- A still from Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, Seeger playing in California in the 1950s.
In his 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Earnest J. Gaines crafted from hot ash, inspiration, and bitter history a literary icon: a 110-year-old woman, born into antebellum slavery and still alive to witness the fitful rise of the 1960s civil rights movement. In Pittman, the author found a mighty symbol of the American black experience.
Musician-activist Pete Seeger, 88, has occupied a similar world for almost as many decades as Pittman. Since the 1930s, he has strummed banjos, marched against war, and stood down bigots. The arc of his life story is indivisible with the saga of American leftist politics. The elegiac film that honors this man and his role in history—Pete Seeger: The Power of Song—plays at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck the second week of this month.
Born to a musicologist and musician, Seeger seems to have derived his genuine wonderment of people from his father, whose mission to bring Bach and Beethoven to the masses led him throughout early-20th-century America, still a beehive of rural redoubts and isolated worlds. Already a master of ukulele and banjo by his teens, young Seeger was soon a son of Harvard and, due to an incessant search for truth, also a member of the Young Communists League. This was well before the demonization of Reds, and Seeger joined simply because he agreed with their antiracism, pro-union stance. This gesture of college idealism would have enduring consequences.
In swift succession, spiked by a whirl of photos, film clips, and interviews, we see the highlights of an astounding life: Seeger gathers the songs of the poor, comes to understand the social ills indivisible from such compositions, rides the rails with Woody Guthrie, joins The Almanac Singers, marries his beloved Toshi in 1943 and then, as a member of The Weavers in the 50s, becomes a huge act on the strength of a b-side cover the Leadbelly gem “Goodnight Irene.” And then the blacklisting begins—and we’re not even halfway through his expansive life.
A production of the American Masters PBS series, this documentary betrays its made-for-TV roots from the start: Seeger’s eight-plus decades are laid down with speed and economy (in a compact 93 minutes that covers wide-ranging ground while leaving the viewer famished for more). Past worlds are conjured and moral victories recounted. But while your mouth will slacken with genuine awe, you will realize that The Power of Song serves up more in the way of whats than wherefores.
When Seeger finds his way to Beacon and builds a homestead on the banks of the Hudson in 1949, we’re still puzzling what fire propels him. The pair’s several children recount the challenges of growing up in the woods but their reminiscences stop short of complaints. Seeger himself is notoriously humble and deeds, rather than introspection, are his lifeblood. Aching to understand a man’s motivation does not undermine his obvious greatness. One can’t help wondering whether another film—one which didn’t list Toshi Seeger as a co-producer—might have asked tougher questions in order to shed greater light on the complex man behind the mighty saint.
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, directed by Jim Brown and featuring Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Bonnie Raitt, and Bruce Springsteen will be screened February 8 to 11 at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck. (845) 876-2515; www.upstatefilms.com.
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song will also be aired on PBS stations on February 27 at 9pm.