Most 94-year-olds have a storied past. But very few of any age have the rich history that legendary folk singer Pete Seeger has. Sunday night, he presented pieces of his life in stories and song at a sold-out Proctors. Performing with his younger sister Peggy – a mere 77 – the two created a wonderful evening of music, mostly sing-alongs, and political messages.
Seeger is amazingly sharp and capable for his age, standing for many of the songs, strumming a guitar or banjo, and leading the crowd in songs with dozens of verses. At one point in the first set, which lasted an hour, he recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from memory.
The moment he appeared on stage, the packed crowd rose to its feet to honor him with a lengthy and vigorous applause.
Early in the show, he told us he never sang “Turn Turn Turn” until “an electric band made it well-known. I’ve been singing it ever since.” While his sister carried most of the guitar work through the night, he handled this one by himself. The crowd interrupted the song with applause when he sang, “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”
He and Peggy rotated songs. Seeger’s tunes can feel like children’s songs — simple nursery rhymes — that delivered subtle and poignant social lessons. Peggy often used humor to get across her equally clever messages.
“Let’s talk about hormones,” she said after “Turn Turn Turn.” The song had lines like, “you can’t trust a woman . .. every 28 days.” But the men, you later learn, you can never trust.
Seeger sat back and watched his sister sing her song from the ’70s, “I’m Going to Be an Engineer,” which packed tightly numerous feminist issues without naming any of them.
The two sang together the traditional “Worried Man Blues,” with the crowd singing the chorus, starting with “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long.”
A group of string players and singers came out to start the second half, including family members, to sing about Pete while he was still backstage.
They led the hall through a light “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain,” not a song you want to hear at a concert, but Seeger gives it the weight of its history. Think about all the children who have sang this song across the country.
His stories were filled with rich vocabulary and details uncanny for a person his age, including one about a young Rosa Parks, and a side note on the origins of “We Shall Overcome.”
He followed with a ditty about Martin Luther King.
After another hour of playing the second set, he sang his big hit “If I Had a Hammer.”
Music has many uses and concerts can take many forms. Sunday night’s show was less about being entertained, more about using music to create a temporary community, led by one of the century’s most effective organizer of social movement through song.
This was Seeger’s only performance of the year, a benefit, and the end of the Eighth Step’s 45th year. Who would guess that a 94- and 77 year-old, by themselves, can fill a hall the size of Proctors, and deliver an exciting — historical? — night of music.