Pete Seeger has been making music for 80 years. It should be impossible to do that justice in 90 minutes, but "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" does it. This tightly packed, but graceful, documentary tells the story through the voices of musicians, friends, family, and the man himself, along with a rich helping of music.
Seeger's story is full of subplots, all covered here: hoboing with Woody Guthrie, stardom with The Weavers, blacklisting and contempt of Congress, the civil rights movement, Vietnam War activism, Hudson River cleanup, and elder statesman of the folk movement.
But the overarching theme is his unique approach to music. For Seeger, music is a tool to bring people together, and that, as much as the singing, is the point. As we see him leaving the stage of Carnegie Hall at the end of a concert when he was 84, he says in voiceover, "I've never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in. As a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it's kind of a religion with me. Participation. That's what's going to save the human race."
What comes through most clearly is Seeger's belief in his cause, his optimism, and his joy in living. There is no trace of bitterness as he recalls the years when his blacklisting was so complete that he "traveled from college to college to college" playing for whatever crowds would come to sing with him. His son asks whether he was afraid of going to jail. Seeger replies, "I'm probably very stupid, but I was not fearful. I really believed, and I think I was right, that in the long run, this country doesn't go in for things like that."
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As the film explores the story of the sloop Clearwater and the rehabilitation of the Hudson River, Seeger says, "We've all got to be involved in trying to put this world together. I think if the world is put together, it isn't going to be done by big organizations. It's going to be done by millions upon millions of little organizations, often local."
Watching this moving demonstration of the power of music and personal dedication leaves you believing it can be done.
Doug Pibel is Managing Editor of YES! Magazine.
See the trailer for Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
Screening and DVD release information can be found at Jim Brown Films.
© 2007 YES! Magazine