One of the most enjoyable and inspiring films I’ve seen in a long time comes to Berkeley for one day only, this Thursday, Dec. 13 at the California Theater, a benefit for the local Gray Panther chapter. Screenings are at 2 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Tickets are $10.
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song played briefly in San Francisco this fall, but never made it to the East Bay. It is an exceedingly well-made biography of the rugged iconoclast who has insisted on living and working on his own terms for most of his 88 years.
Of course there are marvelous clips of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and the Weavers playing and singing, but the film is focused on Seeger, his life, music and activism.
In one way or another he has participated in most of the great social movements of the twentieth century, singing at union rallies with Guthrie in the late thirties, writing and singing anti-fascist songs in the forties, staring down the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in the ’50s, going south and playing for the civil rights movement in the early ’60s, singing at countless anti-Vietnam war rallies later in the ’60s and ’70s, then helping to launch the environmental movement with his drive to clean up the Hudson River.
Finally, there’s a scene showing Seeger, in his mid-’80s, standing in the snow with a few friends beside a well-trafficked road at the beginning of the Iraq war, holding up a sign that says “Peace.”
Through it all, Seeger has taken great pains to avoid celebrity and commercialization. He hated playing nightclubs and refused to stay in fancy hotels while the Weavers were at the top of the pop charts with “Goodnight Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.” He left the group when, after they had been blacklisted and out of work for a long time, they decided to make a commercial.
Unable to find work in a mainstream setting for 17 years, Seeger made his living by singing at schools, colleges, and summer camps all across the country, “poisoning the students’ minds,” as he put it.
During this time, he wrote or co-wrote (he liked collaborative efforts) wonderful songs like “If I Had A Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “We Shall Overcome” “Guantanamera,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
The film also contains some chilling footage of the McCarthy-era Peekskill riots, a right-wing backlash against a Paul Robeson concert north of New York City, at which Seeger also sang, as well as his performance on the Smothers Brothers TV show in 1968, which effectively broke the blacklist.
Beyond music and politics, The Power of Song also goes into Seeger’s personal life, making for a well-rounded portrait of the man who has tried to live by the principles he believes in, and has pretty much succeeded. His wife Toshi and their children talk about life around the isolated log cabin home which Seeger and friends built more than 50 years ago.
Anyone who has ever participated in a protest march, walked a picket line, been to a rally or fought for social justice will love this film. Why it will be here for only one day is at this moment unfathomable, but it opened in New York City last week to excellent reviews and is being distributed by the Weinstein brothers who distributed Michael Moore’s Sicko.