On May 23, 1997, legendary folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014) begins a four-day appearance at the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center. He has been lured to the annual free festival upon learning that this year the focus of the weekend event will be labor music. Seeger helps kick off the festival with a Native American tune on recorder and says, "The words of Chief Seattle have gone around the world -- and the example of this festival is going to spread around the world, too" ("This Little Light ..." video). Then he launches into a sing-along version of "This Little Light of Mine." The next day, he joins Pat Wright and the Total Experience Gospel Choir for a celebration of civil and labor rights in the Mercer Arena. About 6,000 people jam the arena and 1,000 more have to be turned away. On subsequent days Seeger performs in a special program of labor music with the Seattle Labor Chorus, formed expressly for this event; joins other musicians for a program called "Great Big Songs;" and performs children's songs by Woody Guthrie on the Intiman Theatre stage.
An Exception to the Rule
The Northwest Folklife Festival -- a tradition at Seattle Center every Memorial Day weekend since 1972 -- was well-known for eschewing name "headliners." However, festival director Scott Nagel (b. 1953) had been trying to lure Seeger to the event for years, because of Seeger's unique stature. Nagel finally succeeded after telling Seeger that the special focus of the 1997 festival would be music from the labor movement, and that a local labor chorus was being formed for the event.
Seeger's management team asked Nagel to provide time for rest and naps for the 78-year-old performer, but from the moment Seeger stepped on to the festival grounds, rest seemed to be the last thing on his mind. Nagel said Seeger was energized by the multicultural nature of the festival, the labor theme, and the sheer scope of the free event:
"He said he had never seen anything like it before -- and that's because there was nothing like it ... A thousand performers in four days! He said, 'This festival is my ultimate goal in life, and you are the only ones who have ever done it'" (interview).
"I Want to Play as Much as I Can"
Seeger had been carefully scheduled for only a few performances, but Nagel said Seeger scrapped those plans. "He said, 'I want to play as much as I can. I want to play all weekend. We won't tell anybody. I'll just go play'" (interview).
The announced performances at the Mercer Arena and at the Mural Amphitheater drew large and enthusiastic crowds. At the former, he performed his signature song, "If I Had a Hammer." At the latter, he led the Seattle Labor Chorus (and the audience) in a version of the gospel song "Amen," with the words "union" and "freedom" substituting for "amen" ("Amen/Freedom/Union" video). The Seattle Labor Chorus would go on to become a permanent organization, open to all interested singers and appearing regularly by itself and with other performers at events around the region over the next two decades.
Seeger also showed up unannounced at one of the smallest outdoor stages of the 1997 festival and did a whole set of "naughty" and risqué songs, according to Nagel: "Send the kids away, this is for you," he told the small but delighted audience (interview). He made up for it on the closing day by performing in a show just for children.
At one point during the festival, Seeger was so swept up in enthusiasm that he jumped up on a stair railing at Seattle Center and slid all the way down, holding his banjo the whole way, Nagel recalled. Later, Seeger showed up with his banjo at the festival's unofficial jam-session site, called Bluegrass Hill, and played along with dozens of local pickers.
The Seeger weekend was a "life-changing experience" for Nagel (interview) and some of the thousands of other people who saw the legendary singer for free. It was also a highlight of the Northwest Folklife Festival's history, and a highlight that as of 2017 the festival had not tried to replicate. After the exhilarating Seeger weekend, the festival reverted back to its typical no-headliner ways.