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Pete Seeger: The Power Of Song

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Sep 28, 2007
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Pete Seeger: America’s voice and conscience
Pete Seeger: America’s voice and conscience  (Source:Concert Productions)

A musician friend tells me that Pete Seeger is "the Stevie Wonder of folk," and after seeing Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, I know what he means.

As this documentary makes plain, Seeger is also the John Lennon of the folk genre.

Family and friends (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen) talk to the camera about Seeger, and Seeger himself is a vibrant presence in the film. As the archive footage unspools and tunes like Turn, Turn, Turn, and If I Had A Hammer play, it becomes obvious that Seeger is far from a counter-cultural force; he’s part of the American bedrock.

Seeger has written, re-written, or popularized songs that you know, though you might not know he was behind them. And the rubric of "folk singer" may be appropriate for Seeger, but it is not the sum total of the man, though his wife and children must have thought so sometimes, given how often he was away on the road.

But Seeger is more a walking conscience than a singer. That his message is delivered in song may be part of the message itself, but Seeger is not out to be a star, certainly not a rock star. He simply wants to stand up and ask people to live as their best selves.

That’s a dangerous way to make a living, and given that Seeger ran afoul of the McCarthyist communist hysteria of the 1950s, with his group The Weavers getting blacklisted and Seeger himself being monitored by the FBI, Seeger almost was not able to make a living. As one interviewee points out, Seeger ended up singing for children for his supper--and in the process, he created a whole new generation of folk music lovers.

The film traces Seeger’s early life as a young musical talent and "showoff" who earned the sobriquet of World’s Best Banjo Player at a tender age. Then it shows us how Seeger became a whipping boy for the Commie-fearing blacklisters and the anxious public who bought into their wares. We learn how Seeger was banned from appearing on television for 17 years, until the always-iconoclastic Smothers Brothers turned the camera on him and let him sing.

And we see Seeger honored by President Bill Clinton; the patriot who sang about justice and humanity finally recognized as an American through and through, champion of freedom and not some enemy alien.

What we don’t see much of is the commercial aspect of his career. Seeger was not interested in wads of cash or celebrity for its own sake, and he and his family spent the better part of their lives in a cabin that Seeger built himself. But Seeger was on the road a lot, and he did make a lot of recordings, and he was billed as one of the world’s best musicians; so who promoted him? What deals were made with what executives? We’re given some glossy generalities, but no one becomes a well-known musician without possessing some business acumen or having people with such acumen in h is corner, and even the singing conscience of the land must have had contracts that were sealed and then broken.

Seeger is now 88, which might explain why people discussing him in the film refer to him in the past tense so often. That is a curious thing, because Seeger’s music is as vital and as needed today as ever he was: when we see Seeger at age 84 chopping wood out at his cabin, we have the sense that America’s voice of compassion is still strong and still a part of the world as it is, and has not faded into the world as it once was.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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