The voice of protest sings on
If the G20 rioters had really wanted to make people listen to their call for an end to global markets and climate change, they should have turned to a man who knows how to get the message across and who is now nearly 90.
It was one of those appointments one had waited so long for and finally it happened, in a church on a Brooklyn corner: Pete Seeger in concert. It had been 16 years since I had run home, barely adolescent, clutching the LP of his concert in the Carnegie Hall on 8 June 1963, the night the American civil rights movement and a subsequent generation was handed down its anthem like an 11th commandment: "We Shall Overcome".
But it was the searing, yearning lines of another song that froze the flesh with insurgent hope that night in Brooklyn and I can still feel Pete Seeger's split tenor pierce the skin when he sang: "O healing river, send down your waters/ To wash the blood from off the sand."
It was a quarter of a century ago, 1984, and Pete Seeger had just reached retirement age.
But this was not nostalgia in Brooklyn: the support act was a young and edgy African-American act called Serious Bizness, singing about race and food stamps, people who would not sing what they sing were it not for Pete Seeger. Like Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Joan Baez, Eddie Vedder, Richie Havens, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal, Billy Bragg and the rest - all of whom will perform at another concert in Madison Square Garden next month, in honour of Pete Seeger's 90th birthday.
We've seen a week of protest in London and Strasbourg, but long before anyone ever used the words "global markets" or "climate change", back in a time of black-and-white Pathé News, Seeger was giving 'em hell.
For many years, Seeger and Woody Guthrie, another critic of corporate exploitation, sang and toured together (though Guthrie was baffled by Seeger when they first met "because I didn't drink, smoke or chase girls," Seeger wrote).
And at the Lincoln Memorial concert on the eve of President Obama's inauguration in January, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen together put aside their own feted songs in favour of America's other national anthem, Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", adding the verse banned in 1942, and hardly ever sung since except by Country Joe: "As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there/ And that sign said no trespassin'/ but on the other side it didn't say nothin'/ Now that side was made for you and me."
Pete Seeger was born in New York in 1919 with red in his genes and folk music in his DNA. His father, Charles Louis, was a musicologist and a driving force in the US Communist party. With Aaron Copland, he had formed the Composers Collective, and he had taken Copland to meet coalminers in West Virginia - where folk and contemporary "classical" musicians were taking up labour and gospel songs sung by strikers - thereby inspiring "Fanfare for the Common Man". Pete would have been happy playing the penny whistle and listening to the conversations.
He won a scholarship to Harvard, but dropped out. He tried to make it as a newspaper reporter, but as a member of the Young Communist League could not find a job. He painted people's houses in exchange for room and board and performed puppet shows for striking dairy workers. Then in 1940, he met two people who would change his life: Alan Lomax and Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie.
Lomax, the great documenter of American folk music, wanted Seeger to transcribe a collection of protest songs for a book, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, with notes by Guthrie (it wouldn't find a publisher for 27 years). Then Guthrie, seven years Seeger's senior, took the younger man to another world, Oklahoma, and - initially together, then separately - they hit the road and radio stations.
A joint appearance on CBS in 1942 would provoke the headline "Commies Try to Take Over the Airwaves": it was the last time Woody Guthrie was allowed to broadcast. While Woody's guitar bore the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists", Seeger's banjos always read, a little more gently, "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender".
Seeger suffered lighter censorship, initially banned from joining in the war effort, but then touring hospitals on Saipan with a quartet called Special Services, serenading the wounded.
Demobilised, he toured New York's "subway circuit" and founded the Weavers. But after a few hits, the group came under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blacklisted. Seeger moved upstate to write children's songs, but was called to testify to the committee. He refused to do so and was convicted of contempt of Congress in 1961, sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. He served one of them and was released on appeal.
By now, in America, his time had come.
To call the 1963 Carnegie Hall concert a launch event for the entwining of the music and politics of the 1960s is no overstatement. It was from there that "We Shall Overcome" moved to Washington six weeks later, sung by Martin Luther King and his marching followers. Meanwhile, among the very many musicians inspired by Seeger was Bob Dylan, for whom Seeger secured a slot at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, only to express distaste for the historic, electric performance the younger singer famously delivered.
When Seeger came to write his autobiography, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, he subtitled it: "A Singer's Songs, Stories, Seeds, Robberies". For Seeger did not so much write songs as pick like a jackdaw at a heritage of gospel, folk, protest and labour union anthems, even slave chants.
"We Shall Overcome" is a blend of two old gospel songs in turn derived from the plantations. He said it himself once: "I swiped things here and there and wrote new verses." This way of writing resounds through his work, in the tone and melody of his songs, to give them timelessness and endurance. One is never quite sure whether songs such as "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" were written decades or centuries ago and the answer is, sort of, both.
In 1994, Seeger turned 75 and there was another round of tributes, awards and accolades, including a National Medal of Arts presented at the Kennedy Centre in Washington. By now, with Bill Clinton in the White House, America had had to deal with sufficient demons to make yesterday's troublemakers today's national heroes. The irony was not lost on Seeger: "The whole situation is hilarious," he said. "I've usually come down to Washington to picket the White House and now I'm coming to get a medal! I'll have to be careful not to shoot my mouth off."
I met Seeger a few years later when he played another night at Carnegie Hall to mark the 50th birthday of Folkways Records, a Lomax creation on May Day 1948 at the insistence of none other than Albert Einstein, who urged him to record Leadbelly. Now, in 1988, Seeger recalled the days when "Woody and I were goin' around singing to striking oilfield workers". He called himself "still a socialist" just as "bombs still come down and kill innocent women and children". But, he thought: "It's going to happen on a local scale, chipping little cracks in the system."
Pete Seeger became green long before environmentalism became mainstream. In 1966, he formed the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, launching a sloop of that name in 1969 - a reconstruction of an 18th-century Dutch vessel - as a campaigning vehicle for cleaning the Hudson in particular and the planet in general. The project increasingly absorbed Seeger, so that when we met again last summer, it was all that mattered.
Summer rain poured down, sadly, on the Corn Festival of folk music and, well, corn, at the riverside town of Beacon. Seeger was chopping wood, for all his frailty, and was absorbed in that. I think I wanted to talk about "bombs still raining down", about Woody, and whatever happened to those unions. Seeger wanted to talk about the ingenuity of his team in devising the right kind of woodwork mesh to create swimming pools in the now cleaner Hudson. "I don't think people can think big," he said.
The music played by Seeger's young entourage was well-intentioned but sanctimonious. Which seemed sad when there was so much good, edgy young folk music to hear: even that night, back in New York City, a boy called Chris Jamison was giving his all at the Bitter End club where Seeger sang in the Sixties, owing no conscious debt to Seeger but echoing him far louder than the coterie upriver, with passionate songs about soldiers returning traumatised from Iraq.
Seeger's mantle still passes through Greenwich Village, with the man himself, approaching 90, on his way - via Obama's inauguration - back to Madison Square Garden for this epic celebration next month.
The Seeger lowdown
Born: In New York on 3 May 1919 to a musical family. His father, Charles Louis Seeger, was a composer and ethno-musicologist. His mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, was a concert violinist and teacher. Seeger went to Harvard on a scholarship but dropped out and moved to New York.
Best of times: The Weavers were formed in 1948 and songs such as "On Top of Old Smokey" put them at the top of the folk revival of the 1950s. Seeger's performance at Carnegie Hall in 1963 and the subsequent use of Seeger's version of "We Shall Overcome" by Martin Luther King Jnr's civil rights movement made Seeger a national treasure.
Worst of times: His life-long membership of the Communist party in America resulted in his blacklisting and the Weavers being disbanded. His appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refusal to answer any questions resulted in his imprisonment for 10 years, though he only served one before release on appeal.
He says: "I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody."
They say: "Pete Seeger is the spiritual father of all of us. He gave a real soul to protest movements."
Jeff Halper, a leader of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions
Notlob note: Although I applaud the author for the article, I detect the editor, like most members of newspaper management, is subliminally spinning the impression in the readers' mind eye via the negative title. Pete is not anti-war as he is pro-peace; he is not a "protest singer" as he is a bearer of positive possibilities.