John Stars at Pete Seeger's Birthday Bash

John has been a big part of many big events, most recently the superstar-studded "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial that kicked off President Obama's inauguration festivities in January. Even then, no event was bigger musically and politically than yesterday's "The Clearwater Concert: Creating the Next Generation of Environmental Leaders" show at Madison Square Garden, which celebrated Pete Seeger's 90th birthday while raising money for his Hudson River Sloop Clearwater non-profit organization (created to defend and restore the Hudson River).

The concert featured scores of music luminaries spanning Seeger's immensely influential career as a folksinger and political activist. Going back the furthest were like-minded folkies Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott , Richie Havens, Tom Paxton and Taj Mahal, legendary singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, the famed singer/organizer of the 1960s Civil Rights era and founder of the African-American female vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle joined John in representing the generation who grew up in the '60s listening to Seeger's songs and following in his footsteps as politically committed musicians, with Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti, Rufus Wainwright and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello representing the younger artists who are carrying on Seeger's legacy.

After the Native American Indian Cultural Alliance of a dozen or so Native American musicians perfectly kicked off the proceedings by tying in Seeger's environmental efforts with their own earth-centered traditions, John came out and set the bar high for everyone who followed.

"We're all honored to be here tonight to sing this man's songs and pay tribute to him and all the struggles he's gone through in his life," John said after marveling at Seeger's age-and remarkable endurance. He then played a solo acoustic guitar version of "the very first song I learned to play," Seeger's classic anthem of justice and brotherly love "If I Had a Hammer." John easily engaged the sell-out crowd into singing along, and followed it with a song he wrote "after listening to a bunch of Pete Seeger songs," "A Ride Back Home."

"Without Pete's inspiration, I don't' think anybody here would be a musician," he said. Later, at Seeger's request, he joined the new nonagenarian in the press room backstage. There John spoke about Seeger's courage in fighting for his beliefs throughout his career-prompting Seeger to recall the notorious anti-communist (and anti-black and anti-semitic) Peekskill Riots that took place just north of Peekskill, N.Y., in 1949 following two concerts featuring black actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson.

Seeger recounted an incident following the second concert, when rocks were thrown at the car carrying Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Seeger (Seeger and Hays were members of the pioneering folk group The Weavers, who had a huge hit that year with folksong giant Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene"), Seeger's wife Toshi and their infant children.

"You made it easy for guys like us," John said. For his part, Seeger recalled watching John sing at the Lincoln Memorial concert (Seeger performed there, too), and pointed out that one of Leadbelly's last concerts took place in Bloomington.

John returned to the stage to join the entire line-up on Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," singing next to Kristofferson (whom he played with on Elvis Costello's "Spectacle" program) and dancing off with Baez (who duetted with him on "Jim Crow") and Guthrie's daughter Nora Guthrie.

The concert was recorded by PBS for late summer airing on its "Great Performances" series.

jim bessman

If I Had A Hammer Live At The Pete Seeger 90th Birthday Celebration

A Ride Back Home Live At The Pete Seeger 90th Birthday Celebration