Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature

by Greg Wright

This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

This is the slogan emblazoned on the “head” of Pete Seeger’s banjo. It’s a presumptuous slogan, one inspired by that of Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”

It’s a slogan that seems incredibly pompous, too, if you don’t know much about Seeger. In the opening sequence of Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, in fact, Seeger comes off as little more than the forebear of today’s cheer-leading sing-along worship leaders, as he coaxes a stadium crowd through a solo-acoustic rendition of “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”

So there the skeptic in me sat. Sure, I’d heard of Pete Seeger, and I knew (and grew up singing) a lot of his songs. I’d even driven my newlywed wife crazy, at one time, with endless variations on “If I Had a Hammer.” Still, I had come as close as I have ever come to ditching this screening, figuring that it would be just another paean to a self-indulgent musician.

Naturally, then, that opening sequence didn’t sell me. It was patently designed for fans to ooh and aah, to reminisce over fawningly. Not me. Nope.

seegerinsetAnd then the rest of the documentary unfolded, and I think (or have I just been duped?) I discovered who Pete Seeger really is. I suggest that you discover Seeger, too—or at least discover this inspiring gem of a film, and its version of Seeger.

In a nutshell, Seeger was the son of idealistic professional musicians who wanted to bring music to “common folk”—and discovered that common folk know about as much about real music as the professionals. Raised in this environment of discovery, Seeger became devoted to being a “planter of seeds”—an evangelist (in the best, purest sense of the word) demonstrating the good news that “some music can help you do something about your troubles.”

His devotion to the cause was single-minded. His success was profound, and his influence almost unbounded. His vision helped end a war and clean up a waterway. His joy shines through in one of the purest, loving souls you will ever encounter.

You’ll also be fascinated by the way that Seeger’s family has not only put up with him, but also by the extent to which they appear to revere him. As a young father, Seeger moved sixty miles from the city into the woods—and cleared the land, built a cabin (without running water) by hand, and moved the family in. They shared one room, ate meals on the porch, and often slept out on another. They entertained guests while putting them to work digging foundations. His wife Toshi kept things in “order” and raised the kids while Pete went off and sang, raising political hell—and got blacklisted by the HUAC hearings. He was gone, literally, for months at a time. “If only Peter would chase women instead of causes,” Toshi once lamented, “I’d have a reason to leave him.”

Instead, Seeger only gave her and the kids every reason to stay.

In this documentary, Seeger appears the modern equivalent of a prophet. He carries a sense of purity, devotion, and cold blinderedness that is simultaneously endearing and infuriating. What shines through thoroughly, though, is that this is a man who loves people of all sorts dearly (children, particularly, because they represent “hope”), and is willing to sacrifice himself for them unequivocally.

By the time the film concludes with a stirring concert featuring Seeger, at age 84, with his grandson and Arlo Guthrie, the slogan on his banjo appears earned, indeed. At the very least, he surrounded the coldness and cynicism of my own heart and forced it to surrender.

Along the way, I also got a valuable lesson about the history of folk music. I learned about The Almanac Singers, Lee Hays, The Weavers, John Lomax, and Hudy Ledbetter (“Leadbelly”). I found out how Seeger came to carry on the legacy of Woody Guthrie. I heard testimonials about Seeger’s influence from Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Bruce Springsteen. I saw that “there is a season,” indeed, to just about everything.

I spent nearly two hours with a richly spiritual man with whom I’d no doubt have extensive doctrinal debates, if he ever cared to have such conversations (which I doubt).

But who cares about that? Not me. In short, I’m a richer human being for having experienced this movie, and I think you will be, too.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is available to stream through Amazon Instant Video. (It’s cheaper at YouTube, but I can’t vouch for the video quality there. Their player doesn’t seem to be able to render the film at the proper aspect ratio.)

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