As a beaming Pete Seeger bounded across the star-studded Madison Square Garden stage midway through his 90th birthday celebration Sunday night, Thom Wolke looked on in amazement.
“Man,” he thought, “I’d like this much energy when I turn 50!”
Wolke watched from backstage as Guy Davis, the blues man he’s managed for several years, performed at the event.
Davis calls Seeger his “Uncle Pete.” The two met when Davis was a youngster attending summer camp. The upstate Vermont camp was run by Pete’s brother John, whom Davis credits with introducing him to the blues – as well as teaching him to play the banjo.
Davis, and his mother, actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee, who was also on hand, had plenty of company for the evening – a veritable who’s who of the entertainment world.
“It was something out of this world, almost surreal but it seemed to make sense,” says Thom, who runs his Twin Cloud artist management company out of his Plainfield home.
Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Ben Harper were just some of the performers who contributed to the near-four hour show.
The assembled multitude, which also included Hollywood power couple Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, crowded the stage at show’s end for a rousing sing-along of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Even Oscar the Grouch made an appearance, asking folksinger Tom Chapin the reason for the large crowd.
“Pete Seeger is turning 90,” explained Chapin.
“Geez, I thought he was 100,” replied the Sesame Street character. Later, he sang “Garbage” in honor of the occasion.
“Oscar was the most popular celebrity of the whole night,” laughed Wolke. “I asked for an autograph – he ate my pencil, and told me to have a rotten day.”
Seeger shows no signs of slowing down. This summer (on August 1st and 2nd), he’ll headline both days of “George Wein’s Folk Festival 50,” formerly known as the Newport Folk Festival.
Many of those who played at Sunday’s show will be on hand for the 50th anniversary of the festival – Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Del McCoury, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Billy Bragg, Tom Morello and the folksinger’s grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger.
Other scheduled Newport performers include Judy Collins (who will share the stage with Seeger), Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, The Avett Brothers, Iron & Wine, Mavis Staples, Ben Kweller, The Low Anthem, Brett Dennen, Tift Merritt, Langhorne Slim, Neko Case, The Campbell Brothers, Josh Ritter, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Tim Eriksen & Shape Note Singers, Guy Clark, Deer Tick, Balfa Toujours, Dala Girls and Joe Pug.
After drifting away from the folk music mantle – Jimmy Buffett and the Black Crowes were recent headliners – this year’s festival is moving back to its roots.
Seeger was a mainstay at the earliest gatherings. Ironically, it’s also the same festival where, in 1965, he famously threatened to cut the power with an axe when Bob Dylan went electric.