Pete Seeger: The Power Of Song
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Pete Seeger: The Power Of Song

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For most people music plays an extremely vital part of our lives. We chronicle the major events in our lives by associating them with songs. We can remember the tune that was playing during our first kiss or at our wedding. Specific pieces of music are tired to birthdays, weddings graduations and even funerals. For those of us who were born in the early fifties the music that shaped our lives came around in the sixties. As with most popular music it reflected what was going on in the world around us. To understand our music from then you have to put it into context with what was going on then. This was one of the most turbulent times possible with society in upheaval. You could not turn on the TV or read a newspaper without coming across stories about protests. There were marches to demonstrate against the unfair laws of segregation making the black population into second class citizen. There were still the remnants of struggle between unions representing the workers and the companies that virtually owned their lives. Finally there was the war in Viet Nam and the draft that sent young men off to the jungles of a distant country. May of the songs that were popular with the teens and young adults were folk songs. These were not the old style little ditties that grandmothers would sing to the kids, they were songs of protest. One name stands out from this time of our youth, Pete Seeger. He has been a force of nature providing a voice against any perceived form of injustice for almost sixties years now. The accomplishments of this man are now the subject of a documentary by Jim Brown called ‘Pete Seeger: The Power of Song’. The title is extremely fitting since Seeger lived by this simple phrase. He attacked the powerful giants of our society with lyrical songs that caught on fire with the public. This is an amazing film about an extraordinary man and his music.

Like many of my generation I had the privilege of seeing Mr. Seeger in a little coffee house venue in Greenwich Village. For a bunch of students who more frequently attended concerts of the ‘Grateful Dead’ or ‘Hot Tuna’ it may have seemed strange to listen to a man with a banjo and scraggly beard. His voice was strong and resounded through the little café. More important than that the lyrics spoke a truth that cut through everything else and profoundly touched all in attendance. As I started to watch this documentary memories like this came flooding back after so many decades. It was as if I was there again listening to this gentle and dedicated man. Brown has done a fantastic job of capturing not only the man and his music but also the impact he has had on the generations of people who were touched by them. His music was the perfect blend of entertainment and deep meaning. His lyrics cut to the bone but did so in such a delightful way that it was impossible not to get caught up and sing along. Brown struck a similar balance with the presentation of this man’s life. There are the standard talking head interviews and some old footage included but what matters is the many musical numbers shown. Brown realized that it was impossible, even criminal, to try to separate the man and the music. They were and remain one. Seeger was a man who put it all on the line to speak out against any and all wrongs in our society and he used his innate musical abilities to do it. Brown recognizes this and shows Seeger’s life through that music.

The film begins with a black and white clip, a close up of Seeger singing ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. As he sings he tells the audience that he can’t hear them entreating them to join in. This was not a man who put on concerts for the audience to sit back and enjoy. When you went to see Pete Seeger you were pulled into the show; it was an experience not a passive event. By the time the next chorus comes around you can hardly hear Seeger over the combined voice of the crowd. The first talking head interviewed is Bob Dylan extolling the ability of Seeger to get a crowd of people involved not only with the music but more importantly the message. Then we hear from a more recent singer songwriter who found herself in trouble for saying what was on her mind, Natalie Maines. For her Seeger represented the First Amendment right of free speech; he lived it no matter what the consequences. Although never a formal member of the Communist party Seeger was black listed in the fifties and sixties for his left wing stance on most issues; barred from radio and television for almost two decades. He was on the controversial ‘Smother’s Brothers’ variety show on CBS singing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ at the most intense part of the Viet Nam war. He was a man who would not be silenced.

Some have complained that this documentary is a puff piece that paints the man as a saint. The thing is there few true heroes that have walked among us and this man was one of them. Even if you don’t agree with the many causes he took on you have to admire the dedication and conviction Seeger held. There is an old saying ‘for evil to prevail all that is needed is for a good man to remain silent’. This never pertained to Pete Seeger. Many of his songs have become part of our collective social consciousness. His folk version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ became the anthem for the civil rights movement. Other songs like ‘If I Had a Hammer’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ and ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ where sung at every anti-war rally of the sixties. Not only was Seeger the favorite of these causes he had his share of hit singles. With the Weavers they topped the charts with the African folk song ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. There is even a scene here with Seeger leading a group of young children in a rendition of ‘This Land Is Your Land’. Over the last sixty years all musicians who use their songs to fight for what they believe owe a debt to Pete Seeger.

Yes, this film is highly complimentary to Seeger. Considering the stature of the man and his reputation such high praise is more than well deserved. There is one scene here that shows a grandmother in Washington Square Park here in New York City rushing up to see Seeger. It feels like a ‘tween who has just spotted Hannah Montana a few feet away. It must have been many decades since she first heard the music of Seeger but for her the thrill was as real and strong as ever. This documentary shows a complicated man who spoke through simple music. There are no hidden meanings in his songs they tell it like it is. This is an important film to see and own. It is a treasure and represents a large segment of not only the history of our nation but for many of us it is a huge part of our youth. Brown does an incredible job here and considering the subject this film is a tribute that is long overdue.

The DVD is from Genius Products in association with the Weinstein Company. It is presented in anamorphic video with Dolby stereo audio. There are also a nice selection of extras including three additional scenes and five short films made by the Seeger family. This is one that needs to be in your collection and shared with the entire family.

Posted 08/02/08

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