Thursday, November 15, 2007

Movies: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

This musico-biographical documentary currently playing to an above-60 crowd at IFC (I was less than half the age of every other person in the theater) has the rosy, feel-good tone of an A&E Biography episode, and is about as challenging (that is, not so very). When I lived at home and my mom watched Biography every night, I would inevitable fall asleep while she was making me tea, the glowing thirteen-inch screen's black and white footage dropping my eyelids like Roman shades. Accordingly, Peter Seeger had the same soporific qualities, and while I fought the tufty waves of sleep, I did miss a central swath of images (though I managed, I think, to remain at least semi-conscious aurally).

Seeger is certainly a character from another time (he built, for example, his family's home from scratch, by himself, out of logs from trees he chopped down himself, with a small axe). And yet, his time was not only one that very much pre-dated him, but also post-dated him (he married a Japanese woman; I feel like this didn't happen often in the 1940s; additionally, he was a major labor union and civil rights activist, as well as a card-carrying Communist). The first talking head flashed up on the screen was Bob Dylan, another character from another time (the same time, and a time that pre-dated both of them—a specifically American time of Depression, coffee and pie, freight trains, hitched rides, cross-country travel on foot, with nothing but the suit on your back and the shoes on your feet. . . that's early Dylan, of course, but Seeger seemed never to grow out of it the way Bob did).

Dylan was followed by a whole parade of folk-influenced heavy-hitters (Springstein, Joan Baez, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers, and even a Dixie Chick) who spoke on Seeger's musical (and political) heroism. What I find most fascinating about Seeger, though, is that he's a mere musician, not a song writer. That someone who didn't write his own songs (and always performed the songs he sang straight, without any vocal embellishment, lengthy guitar solos, etc.) could have such a lasting effect on musicians who do is counter-intuitive at best.

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