Reviews, December 5, 2007

Jason Leopold Reviews “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song”

One of the sad truths about the Bush administration’s historic foreign policy failure, resulting in the occupation of Iraq and the numerous constitutional abuses that followed, is that it has not led to the type of artistry reminiscent of the Vietnam War era. That’s the feeling you’re left with after watching “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” an inspirational new documentary that pays tribute to the legendary folk singer and activist.

With all due respect to Neil Young and The Dixie Chicks, there hasn’t been a single musical artist to emerge over the past five years who has displayed a passion and an urgency in using the power of song to rail against the social and political injustices and inspire a generation to rise up the way Seeger has done for more than half a century.

That is partly because record labels in this day and age frown upon that sort of dissent from its artist roster, fearing that it will negatively impact album sales. Moreover, corporations such as Clear Channel, which control playlists at thousands of radio stations across the country, have refused to air songs openly critical of the Bush administration’s policies. In essence, there is no incentive for musicians to exercise their rights to free speech via songwriting when profits, first and foremost, trump the free form of expression.

Directed by Jim Brown, who manned the camera on the 1982 documentary “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time,” one of Seeger’s early folk groups, the theatrical release of “The Power of Song” is timely given the current political climate and how polarized America has become.

The testimonials to Seeger’s lyrical genius and devotion to social causes by such rock luminaries as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines is spread liberally throughout the 90-minute feature.

But what’s truly fascinating about this documentary is that we’re reminded that Seeger’s songs, penned decades ago in response to issues such as union-busting, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War, still have a timeless quality that resonates today. “This Little Light of Mine,” “We Shall Overcome,” or “Turn, Turn, Turn” could well have been written yesterday.

The film opens with a virile Seeger, now 88, dressed in blue jeans and wearing hiking boots, venturing out to a wooded area in upstate New York to chop firewood. He wields an ax with the same energy he uses to pick the banjo, one of the instruments he’s mastered in his lifetime, and returns to the log cabin in Hudson Valley, New York, that he and his wife of 63 years, Toshi, built with their bare hands some 40 years ago. Pete has brought back enough wood to keep the couple warm for the evening.

It was here, in 1969 where Seeger promised his young daughter that he would clean up the polluted Hudson River so she and other children could grow up one day and swim in the water. And much to his daughter’s surprise that’s exactly what Seeger did. Seeger founded The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc., an organization that single-handedly rehabilitated the Hudson and is credited with spawning the grass-roots environmental movement.

Seeger’s wife laments that “if only Pete chased women instead of chasing causes, I would have an excuse to leave him.”

That’s the underlying message in the documentary – Seeger very much walks the walk. He isn’t some part-time activist or folk singer, and that’s what sets him apart from today’s musical artists.

Indeed, Seeger reveals that he resigned from The Weavers when the group’s members licensed one of their hit folk songs for use in a cigarette commercial because the musicians were desperate for money.

“We didn’t need the money that bad,” Seeger recalls saying.

It was that sort of radical response that apparently made Seeger so dangerous to people in power. He paid for it by being hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee to respond to charges that he was a communist sympathizer. Seeger, standing his ground, refused to answer the committee’s questions about his personal political views and was held in contempt of Congress. For the next 17 years, Seeger was blacklisted from radio and television.

Recounting the episode and whether he was worried that he would be incarcerated, Seeger says, “I’m probably very stupid, but I’m not fearful.”

That answer is perhaps the most inspirational moment in this film, which should serve as a wake-up call to journalists and musicians alike: speaking truth to power is the ultimate form of patriotism.

Seeger would find poetic justice many years later when then-President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Arts at the Kennedy Center in 1994.

Seeger received the Presidential Medal of Arts at the Kennedy Center in 1994.

“I really love this country,” Seeger says in the final moments of the documentary. “If you love your country you’ll find ways to speak out and do what you know is right.”

Today, Seeger sometimes ventures out onto a street corner in upstate New York to join other activists protesting the occupation of Iraq.

“Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” is playing in New York at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue (at West 3rd Street) New York, NY 10014 (phone 212-924-777); and in Los Angeles, at Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90211 (phone) 310-274-6869.

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