One grain of information gleaned from Jim Brown's lively documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is how the FBI inadvertently fomented the 1960s folk music revival. After decades of fusing traditional American music with social and political activism, Seeger became an unlikely pop star when the Weavers, the four-piece band he co-founded, sold two million copies with Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" in 1950. The Weavers were on the eve of getting their own weekly television show when they were blacklisted: The sponsor dropped out, bookings dried up, and their music disappeared from the airwaves.
A tireless performer driven to advocate social change through song, Seeger found that the only audience he was allowed to cultivate was children. So he pursued this vocation with the same fervor he'd used to help organize labor unions and support Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace. Seeger didn't start a political revolution, observes biographer David Dunaway, but he did launch a musical one. For a man known as a leftist icon and political lightning rod, that role, as a planter of musical seeds, turned out to be his most important one.
The Power of Song is as steady and assured as its subject. Brown has made numerous music documentaries, including The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! (1982), and he doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. Extensive talking head interviews, from historians and protest participants to Seeger's musical progeny (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen), are at the core, providing an exhaustive but entertaining look at the American century through the eyes of one of its most enthusiastic participants.
But it's Brown's interviews with Seeger and his extended family that really make this portrait something special. An alternate title for The Power of Song might be No Regrets. Few lives as scrutinized as Seeger's are without personal recriminations, yet family members recall their vagabond years with unabashed awe, from building a log cabin in the Hudson River Valley to traveling the world documenting indigenous musical traditions. Pete's wife of 64 years, Toshi, emerges as the unsung heroine, providing a consistent home life that rooted Seeger's principles with warmth and good humor.
Even at a brisk 93 minutes, The Power of Song doesn't skimp on the music. It's packed with performance footage, including his infamous television appearance singing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." Known more as a popularizer of folk songs ("Guantanamera") than a songwriter ("If I Had a Hammer"), Seeger's ability to adapt material (verses from Ecclesiastes became "Turn! Turn! Turn!"), add key phrases ("We Shall Overcome"), and find potently simple imagery to distill harsh realities ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone?") filled his repertoire with anthems.
The adult audiences at recent Seeger shows are decidedly on the gray side, but a 2003 version of "Bring Them Home" with Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle is featured over the end credits. Evidence that even at 88, the man who proved the banjo is mightier than the sword is still gaining new disciples.
At the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].