Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
2007, NR, 93 min. Directed by Jim Brown.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 19, 2007
Even if you weren't a kid like me, who remembers dancing around the living room to the sound of scratchy Weavers records on her separate kiddie record player, there will be plenty in Brown's documentary profile of Pete Seeger and his music for you to enjoy. Far from a nostalgia trip or dull, talking-heads reflection, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song goes a long way toward explaining what it was about the folk music of Seeger and his most successful group outing with the Weavers that made a little girl – and gazillions of others of all ages – want to get up and dance and sing along in harmony. To call it the "power of song" is too simple, although the film shows how Seeger has used music in every aspect of his life to lighten the load and gather support for his beliefs. Whether a child at play, a young academic, a union organizer, or World War II soldier, we see how Seeger used American folk music to unify a group and express his thoughts. Whether a No. 1 chart-topper with the Weavers' "Goodnight Irene" or a blacklisted pariah due to the HUAC witch hunts of the Fifties, Seeger kept an even keel and a steady beat. He's invented a new kind of banjo and taught the instrument to many thousands, he's traveled the world, strummed the rhythm chords of the modern civil rights movement, is recognized as the godfather of the American folk revival that spawned such talents as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, was an early environmental advocate who launched the movement to clean up the Hudson River, and is a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Yet his greatest talent, as Brown's film demonstrates, is his ability to use music to gather people together. To this day, at the age of 88, Seeger is never happier than when he unites a group in song, for he believes that "participation will save the human race." Okay, the film does leave out the late Sixties section when he legendarily lost his cool after his metaphorical son Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Jazz Festival and the new generation of folkies seemingly left the old-timer in their dust. Yet Dylan turns up in the film to offer insight, as do many of his musical brethren and descendants, as well as his "enabling" wife Toshi and other family members. More than an appreciation, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is an inspiration.