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Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
2007 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 93 min. / Street Date August 5, 2008 / 24.95
Starring Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Natalie Maines, Tom Paxton, Bruce Springsteen
Film Editor Jason Pollard, Samuel D. Pollard
Produced by Michael Cohl, William Eigen
Directed by Jim Brown

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is an emotional and inspirational musical documentary about America's foremost folk singer and his fairly amazing life and times. Seeger helps tell the tale of his own experiences, helped by family members and friends in folk music like Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and former singing partners in groups like The Weavers. The docu neither shies away from nor apologizes for Seeger's political problems; it's more than a little inspiring to see a show where the terms liberal and lefty are just as patriotic and American as citizen and taxpayer.

Excellent access to family photos, movies and playbills add interest and immediacy to the folk singer's life, as do choice film clips of Seeger performing from as early as the late 1930s. Seeger's story is also the story of American activism in the 20th century. He was central to the labor struggles and civil rights movement, and a direct inspiration for those protesting the Vietnam War.

Young Pete Seeger left Harvard when he became convinced that his music could help the cause of labor. He traveled with Woody Guthrie and was part of the movement that recorded, transcribed and popularized folk music; for many years was one of the few banjo players in the Northeast. He helped organize rallies and sang labor songs to support workers and strikers during the violent years of the late 1930s. As he explains quite plainly, he joined the Communist Party because they were for the same things he cared about, racial equality and labor rights. To him (and many other leftists of the decade) organizing was a way to find solidarity and help people.

He married his lifelong sweetheart Toshi on furlough during the war, and thanks to her loyalty was able to raise a family without a steady income. Joan Baez tells us that behind every saint is a martyr, and Toshi adds that "if he had chased women instead of causes I would have had an excuse to leave him." The singer's children explain how their father built his own log cabin on a piece of land sixty miles north of New York City, where the family lived for years without electricity or running water. Seeger spent much of his time away from home on often-unpaid concert tours in support of some activist cause.

The anti-communist hysteria of the postwar years changed everything. Concerts with Paul Robeson were met with violence, some of it orchestrated by Truman administration officials. Seeger had been part of a promising group called the Almanac Singers, and then helped form a perfect quartet called The Weavers. Although Seeger had never wished for a commercial singing career The Weavers enjoyed sensational success, especially with a hit called Goodnight Irene. Their popularity was such that they were offered a television show -- only to see those hopes dashed when Seeger was denounced as a communist. As it turned out, he was the only American singer to be actually blacklisted, a career-killing setback that lasted seventeen years. Summoned before HUAC, Seeger respectfully refused to discuss his political opinions under duress, and was cited with contempt of court. In the news films Seeger comes off as he always does, as polite and considerate as Mister Rogers.

When The Weavers dared book big New York venues a few years later, the crowds were Standing Room Only; Seeger and his fellow singers became symbols for the anti-McCarthy backlash.

Original concert footage and recordings document Seeger's involvement with the civil rights movement and his founding of an east coast folk festival that more or less launched the folk music craze of the late 1950s. We see the young Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performing. The enthusiasm for folk reached television with a show called Hootnanny, but producers wouldn't hire the country's foremost advocate of folk because he was blacklisted. Joan Baez and other performers refused to go on if Seeger couldn't. Seeger explains that the commercial music industry "just wanted a lot of kids clapping and smiling." Seeger saw folk as a means to connect with people and say something important.

Seeger wrote standards like If I Had a Hammer, Turn, Turn Turn and Where Have All the Flowers Gone?. His forté is group singing and getting his audience to join in. Latter parts of the docu show him taking his family on a world tour, filming music and dancing on several continents and becoming involved in several positive controversies. When The Smothers Brothers broke the Seeger blacklisting by hiring him for their TV show in 1967, CBS refused to broadcast Seeger's anti-war song Waist Deep in The Big Muddy. When Tommy Smothers objected to the press, popular demand brought Seeger out to sing it again, an opportunity he used to write additional potent lyrics.

On a more grassroots activist level, Seeger championed a decades long effort to clean up the severely polluted Hudson, even having a sailing boat built to spread the word up and down the river. It worked; the river is cleaner and a yearly festival is still held. Governor Pataki appears in an interview blip saying that Seeger has enormous powers to motivate people for good - but still distancing himself from "Seeger's earlier politics."

Other footage shows Seeger in his favorite activities, performing for schoolchildren and teaching the banjo. We see inspiring testimonials at awards ceremonies, and ex- Byrd Roger McGuinn sings Turn, Turn, Turn in Seeger's honor. At the age of 84, just seeing the man's enthusiasm makes one want to stand up and sing.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is a fast-moving and absorbing experience aided by a fine DVD presentation. Clean vintage clips augment handsomely filmed new material. The musical selections are in great shape, and usually include a couple of verses so that we don't feel cheated. I heard a number of interesting tunes that were new to me.

The extras offered are three deleted scenes and five films made by the Seeger family: How to Play the Five String Banjo, Singing Fisherman of Ghana, Wrapping Paper, How to Make a Steel Drum and Finger Song. Subtitles are provided in English and Spanish. 1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: deleted scenes, short films
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 5, 2008


1. My first exposure to Pete Seeger was hearing him on Dick Whittinghill's radio program while delivering for a pharmacy as a High School job in 1969. They played the bizarre, sardonic Irene Goodnight and I practically crashed the car. Whittinghill said that The Weavers had been blacklisted but I didn't know what that meant. A year later I saw Seeger sing Old Devil Time in the prologue and epilogue for Otto Preminger's Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon, a movie about 'damaged' people banding together for emotional protection. Seeger's song was riveting. I'll bet that the wooded area he strolls through as he sings is somewhere around his Hudson valley house. Another really good movie about Seeger's time with The Weavers is entitled, appropriately, The Weavers - Wasn't That A Time!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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