For nearly seven decades authentic freedom loving American patriot Pete Seeger has used his banjo to surround hate and force it to surrender. Highly revered in the folk and social activist community, Joan Baez calls Pete a "saint," and Jim Brown's documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song makes a strong case for his canonization.
Pete Seeger's faith in the power of music makes him like the Dalai Lama of folk music, as the first successor to Woody Guthrie. His fame is co-incidental, as Pete's greatest joy occurs in concerts where he's able to get everyone in the audience to sing along; he firmly believes that this act reaches into their hearts and unifies. Brown's film makes a strong case for Seeger's belief, showing how socially conscious songs assisted civil rights and brought anti-war awareness in the sixties and how Seeger's activism helped bring back clean waters to the Hudson in the past decade.
Combining archive photographs and video with contemporary footage and interviews, Brown traces Seeger's roots and chronicles his life as completely and cogently as possible in under two hours. Pete's classically trained musical parents initially aspired to expose backwoods people to Bach and Beethoven, but Pete's father soon transformed into a folk enthusiast when their audience shared their traditional music. Pete graduated from ukulele to banjo, and never stopped sharing and singing.
He tirelessly promoted traditional songs, Woody Guthrie anthems, and penned socially conscious songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn, Turn, Turn." Fortuitously, Seeger was working with folk archivist Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress when Woody Guthrie arrived for recording, and Seeger's banjo expertise linked the two forever, as they traveled the railroads singing for union rights and sang with legends like Leadbelly and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Seeger later founded two folk song magazines, produced a short-lived PBS show about folk music, and provided leadership for the Newport Folk Festival in the sixties.
Seeger might have had greater popular exposure had he not been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Believing in workers rights and equality, Seeger had participated in the Young Communist League while at Harvard before abandoning them due to Stalinism. But when called before HUAC, he cited first amendment rights rather than plead the fifth amendment, which branded him as a Communist sympathizer in the eyes of many. He paved the way for the popular folk music that proliferated in the sixties, and a number of the beneficiaries express tributes in the film: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers, and Tom Paxton. Add to that list additional singers influenced by his example like Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Baez recounts how proud she is for telling the Hootenanny show that she'd be glad to appear as long as Pete Seeger would also appear. They didn't forgo the blacklisting that lasted 17 years until the popular Smothers Brothers Show brought Seeger on as a guest.
It's rare for a documentary to feel truly intimate, but Brown's film achieves this. Much of this is due to Seeger's natural openness and authenticity. Seeger doesn't merely preach the gospel. He lives his ideals, graphically expressed through his truly pioneering hand built log cabin that lies 60 miles north of Greenwich Village in the Hudson valley. His wife of over 60 years, Toshi, and children recount their rustic life. His voice no longer can handle yodeling through "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," but that matters little. All Pete needs to do is walk into the room, and his infectious choirmaster skills kick in and soon the entire audience joins into the song, and often into the movement. The film significantly makes the case for just how powerful music can be in uniting hearts together.