for all the genuine admiration and gratitude that washed over Mr. Seeger during the evening, there was something anachronistic in the air. As someone said from the stage, a union now OWNS a car company. The Internet builds different kinds of movements from those built by audiences gathering on college campuses and with the Weavers in Town Hall singing union songs and "Freiheit" or coal miners singing "Which Side Are You On?" Do you even know what "Freiheit" is? It would make you want to pick up a gun, join the Lincoln Brigade, and fight the Spanish Civil War all over again.

Anyway, it seems to me, somewhat sadly, that group singing, while it certainly helped to galvanize various important political changes in America, the Civil Rights movement prominent among them, will probably not do so again for a long time, if ever. The event did raise a lot of money to help keep the the Hudson River clean, and that is far from nothing. But the pleasures of tonight's concert, while considerable, had an undeniable quaintness about them, like (no doubt) yours truly.