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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

August 13, 2008
RATING: 7.5/10
As a child growing up in the suburbs outside of New York City, I heard a lot of Pete Seeger. My parents were ex-semi-hippies, so I was raised in a household full of musings about peace, justice, and equality for people of all colors, creeds, sexes, and ethnicities. As anyone familiar with Seeger knows, he has been an ardent champion of equal and human rights throughout his lengthy career, from his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement to his anti-Vietnam War stance to his constant support of the working class and the underdog. But, even as a kid still ignorant of the greater meaning and implications of Seeger's life and work, he spoke to me on a base level. His regal singing voice is counteracted by his incredibly gentle speaking voice, and both offered a kind of comfort to my ears, as I'm sure they did to many children of my generation. And Seeger never shied away from singing children's songs, although when he did address younger listeners it was always without pandering or talking down. Kids notice these things.

Seeger with Martin Luther King, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy in 1957.


Jim Brown's documentary, The Power of Song, tells the story of Seeger's life through various talking heads, including the Dixie Chicks, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Seeger himself, and his children and grandchildren. There are some great moments, such as when the elderly Seeger sings a folk song while chopping a log at his house in the woods. But, overall, the filmmaking is very traditional, albeit effective, using archival footage of interviews and performances to relay a remarkable and iconic life story.

From early childhood on music played a large role in Seeger's life, as his parents were musicians and held an avid interest in indigenous American music, and throughout his lifetime he would come to be regarded as one of the true giants of Americana; some of Seeger's best-known songs, featured in the film, include "We Shall Overcome," "If I Had a Hammer," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" His family's affinity for folk culture lead Seeger to a lifetime of not only music but also political activity and human warmth, ranging from his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to sign an oath of loyalty, to his involvement in cleaning up the Hudson River with the Clearwater organization. Throughout the ups and downs of his life, which included a long period of public revilement as an avowed Communist sympathizer, Seeger's relationship with his wife, Toshi, and his children seems to have anchored him.

The Power of Song does a good job of telling Seeger's story, but perhaps taking a few filmic chances might have better served the purpose of honoring the legend of a true cultural risk-taker. For instance, it would have provided more of a tangible human angle on Seeger to contrast the almost saintly portrayals and testimonials with his reaction to Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Still, it's a good effort. The viewer is left with a glowing impression of a monolithic musical figure, and if it's impossible to tell what he is actually like in his personal life, it doesn't impinge on the big picture by the film's end. Bonus materials on the DVD, which is part of The Weinstein Company's rapidly expanding Miriam Collection, include additional scenes and several short films made by the Seeger family.

VIDEO: An interview with director Jim Brown.

SEE ALSO: www.jimbrownfilms.com
SEE ALSO: www.peteseeger.net
SEE ALSO: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Un-American_Activities_Committee
SEE ALSO: www.clearwater.org

--
Jonah Flicker
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.

See other articles by Jonah Flicker.

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