Sunday, February 2, 2014

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (Weinstein Co., PBS, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One was a PBS American Masters presentation called “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” a 2007 documentary that apparently got at least some theatrical screenings (it’s listed on and a user commentary indicates this person had seen a public screening at which some audience members started singing along with Seeger). Directed by Jim Brown and featuring interviews with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Seeger collaborators Ronnie Gilbert and Arlo Guthrie (who interestingly did not talk about his dad’s work with Seeger but focused on his own relationship with him) and his family (there was a marvelous clip towards the end showing a recent Seeger concert at Carnegie Hall with Arlo Guthrie and Seeger’s grandson, Tio Seeger Rodriguez — and I couldn’t help but reflect on this man’s multi-racial background: a Latino father and white and Japanese grandparents!). It basically hit the high points of Seeger’s career, from his radicalization as a student at Harvard in the 1930’s (and before that his interesting encounter with folk music — his parents, musicologist Charles Seeger and violinist Constance Seeger, built their own trailer and decided to tour backwoods America playing classical recitals in small towns that had never before heard “good” music, and Charles Seeger heard the music of the mountain people in Appalachia and the South and decided it was as “good” as any of the classical pieces he and his wife had rather patronizingly sought to bring them) through his involvement in just about every Leftist political and social cause ever since. Though it didn’t show us Seeger singing any one song start-to-finish (a perpetual annoyance with me and music documentaries), that bothered me less than usual because it was as much a cultural history as a musical one — since for Seeger the two are inseparable — and the film paid tribute to Seeger’s knack not only to get his audiences to sing along with him (I couldn’t help but recall Rick Burkhardt’s joke that the most frightening words you can hear at a folk-music concert was, “And now we’d like you to sing along with us”) but actually to get them to sound good doing it.

The film covered the history of the Weavers and their brief foray on top of the charts with “Goodnight, Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” (when Charles and I had watched the documentary on the Weavers, Wasn’t That a Time!, I had noted the irony of seeing “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” and being flashed back to a time when Leftists liked Israel) before the blacklist did them in. It showed Seeger facing the House Un-American Activities Committee and refusing either to renounce his past in the Communist Party and name names or to take the Fifth Amendment (though his skill at evading the are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been question would have done a mainstream politician proud!), and the only part of the documentary that I thought was a whitewash was its failure to mention that in the 1939-1941 period, during the Soviet Union’s short-lived alliance with Nazi Germany, Seeger and Woody Guthrie both obediently went along with the Communist Party line and wrote and sang songs urging against any American involvement in the war, then abruptly changed course as the Party did when Hitler invaded Russia. (The American Masters program on Guthrie faced up to this one honestly, but that’s easier to do when you’re profiling someone long since dead than when your subject is still alive and you’re counting on his cooperation.) Aside from that defect, this was a fascinating show and particularly amusing in that the FBI actively enforced the blacklist against Seeger but allowed him to perform unmolested in camps where his audience would be children, figuring he couldn’t do any political harm to people whose ages were still in single digits. What they didn’t realize, of course, was that those kids would eventually grow up — and many of the kids who attended Seeger’s workshops in the 1950’s and learned the rudiments of banjo and guitar from him were teenagers and young adults in the 1960’s and started radical folk ensembles (including the New Lost City Ramblers) of their own. — 3/3/08


I watched the rerun of PBS’s American Masters documentary “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” originally made in 2007 and presented in 2008 but now repurposed as a memorial to this extraordinary singer, activist and human being since his death January 27, 2014 at the age of 94. I’d reviewed my previous notes on the film the night before and I reacted to it pretty similarly, but a bit differently, this time around. I’m still upset at the whitewashing of the one point in Seeger’s career at which he compromised in a way I find morally offensive — the two years during which, as an American Communist (he was a CPUSA member from 1933 to 1949, something he courageously refused to talk about before the House Un-American Activities Committee but did speak publicly about years later, when it really didn’t matter to his career or his reputation one way or the other), he backed away from his principled opposition to fascism and went along with the CPUSA’s “line” during the two years of the Soviet Union’s uncertain alliance with Nazi Germany that the war was an imperialist conspiracy and the U.S. should stay out of it. I’m not as upset at that one lapse in Seeger’s principles as I was the first time I watched this program — not after I’ve heard the album Songs for John Doe, Seeger’s recording debut, the pacifist and isolationist album the Almanac Singers, Seeger’s first group, recorded in May 1941 (just before Hitler stabbed his erstwhile ally in the back and invaded the Soviet Union, propelling the U.S.S.R. onto the other side of the war). Despite the uncomfortable (to say the least!) motivation of this album, its central critique — that wars, all wars, are ways for the ruling class to profit and everyone else to shed their blood to make the 1 percent richer — is right-on, and the songs themselves (especially the incendiary “Plow Under,” which I suspect is the edgiest and nastiest political song ever written until the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” 36 years later) stand up as honest and emotionally intense attacks on war, imperialism, capitalism and the nexus between them. At the same time the Almanacs’ last album, Dear Mr. President (recorded in 1942, not only after the German attack on the Soviet Union but also after Pearl Harbor and the CIO’s controversial decision to order its unions not to strike “for the duration”), almost seems like an apology for Songs for John Doe — particularly the direct attacks on both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the song “Ballad of October 16” (the date is October 16, 1940, the day FDR signed America’s first peacetime draft law). This time around the final song really did seem like an elegy, and the most powerful aspect of the movie was the way it seemed like the struggles keep repeating themselves — not only the political struggles (the film included a brief interview with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks — whose career wasn’t quite as thoroughly destroyed as the Weavers’ had been a half-century earlier when she made her famous comment about how she was embarrassed to be from the same state as President Bush, but her records got pulled from radio stations and many of her fans turned against her) but the musical ones.

After having researched Seeger’s life and the career of the Almanac Singers for a couple of radio programs, and having read that one of the Almanacs’ biggest departures from showbiz orthodoxy of the day was performing in street clothes instead of tailored suits for the men and fancy gowns for the women, it was startling indeed to see a TV clip of the Weavers, Seeger’s second group, in full cry doing “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” with Seeger and the other male members of the group, Lee Hays (co-writer with Seeger of the anthemic “If I Had a Hammer” — and a huge man, built like a football player — we tend to think of all male folksingers as either scrawny tall guys like Seeger or scrawny short guys like Bob Dylan) and Fred Hellerman, in tailored suits and the one woman, Ronnie Gilbert, in a fancy gown. (Also, is it heresy or can I get away with saying that, purely as a voice, Gilbert outsang the rest of the Weavers, including Seeger? Had the Weavers’ career not been interrupted by the blacklist, one could readily imagine Ronnie Gilbert becoming a major solo star in the 1950’s much the way Janis Joplin did at the end of the 1960’s after leaving the group she started with but within which she could not be contained.) As I’ve noted elsewhere, the “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” clip (which features Seeger singing a chorus in Hebrew) is also a souvenir of the long-ago days when Leftists liked Israel — this was the time when the Labor Party was ruling and the kibbutzim were being organized, and a lot of Leftists in the U.S. and western Europe were hoping Israel would be the place where all the people persecuted for both being Jewish and being Left would come together and build the democratic socialist paradise that would answer the evils of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It was interesting to see Seeger in various live clips at different times of his career — I remember when I saw him at the 1966 Berkeley Folk Festival he was already considered an elder statesman of folk music, and politically aware folk music in particular, and I’d have been flabbergasted if anyone had told me he still had another 48 years to live (and sing) and he’d outlast some of the major talents who came along in his wake, including Tim Buckley and the brilliant Phil Ochs.

Charles said one of the things he most admired about Seeger was his ability to get his audiences to sing along as he performed — a point made in this movie (they even show a clip showing him joke about the few members of his audience who weren’t joining in as a way of putting peer pressure on them to get with the program), which argues that Seeger saw singing as a participatory sport, something you actually did yourself as you worked and went about the daily business of life instead of something you paid other people (either through concert tickets, record purchases or buying a radio or TV) to do for you. And though Seeger had access to enough of a network of small record companies that he didn’t quite have to do the D.I.Y. thing to get his voice on records the way the punks did later (the real pioneer of the artist-owned D.I.Y. record label was avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra), he did do D.I.Y. songbooks and in some respects Seeger’s entire life was D.I.Y. Unable to buy a home in New York City in the late 1940’s for his wife and their kids (he had his family so quickly this documentary suggests the song “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” was autobiographical), he scraped together what cash he could, bought some farmland in upstate New York and built his house himself. He used that home as his base of operations for the rest of his life — and one reason he got as heavily into environmental issues as he did (at a time when most of the Left regarded “conservation” as too safe and mainstream an issue for them to worry about) was that his land sat on the bank of the Hudson River and he watched in horror as every year the river got more polluted until the federal government actually declared it, in essence, a toxic free-fire zone. R.I.P., Pete Seeger, though he’s one of those people (like his great predecessor and role model, Joe Hill) who will remain alive in spirit as long as the human race survives and as long as there are people in it fighting for justice, equal rights, a fair distribution of wealth and income, a livable and thriving environment and an end to the scourge of war. — 2/2/14