It sounds beautifully naïve – the notion that if one man could get everyone in the world to sing together, there’d be a lot less war and animosity among the citizens. Even more foolhardy is the belief that anyone would be willing to try it. But Pete Seeger is not just ‘anyone’. As the founding father of the modern folk movement, as instrumental as Woody Guthrie in bringing the muse of the people to the supposedly sophisticated city streets, he suffered for both his art and his politics. In his time he was both pop star and pariah, a Billboard chart topper who saw his early fascination with Communism cost him dearly. Still, he never apologizes for the roads he’s taken. To Pete Seeger, they’re all paths to one thing – getting people to sing.
From the time he was very young, Seeger was influenced by his musically inclined parents. During a tour of rural regions (where the family tried to bring classical composers to the “masses”), elder Seeger was introduced to traditional folk music. It would soon become a passion he would share with his gifted son. Over the years, Pete grew into a student of sound, working with famed archivists and attending Harvard. But his true calling was performance, and when he began celebrating and recording the pro-union tunes of the Depression era, he instantly found his calling. Over the next 50 years, he would change the way the world looked at folk, arguing for the value in local artists and sound social principles. Of course, his conviction would cost him. No one can stand on their morals for long without being knocked down. But the great thing about Pete Seeger is that he kept getting back up, and at almost 90, he’s still fighting for the inherent force in music.
In a category that is growing in greatness exponentially, the stunning documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Miriam Collection label) brilliantly immortalizes an already living legend. For many decades removed from the fascinating folk movement of the ’50s and early ’60s, this activist artist is perhaps a Dylan-descended footnote, a name they recognize but fail to fully understand the import of. But thanks to director Jim Brown, who previously captured Seeger as part of the equally amazing The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time, allows the man his proper place in history. One cannot walk away from this spellbinding narrative and not feel both proud to live in a country that offers such talents and freedoms and sad for the government policies and blinkered politicians who twisted those tenets into something sordid and evil.
One of the most striking elements of Seeger’s story is his 17 year banishment from the commercial airwaves. Accused of being a Communist by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (and he had been a card carrying member in the past), the “red” stain resulted in an equally shocking color – black (as in ‘list’). While still a viable concert draw, Seeger also added to his troubles by being an outspoken supporter of civil rights. His hatred of segregation and the South’s disgusting Jim Crow laws led to appearances and protests, as well as confrontations with agitators and threats against his life. Yet all the while, Seeger still believed in the command of music. He was certain that if people heard the message and understood the tradition, they’d give up on outdated notions of hate and prejudice.
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is definitely a summarization of the man’s amazing career. Before we know it, he’s working for the Library of Congress, serving in World War II, and turning “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem for Dr. Martin Luther King. As to the latter claim, the now nearly 90 year old is rather sheepish. It’s how he’s been most of his life. Seeger has been at the forefront of many significant changes in our culture, and yet when it seems like time to canonize the participants, his beatification is left for another, not so contentious day. There are moments in Power of Song that show us such late in life reverence. President Bill Clinton (who awarded Seeger the Kennedy Center honor in 1994) speaks of him in sacred terms, while the musician is approached by an older woman in Washington Square Park, her praise of his influence on her life and children almost overwhelming in its sincerity.
With its talking head approach and archival nostalgia, Power of Song paints a authoritative portrait. Everyone from Dylan to Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary to Bruce Springsteen step up to put the man in perspective, and ever the hero, Seeger takes it all in humble stride. We only seem him worked up when discussing his infamous return to TV in 1967. Scheduled to sing his latest anti-war anthem “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, it marked a major return for him. After performing the song (among several), he was shocked to see it edited out of the final airing. Turns out CBS, bowing to White House pressure, removed the segment, the lyrical phrase “and the big fool says push on” viewed as a slam against then President Johnson.
During this material, Seeger seems tense, mortified at a media that, even today, will succumb to censorship for the sake of some ambiguous political goals. He’s saddened to see that his beloved country is still making the same mistakes, and takes small pleasures in providing the impetus to support the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the clean up of the Hudson River Valley. Because of its inability to be totally in-depth, it would have been nice for this DVD to include more contextual bonuses. Seeger’s story is that important. Instead, we get three somewhat preachy ‘deleted’ scenes, and five short films his family made focusing on skill like how to play the banjo and how to make a steel drum. It’s not that these extras have no value, it’s just that with a life as compelling as his, Power of Song could have added several hours of intriguing supplements.
We’ll just have to be satisfied with the film at hand, and in a category that’s seen lots of amazing artist biographies, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is simply one of the best. It takes it subject and his importance seriously while never sugarcoating the complications that brought on many of his misfortunes. Watching him perform “Guatanamera” with his grandson and Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall, voice wispy and faded after 80+ years of singing, we’re reminded of how important and influential he really was/is. Without Pete Seeger, modern music would be missing many of its most important components. And as long as he’s around, there’s hope for a brighter tomorrow. That’s the power of Pete Seeger. That’s the power of Power of Song.