PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG

PG
Reviews

I once chatted for a while with Pete Seeger in Central Park, where Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was giving a talk and he was strictly a member of the audience, but my most vivid experience with him occurred before I ever shook hands with him. In 1963 I was teaching a high school social-studies honors class, the most delightful collection of teens I’d ever met, a group that would have kept me in teaching until I was 90 if all classes were like them. Most were ardent folk-music enthusiasts. At their request, I invited Pete Seeger to give a concert in the school auditorium—though I might have afforded to give him about $4.50 for a performance in the unlikely event he’d even see my letter. To my surprise, he said he’d be delighted and would do it for free. I told the class. When my politically conservative department chairman heard about this, he had a fit. “Karten,” he fumed, “don’t you know he’s a Communist? Forget about it. Make sure you cancel the offer and confirm this with me, and don’t let me hear about it again.” The kids got wind of the rejection and threatened to picket the chairman’s house. Fortunately, I had permanent tenure. The picket lines never formed.

It’s debatable whether Pete Seeger would have received the fame he enjoyed were it not for the political animosity he evoked in the U.S. He admits that at one point he was a card-carrying member of the Communist party, but only because at the time, during the Depression and into the late 1940s, American Communists were for the most part idealists, naive about the Soviet Union, concerned only with bringing peace, justice and an end to segregation in our country. Seeger was hauled before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to take the Fifth Amendment, and more or less stated that his political views were not their business. As a result he was blacklisted and unable to appear on American television for 17 years.

The splendid documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, which Jim Brown wrote, directed and helped photograph, is a love letter to the singer, now 88 years old and living in Beacon, New York, his voice still pretty much intact. He chops wood, enjoys life with his wife, Toshi, and must have savored watching the documentary to see his children and a grandchild appear as talking heads. A grandson even accompanied him in one festive concert.

For those who were born too late, folk songs were the idiom of choice during the ’60s and remained so until folk lapsed into folk rock and deteriorated into rock, which degenerated into acid rock, heavy metal and punk. It would be hard for anyone below the age of 40 today to believe that an innocent song like “Good Night, Irene,” sung by a quartet known as The Weavers, would rise to number one on the charts, or that singing could be an instrument in hastening the end of the Vietnam War just as singing helped Estonians gain independence from the Soviet Union per the excellent documentary this year, James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty’s The Singing Revolution.

Among those interviewed, all of whom bestow praise on this American icon, are Bob Dylan, Mary Travers of Peter Paul and Mary, a long-haired Arlo Guthrie, civil-rights leader Julian Bond, Joan Baez, Tommy Smothers and Bruce Springsteen. I had hoped that more time would be spent on the songs rather than the snippets from “This Land Is Your Land,” “Weemoweh,” “Courting Polly,” “We Shall Overcome,” and the most politically biting, anti-Vietnam War piece, “Big Muddy.”

Pete Seeger is living testament to the importance of due process of law. Once reviled by right-wingers as a dirty Commie, he is now recognized as a true American patriot, praise lavished upon him by the likes of Bill Clinton and George Pataki and given a hero’s welcome at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. As he states in one of his songs, if America were invaded he’d be first on the firing line. But for this country to waste lives on foolish wars in the Middle East and Southeast Asia is positively un-American. He cites Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to the Mexican War and Mark Twain’s disgust with the Spanish-American War as examples. Would you consider them unpatriotic?

At a time when classical music is all but in rigor mortis on the airwaves and folk is what young people think means “those who live in the countryside,” when local wars go on incessantly in various pockets of the world, this documentary virtually elicits the response, “Where have all the flowers gone?”