At 90, Pete Seeger isn’t slowing down

Photo Credit: Thom Wolke
Photo Credit: Thom Wolke

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.

Pete Seeger Carries On

When someone creates a musical Mount Rushmore, Pete Seeger’s face will be on it.

There’s probably not a soul alive who doesn’t know at least one of his songs, like “If I Had A Hammer” or “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” He’s been named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and been given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.  Not many folksingers can make that claim.

David Crosby, who recorded Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with the Byrds, interviewed 50 of his musician friends for a book about musical activism. He says he asked each of them, “’Where did you get this idea from?’ And the first name that came out of their mouths was Pete Seeger.”

Bruce Springsteen devoted an album (“The Seeger Sessions”) and a world tour to the man and his music. After a career that began before World War II, it might seem he’d be ready to relax and enjoy a few tribute concerts – from the audience.

But apart from a pared-back schedule, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Seeger has a new album due out September 30, called (fittingly) “At 89.” Accompanied by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and bluesman Guy Davis, Seeger will perform three shows in the region this weekend, all benefits.

The mini-tour stops at the Lebanon Opera House Friday, and will raise money for the New England Farm Relief Fund, an organization that’s also the beneficiary of Saturday’s (sold out) show at Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre.

New England Farm Relief funds micro-loans for small family farms.  The small cash infusions help them transition between planting a crop and bringing it to market.  Though little noticed, Seeger considers these, and similar community-level efforts a vital part of the nation’s fabric.

“Most newspapers don’t report it because it’s all such small things,” he said recently. “A dozen people here and a couple of dozen there, or three or four somewhere else…Nobody is writing about them. But I think that is the big news of this decade.”

Rodriguez-Seeger says, “My grandpa talks about small organizations being the key to change, the key to making a difference, and I agree. We’ve got too many suits and ties making decisions about what we eat,” he told the Boston Globe last week.   “I think that decision needs to be put back in the hands of local people. We need to get back to a less corporate lifestyle.”

The Lebanon show also benefits the Haven homeless shelter, and patrons are asked to donate a non-perishable item for their food pantry.

Seeger is the sort of “community organizer” who gives sneering critics like Rudy Giuliani night sweats. When he, and his band the Weavers, were blacklisted after the McCarthy hearings in 1956, Seeger fought a four-year court battle to stay out of jail – and emerged unrepentant.

“I still call myself a communist,” he once said, “because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it. But if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail.”

In 1959, he recently told columnist Gene Myers, “I really could have kicked the bucket and 90 percent of my life’s work was done.”

He says his satisfaction came from proving “you didn’t need to make a living by singing in nightclubs, or singing on television or radio. You could sing songs that really meant something.”

In the early 1960’s, while performers like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell picked up his musical mantle, Seeger turned his attention to the issues of the day.  During the civil rights movement, Seeger marched with Guy Davis’s parents, the actors Ruby and Ossie Davis, forging a bond, both of music and friendship, which has lasted a lifetime – Guy calls Seeger “Uncle Pete.”

Seeger later worked for environmental causes and protested the Vietnam War, for which he saved one of his best songs, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

The controversial tune got him booted from CBS’s “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1967, although he did perform it on a later show.  The network had a policy forbidding “appeals for active support of any cause” – a quaint notion in today’s unregulated media world.

In 1966, Seeger created the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a floating classroom devoted to waterway cleanup, which still operates in upstate New York.