Pete Seeger: Power of Song

By Jim Cullen

Years ago, while strolling the grounds of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I came upon a tent where the crowd was singing a folk song — it may have been “Wimoweh” — and I recognized Pete Seeger’s voice urging them on. I was delighted because I didn’t realize Seeger, a longtime hero, was one of the scheduled performers, so I squeezed myself into the tent and sang along for the rest of the too-brief set.

It’s the only time I’ve seen Seeger perform live, and given his age (88) and the frailty of his voice, he doesn’t stray much from his wooded acreage near Beacon, N.Y., anymore, so we may not get another chance. But his many admirers can enjoy the new documentary, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, a tribute to the legendary folksinger who wrote classic songs such as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” and popularized Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” The documentary features interviews with friends and admirers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers and Julian Bond, as well as his musical brother and sister, Mike and Peggy Seeger. There’s just enough singing to whet your appetite for the many recordings Seeger and his friends have produced through the years, but what really comes through in the documentary is Seeger’s belief in the power of song to bring social change.

Seeger’s father was a musicologist who collected folk songs, his mother was a musician and his stepmother was a prominent composer, so it was no fluke that he grew up with an interest in music. Though the family fell on hard times in the Depression, Seeger got a scholarship at Harvard for two years until distractions — mainly political — caused his grades to drop. An accomplished banjo player as well as song collector, he got a job in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, befriended Woody Guthrie, among others, and became an advocate for trade unions and the downtrodden. He joined the Communist Party, which was the most vocal advocate of trade unions and civil rights in the 1930s, and that association would come back to haunt him.

Seeger was drafted into the Army during World War II and worked as an aircraft mechanic and later organized entertainment for troops. After the war, he returned to build a log cabin in the woods of upstate New York with his wife, Toshi, who became his enabler as he challenged authority against all odds. He joined the Weavers, with Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, which had several hits in the 1940s and 1950s, including “Goodnight Irene,” “On Top of Old Smoky” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” Though Seeger quit the Communist Party in 1950, Seeger was called before Congress in 1955 and refused to answer questions about his party membership, citing his First Amendment right to free political association (not his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, which would have been the easier legal course to take).

Seeger argued that he had the right to join the Communist Party. Since his membership did not involve any criminal conspiracies, he argued, his political associations were none of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s business. Prosecuted for contempt of Congress, he was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in jail, though he only spent four hours in stir before he was bailed out (but not before he learned a folk song from one of the prisoners.) An appeals court in 1962 threw out the charge against him, but his lefty activism for peace, unions, civil rights and protecting the environment kept Seeger off most radio and national TV until the Smothers Brothers broke the boycott in 1967-68. (Even then, CBS censored his performance of the antiwar song “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” in September 1967; an uproar caused the network to allow him back on in January 1968.) After he left the Weavers in 1958, in part because he felt they were becoming too commercial, he pursued a solo career, but the blacklist kept him out of the big time. He joked that the feds let him play at schools because they figured the kids would not understand the songs, but he ended up indoctrinating a generation and helped start the folk revival of the 1960s.

Seeger helped to found Broadside and Sing Out magazines and was associated with Folkways Records, which did groundbreaking work in recording folk music in America and around the world. In the mid-’60s, Pete and Toshi produced a folk music TV series, Rainbow Quest, which featured folk musicians playing traditional folk music. They produced 38 hourlong programs and although the production values were low, some of them are available on DVD. He also spearheaded an effort to clean up the Hudson River.

The documentary was directed by Jim Brown, who filmed the Weavers’ farewell concert at Carnegie Hall in 1980 that was released in 1982 as The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time. Brown filmed another Weavers Carnegie Hall “farewell concert” concert in 2003 in honor of Harold Leventhal’s 50th anniversary as a folk music promoter. It was released in 2004 as Isn’t This a Time. Unfortunately, neither film is available on DVD, although Isn’t This a Time may be packaged with Power of Song when it is released by the Weinstein Co. as a DVD next spring, according to Brown’s production office. Catch it in a movie theater if you can or look for it on PBS next year.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2007

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