On Sunday evening our local PBS station replayed the 2004 “Isn’t This a Time” tribute concert for Harold Leventhal, who brought the Weavers to Carnegie Hall in the 1950’s after they had been blacklisted by the McCarthy red-baiting witch hunt. The show was a family affair. Pete Seeger was accompanied by a grandson; Arlo Guthrie’s daughter, son, and son-in-law sang in his sets. For the last song all sorts of family members came out on stage, and there seemed to be some hope that the music of protest and celebration might carry through to another generation.
What a trip through nostalgia lane. Pete Seeger was 84 at the time of the concert; he’d lost none of his playing skills, and his voice still carried the songs he made famous — even though he momentarily forgot the English verses of Guantanamera. Both Mary Travers and Ronnie Gilbert had canes; Peter, Paul, Fred Hellerman and the rest had aged tremendously. But the spirit, intensity, and feistiness were still there.
I think Gilbert had that stunning contralto voice until the day she died. Nobody ever sang Good Night Irene the way she did.
Folk music fueled the protest movements of the 1960’s, but there is a different quality about this music and these singers than I find in the bitter, angry, nihilistic protests of today. Can you imagine Pete Seeger or Ronnie Gilbert or Mary Travers treating anyone the way the alt-right media treated Hillary during the campaign, or how they treat anyone who opposes Trump now? I can’t.
They’re almost all dead, these protest voices of my young adulthood. I miss them. They were singing for justice, and for inclusion, and for peace — not for white nationalism, religious persecution of non-Christians, and throwing people off health care.
Catch the concert on TV if you can — I’m sure many PBS stations will run it during the current fund raising campaign. Or, I’m sure you can get it On Demand. Most of these singers dedicated their entire lives to the music of social justice, and many of them — the Weavers in particular — were badly treated for it by conservative politicians of the day. But the music endured. Everyone in the live audience, and a lot of us on TV, know the words of every song they sang. That’s a memorable legacy, all these years on.