ASTORIA — For Joseph Stevenson, singing the protest anthem “We Shall Overcome” has more than musical significance.
The longtime Astoria resident remembers vividly a day in 1961 as a Freedom Rider battling Segregation laws in Texas when he was arrested in Houston.
“We were traveling to jail, handcuffed in a police wagon, when we started singing,” he recalled. “It gives you strength. It gives you courage.”
“We Shall Overcome” — which Stevenson and his activist comrades sang that day — will be on the setlist for The “Pete Seeger 100th Birthday Tribute Concert and Singalong.”
The event will take place at the Clatsop Community College Performing Arts Center, 588 16th St., in Astoria 7 p.m. May 4. The concert, one day after Seeger’s birthdate, is a fundraiser to help preserve the PAC as a performing venue.
About 40 members of the folk community, led by Stevenson and Unitarian minister Kit Ketcham, celebrated Seeger’s 99th birthday with a concert last year.
Stevenson had feared promoting it as a “singalong” would diminish attendance; he happily admits he was wrong. “People came and they sang their hearts out,” he said. “The last song, the whole audience were on their feet singing.
“It taught me about the power of his spirit, because Pete could do that. Pete knew that singing together was the best medicine for the aches and pains of a troubled world, and last year we proved that it can still happen — even after he’s gone.”
Seeger died in 2014 aged 94 after a career in which he wrote or made famous the anthems which accompanied protests which changed American society in the 1960s and thereafter.
He began his musical career in the 1940s, and as a member of the Weavers was blacklisted during the infamous McCarthy era. During the 1960s, his music inspired peace-focused protests during the Civil Rights Movement and against the Vietnam War.
Sailing his sloop up and down the Hudson River in New York state in an individual anti-pollution protest took advantage of his celebrity status. Federal regulators noted his actions brought attention to serious issues. He also sparked broader interest in the environmental movement in the 1970s and beyond.
Stevenson, 76, moved to Astoria in 1964 and has been active as a musician and theater enthusiast for decades. The retired nurse especially enjoys the way succeeding generations have savored Seeger’s children’s songs. He will perform one, “Mr. Rabbit,” as well as leading “We Shall Overcome.”
“For a lot of us, he had a huge influence on our musical lives,” he said. “People heard him or learned from him.”
The concert sees the return of the Brownsmead Flats and the Clatsop County String Band. Jerry Middaugh and Joanne Rideout (as “Perspicuity”) will perform “Deportee,” a 1948 Woody Guthrie song with resonance in today’s climate of federal immigration raids.
Margaret Frimoth, Dinah Urell, Bob Lennon, Hobe Kytr, Ray Raihala and Dave Ambrose are also featured, plus an ensemble of 10 singers. The narrator again will be Jim Dott.
Working with Stevenson to coordinate the event is Ketcham, pastor at the Pacific Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Astoria since 2013. Seeger was a Unitarian and Ketcham had staged a similar event in her parish on Whidbey Island, Wash., in 2009 during the Obama years.
She, Stevenson and Larry Moore will perform “Guantanamera,” in part as a tribute to Astoria musician John Snyder, who died in September. Snyder performed the Cuban ballad last year.
Ketcham said she is even more excited this year. “Last time, I didn’t know if it would fly,” she said. “It was like magic. The (Brownsmead) Flats stood on that stage and started playing ‘If I Had a Hammer.’ The whole place was galvanized.”
One musician joining Stevenson singing “Mr Rabbit,” will be KMUN radio broadcaster and folk performer Susie McLerie. She came West from New England in what she fondly describes as the “hippie invasion,” landing in Astoria in the 1970s after a few years in the Bay Area.
She did not know Seeger, although her sister did. “I went to hear him in a concert in Portland once about 20 years ago at a high school auditorium,” she recalled. “It was packed. And someone performed sign language for all the songs.
“Pete influenced everyone of us, directly or indirectly. His love for life and children, and hope for peace in our future, was his indelible legacy.
“My brother-in-law used to criticize his idealism, saying music and politics should be separated. But Pete managed to combine them well in his songs.”