At 88, Pete Seeger's fought the good fight longer than anybody, singing his heart out since the Dust Bowl days of Woody Guthrie. In fact, Guthrie taught him how to ride freight trains, and since then Seeger has been crisscrossing the country, singing his songs, sticking it to The Man - Johnny Appleseed with a banjo on his knee. Tall and lanky, Seeger has grown in stature over the years, his head thrown back in song, his eyes set on some glorious future that may never make it here. And who can forget that voice, the sound of Yankee integrity, with its piercing vibrato and soaring intensity? If ever the world was changed through the power of song, Seeger's the one who did it.
Hence, Jim Brown's loving tribute of a documentary, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, which takes us through the life of a citizen-artist who never compromised his principles, even when the federal government tried to send him to prison. Drawing on an amazing amount of historical film footage, Brown lays out the whole story, which doubles as a radical history of the United States during the latter two-thirds of the 20th century. Labor strikes? Seeger was there, labor songs at the ready. Civil rights marches? Seeger was there, with a little song he'd introduced to Martin Luther King called "We Shall Overcome." Antiwar protests? It's Seeger who wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Not for nothing does the movie close with his "Bring 'Em Home."
Brown also takes us backstage to show us the man behind the myth, but if you ask me, the man seems a lot like the myth. At his mountaintop home in the Hudson River Valley, where he famously built his own log cabin back in the '40s, we see clothes drying on the clothesline and Seeger himself chopping wood. And his kids talk about what a hoot it was to grow up there, although they admit they missed their dad when he was out saving the world, which was most of the time. As Joan Baez says about Seeger's wife of 60-odd years, Toshi, "You know what it takes to live with a saint? A martyr. Toshi's not a martyr." So there was a price to be paid so that Seeger might exert the power of song, but at least the documentary owns up to it.
And at least America has owned up to the price Seeger paid. Hounded by the anti-Commies, he was blacklisted for 17 years, enough to destroy any career, but the movie closes with him singing along to "Turn, Turn, Turn" while receiving a Kennedy Center honor. The guy never stopped singing. In fact, he's probably singing right now.