If you like folk music, if youâ€™re interested in 20th century American history, if youâ€™re student of social change or if you just want to enjoy an exceptionally well-made documentary film, youâ€™ll want to see Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. I had the pleasure of seeing this new movie at the opening night of SilverDocs, a nonfiction film festival sponsored by the American Film Institute and Discovery Communications, and a full day later, the story, music and images are still swirling around my head.
Seeger, who is 88, is an authentic American hero. An political activist, a gifted singer, banjo picker and teacher, Seeger found his way to the right side of every big social divide of the half century: He stood up to McCarthyism at great personal cost, he lent his voice to the civil rights movement, he was a courageous opponent of the Vietnam War and he was an early and ardent environmental crusade who did as much as anyone to help get the Hudson River cleaned up. Seeger was briefly a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s but, to hear him tell it, he joined because he part favored racial equality and labor unions, as the party did.
I feel a personal connection to Seeger because I grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., where Seeger brought his sloop, the Clearwater, to Croton Point every year for a festival to promote the river cleanup. (Long before GE did, I must add.) Seeger was also a member of The Weavers, a 1950s folk group, with Lee Hayes, who had a home off Mount Airy Road, where my family lived.
I learned a lot about Seeger from the movie. His parents were musicians who set out to bring classical music to small-town America; instead, they fell in love, as he did, with native American music traditions like bluegrass. He went to Harvard on a scholarship, then dropped out to take a job in the National Archives where he met Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie. He wrote anti-Hitler songs during World War II, and sang “We Shall Overcome” for Martin Luther King, who made it an anthem of the civil rights movement.
In this age of celebrity, Seeger stands out because he never really sought the limelight. A successful “performance,” he says, is one where he can get the entire audience singing. That’s one reason he seems to take particular pleasure in singing for children. He says: “I guess itâ€™s almost like a religion with me. Participation. Itâ€™s whatâ€™s going to save the human race.â€
Since this blog is about Corporate America, it must be said that the entertainment and television industries do not perform well in this story. Seeger and the Weavers had a chart-topping hit, “Goodnight Irene,” in 1950, but afterwards he was kept off radio and television, blacklisted, for 17 years, for refusing to answer questions before Congress. Much later, during the Vietnam War era, he was invited onto The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour where he sang the anti-war song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” CBS edited the song out of the show before it was broadcast. An uproar over censhorship ensued, after which Seeger was invited back onto the network and permitted to sing the song. It’s one of the highlights of Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, which, trust me, is not to be missed.