Dan Bricklin's Web Site: www.bricklin.com
A New Feeling at a Concert
The change brought about by new technology as felt during the Pete Seeger 90th birthday concert.
I had the good fortune to be able to attend the Pete Seeger 90th Birthday concert to benefit clearwater.org. The concert was Sunday evening, May 3, 2009, and took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Though I've attended many concerts over the years, from the Boston Symphony to the Rolling Stones to Woodstock, it was in many ways a quite different experience.

As I pieced together the different themes in my new book, Bricklin on Technology, two major ones were how people communicate and interact with each other and the evolution of such things, especially through the use of technology. That made me very sensitive to some of the new feelings I had during the concert. As I do periodically on my blog and web site, I'll try to record those feelings to remember in the future and to share with others.

Back in 1957, Pete Seeger, the longtime folk singer and activist, was a link in the chain that brought the song "We Shall Overcome" to the Civil Rights movement. In my book I link to this quote from him:

"This song was originally one of two African American Spirituals: I'll Overcome Some Day or I'll be All Right. In 1946, several hundred employees of the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, South Carolina were on strike. They sang on the picket line to keep their spirits. Lucille Simmons started singing the song on the picket line and changed one important word from "I" to "we". Zilphia Horton learned it when a group of strikers visited the Highland Fold School, the Labor Education Center in Tennessee. She taught it to me and we published it as WE SHALL OVERCOME in our songletter, People's Songs Bulletin. in 1952, I taught it to Guy Carawan and Frank Hamilton. Guy introduced the song to the founding convention of SNCC (student non-violent Coordinating Committee) in North Carolina.

    "I started singing 'We Will Overcome' all over the country. I'd go to California or Chicago and I'd lead it but I didn't have that good a voice. I just gave it a banjo accompaniment. Chica ump chica ump...That's probably the way I sang it to Martin Luther King just six months after he won the bus boycott in 1957...I sang it for the crowd. The next day, driving back to Kentucky for a speaking engagement, King said, 'We Will Overcome'. That song really sticks with you, doesn't it?"

Here we see how people molded a song to meet their needs, and how it was communicated from person to person by singing and by publication in a special interest newsletter.

You can imagine those early protest rallies. There was a feeling of camaraderie among the participants, but they probably felt on their own like scouts in a foreign land. Once a song, especially "We Shall Overcome", became popular in that movement, while singing it they probably felt a connection through the song to other times when they sang it and maybe even to all the other people they may think could be singing it at the time. Still, that's not too many people.

At Woodstock, I remember hearing Richie Havens and many of the other performers. After attending many rock concerts with a few thousand or maybe tens of thousands of people, the hundreds of thousands at Woodstock gave you a whole new feeling of community. (Needing to huddle under sheets of plastic in the rain and mud together with friends and strangers sharing food made the "together" feeling even stronger.) Still, it was limited to those of us on that farm in upstate New York. I think if you waited in line for an hour or more you might have been able to get to a phone to call out, but I remember being quite cut off from the rest of the world.

The Seeger 90th Birthday concert was different. As I waited in line for them to open the gates, I used Twitter to send out a tweet: "waiting to get into MSG for the Pete Seeger 90th Birthday concert". I searched on Twitter for "seeger" and found that most of the tweets were "Happy Birthday Pete!" (the concert was apparently on his actual birthday), but a few were from others who were going to attend. Just a few minutes later I got a reply from Larry Magid, who lives in California: "@DanB Would love to go to Pete Seeger's concert. Is he performing. Looked good at inauguration concert." Whoa. That was something. Larry is a reporter I know who does work for CBS News and others. I don't see him too much, but I had spent some emotional time visiting him when I was stuck in California in the days after September 11, 2001. (I chronicled some of that on my blog.) Here I was connecting back to him. I quickly replied with information I had learned from reading the tweets in my search: "@larrymagid He's listed on the program (with 40 others - http://seeger90.com) so we'll see" and "@larrymagid Local PBS is recording Seeger 90th concert to show later this summer." Dave Marshak retweeted my original tweet. I felt like there were a few other people in our group waiting to get in.

During the concert I tweeted a few observations between acts. Some were retweeted. One person in Colorado sent a tweet thanking me for my reports. There were over 40 performers (including Richie Havens doing a song he played at Woodstock), each doing only one song apiece or appearing in groups, and from our vantage point it was hard to keep track of who was who. Luckily some other people in the audience were tweeting act-by-act with details which helped us know more about what was going on. I could read reactions from other people who were reading all those tweets.

Here's a photo:


When the U.S. president was mentioned there was cheering (I tweeted that and it was retweeted). A letter was read from Obama wishing him happy birthday. What a change from those early days of protesting for civil rights in so many ways.

Finally, near the end, most of the performers, including Pete Seeger, came out on stage and we all sang "We Shall Overcome." It was so moving given all of the history.

To me, it felt even better than I would have imagined. I've sung along with songs in huge venues before. This time, looking out over the 20,000 other people, I could feel an additional live connection out to all the others who were cheering us on through Twitter, text messages, and more. It wasn't one-way, as if they were watching on television. They were interacting with us. Sitting up there near the top of the Garden, I didn't feel at the border of a big group in the arena. I felt like a part of a group that extended out into the ether, into the hands of my friends and others around the world. I felt like I was hearing comments not just from people next to me but from all over the arena. I also felt the connection through time to all those who sang that song praying for a moment like this and the developers who built the tools we were using. I could smell something in the distance being smoked by some old hippies, but who needed that? Twitter and my friends around the world helped me get even higher than I could have imagined.

-Dan Bricklin, 6 May 2009

See also: Turning Inspiration Into Our Own. In that essay I mainly refer to communications during bad times. The Seeger concert was additional example, with a good time.

Also: What will people pay for? for an early discussion of people using technology to reach out to others.

Both of these are in my book.

-Dan Bricklin, 6 May 2009

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