Like many in my generation, I grew up listening to folk legends like Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, and Tom Paxton; Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins. The Kingston Trio, the New Lost City Ramblers, and The Weavers played constantly on my parents' record player. By the time I was seven or eight years old, I knew names like Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Leadbelly… and of course, Pete Seeger.
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is a feature-length tribute to a man who has had much influence on generations of musicians, music lovers, social activists, and people for whom “doing nothing” about our world is not an option. The film, directed by Jim Brown, details Seeger’s life and accomplishments through his music and through anecdotes from his contemporaries in the music scene, as well as those who followed him, including Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers, Guthrie, Raitt, Baez, Ronnie Gilbert (of the Weavers), The Dixie Chicks, and Bruce Springsteen. Seeger’s family and friends, and the man himself, still singing at 85 years old, recall the rich history of the man, his music, and his social activism.
Called by many the architect of the “folk revival,” which catapulted American folk music from the back roads and hill country to the commercial success of the Top 40 radio, Seeger was viewed variously as a patriot and a traitor (depending upon who was doing the viewing).
Blacklisted for 17 years (his triumphant return to television on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is included in the film) after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of Senator Joe McCarthy, Seeger retreated from the brink of real commercial stardom to spreading his love for folk music like a banjo-wielding Johnny Appleseed. Music is a powerful universal language, believes Seeger; it can unify all of the disparate elements that make up America, even the world, in common purpose.
Neither blacklisting nor anything else has deterred Seeger from his tireless efforts to pursue social justice and world peace. From the labor and civil rights movements (he is credited with making “We Shall Overcome” an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement) to Viet Nam (from his stark and stunning “Where have all the Flowers Gone,” to the powerful — and even now, timely — indictment of wrongheaded and arrogant foreign policy, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,“ to his one-man stewarding of the Hudson River Cleanup, Seeger has always merged music with action.
He became the embodiment of the musician-activist; his words and actions have often been as powerful as any political cartoon or op-ed in the New York Times. In the 1970s, Seeger began his tireless (and successful) battle to clean up the Hudson River with his sloop “The Clearwater.” When everyone told him it was impossible, Seeger built the 70-foot sloop, and took schoolchildren aboard her to sing, to work the rigging, to experience the river. As promised to his own children, the river became, once again, clean and (even) swimmable.
The DVD is a wonderful retrospective of Seeger’s career, and an insightful documentary that examines the unity and power created by the simple melodies and harmonies of folk music. My only quibble about the film is that it paints a very saintly portrait of the man, and although Seeger is, to be sure, deserving of every bit of credit given to him in the portrait, the filmmakers have rendered this undeniably complex a man bit one-dimensional. Seeger, the son of scholars, attended Harvard, became a commercially successful entertainer. Yet he eschewed urban intellectual society for a simpler life in rural New York, left his family for months at a time to pursue his musical and activist interests, and maintained ties to the Communist Party well into Stalin’s time. I believe that understanding what else makes Pete tick would render him a no less pivotal figure; no less an authentic American patriot, but would serve to make him human; make him real — as most heroes ultimately must be. It’s a small quibble.
There are several extras on the DVD, which, to be honest is worth every penny, if only to hear all of those wonderful songs emerge from Seeger’s eloquent banjo picking and his clear, rich tenor voice. The extras include several Seeger-produced short films, including “How to Play the Five String Banjo,” “Singing Fisherman of Ghana,” “How to Make a Steel Drum,” “Finger Song,” and “Wrapping Paper.” The DVD also includes three scenes not shown in the theatrical release of the documentary.