April 11, 2011

Good Mon. Nice day here, cool and breezy. The temp hit +47 Saturday afternoon, with attendant dripping of snowmelt from the roof. Everyone’s car needs a wash.

Yokelly, we watched The Power of Song, the 2007 biopic about folk-singer and activist Pete Seeger. Seeger’s own story is captivating in its own right. His parents were both classical musicians. Charles Seeger taught at Harvard, moved to the Smithsonian, and practically invented musicology. He had a strong interest in American folk music and was instrumental (heh) in getting the Smithsonian to document a large amount of current American folk music, including many recordings of Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, Elizabeth Cotton (“Freight Train”).

The film is very well done. It features a lot of fun music and provides a good review of the less pleasant side of American politics in the past 70 years or so (Seeger is now 93 years old). Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the days of Joe McCarthy and his congressman cohorts (1950s) and asked if he was a Communist. He replied that he thought it wrong for the government to imply that the exercise of First Amendment freedoms of speech and association was somehow wrong. At the time, many persons called before HUAC (including a number of Hollywood actors and writers) took the Fifth. All who did so, and Seeger as well, were assumed to be traitors to the country because in those hysterical times having your own opinion was deemed unpatriotic. We don’t think that now, of course. Seeger was then a member of the Weavers, a very popular folk music group with its own TV show and a string of hit recordings. As a result of his testimony before HUAC, Seeger was blacklisted by TV, Radio, and the recording industry. Instead he toured college campuses and did much to create the folk music movement of the late 50s and the 60s. After 17 years on the black list Seeger was invited on The Smothers Brothers comedy show (by Tommy Smothers, who speaks in the documentary) on CBS, but was told not to sing about the Vietnam War. Free speech has never been popular.

In 1997 Seeger was awarded the American Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton. In my own humble opinion, Seeger is a great American who stood up for democratic and constitutional principles at great personal cost and made wonderful music that influenced millions. His own songs included If I Had A Hammer (hugely popular when performed by Peter, Paul and Mary), Turn, Turn, Turn (to words from Ecclesiastes, popularized by the Byrds), and Where Have All The Flowers Gone? In the late 50s and early 60s Seeger popularized the song We Shall Overcome and was active in the Civil Rights movement. In his later years Seeger campaigned to clean up the Hudson River and drew much public support for that project. He was also an ardent supporter of unions in the days when management was apt to use thugs to control workers and prevent them from negotiating for better wages and working conditions. The film features interviews with a number of well known musicians (Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chics, Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan). This film should be seen by every American.

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