Published: November 15, 2007
“It’s not enough to just have rights. You have to use them to deserve them.”
This is one of the opening lines of director Jim Brown’s new documentary, “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” which is now playing in select theatres across the country. This quote, spoken by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, embodies not only the spirit of this film, but also the ideals of its subject. From the opening scene—a series of cuts alternating between Seeger performing and several musicians discussing him—Brown sets the stage for the story of Seeger’s life and the impact he has had on multiple generations. Its clear and concise presentation, as well as the breadth of its content, summarizes the strengths of the film—an inclusive examination of an American folk icon.
As any good biography should, the film begins with an examination of Seeger’s youth—particularly, his family life, where he was immersed in a music-centric environment. Through his college years, Seeger was supported by a strong family foundation, which allowed him to attend Harvard on scholarship. This is where Seeger was first exposed to leftist politics—he joined the Communist Party USA—and was given the opportunity to play folk music with his peers. However, it was not until after he had dropped out of college and served briefly in the army during World War II that Seeger became seriously involved with folk music. It was Seeger’s involvement with the folk groups the Almanac Singers, which also included Woody Guthrie, and later the Weavers, who afforded Seeger his first real commercial success during the 1950s, that got him involved. During this time, Seeger also became an activist in labor rights, civil rights and pacifism.
For these liberal politics, the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) blacklisted Seeger in the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. This segment of the film achieves a perfect flow, tapping into extensive archival footage from both the media and the Seeger family’s personal records. The various anecdotes presented illustrate another strength of the film: the integration of Seeger’s family and personal life into his biography (a quality painfully absent in other recent rockumentaries, such as Peter Bogdonovich’s film about Tom Petty, “Running Down a Dream,” and “Amazing Journey: the Story of the Who”).
It was during this period that Seeger actually had a great impact on future generations of musicans—which included such folk revival singers as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary (all of whom appear in the film). The richness of the testimonies of these various musicians enhances the footage considerably. The artists illuminate what it was about Seeger that is so enchanting—his integrity and indomitable spirit in the face of adversity. After all, a 17-year blacklist actually allowed him many accomplishments—including building a log cabin for his family in upstate New York, writing an instructional book about how to play the banjo and recording 38 episodes of a folk music TV show that was aired on educational TV stations.
The only weak point in the entire film is the sudden fast-forward into the 1980s and 1990s—but at least the film doesn’t lose its momentum by focusing on what might have been a period of inactivity for Seeger. This segment focuses on the much-deserved recognition Seeger finally received for his achievements and his involvement with the Clearwater project, which was determined to clean up the polluted Hudson River. The film makes a point of the fact that even today, Seeger has been seen picketing the Iraq War on street corners like Joe Regular.
Although this is a biography of Seeger, the movie has a greater purpose. Although it was not created by the youth of today, it is designed for them. This may seem hard to believe, since the film is about a singer of a generation past and the primary audience members that were at the showing were elderly, but this is just the point: the youth must learn the lessons their elders have already learned. Released in the midst of a war, in a climate of fear and suspicion, the message of this film could not be more timely and more necessary, and it is this: with conviction and perseverance, an individual can, someday, influence a whole society and overcome the odds.