Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

Sat, 02/01/2014 - 8:00pm - 9:30pm
Folk music icon Pete Seeger plays the banjo and sings with Arlo Guthrie (back left) at the Woody Guthrie Tribute Concert at Severance Hall in Cleveland, September 1996.

Credit: Neal Preston/Corbis

To mark the passing of a man that has been a great friend to PBS, as well as the world, WXXI presents this American Masters film that chronicles his life.

This first authorized film poetically documents Seeger’s unique experience and contributions. The man who introduced America to its own folk heritage, he deeply believes in the power of song and is convinced that individuals can make a difference. Largely misunderstood by his critics, including the U.S. government, for his views on peace, civil rights and ecology, Seeger went from the top of the hit parade to the top of the blacklist — banned from commercial television for more than 17 years. His inspiring, but not always easy, story is told by everyone from Bob Dylan to the Dixie Chicks and through a remarkable historical archive — a history that Seeger himself, now almost 90 years old, helped create. AMERICAN MASTERS “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” airs Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV.

As early as August 18, 1955, folk singer Pete Seeger set himself apart as a “true American” when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to name names, stating, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” As a target of the communist witch hunt of the 1950s, Seeger was picketed, protested, blacklisted and, in spite of his enormous popularity, banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. Throughout his ordeal, and his life, he never stopped singing out — and speaking up. “I look upon myself as a planter of seeds,” the legendary artist and political activist says in AMERICAN MASTERS “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.”

AMERICAN MASTERS “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” airs Wednesday, February 27, 2008, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET on PBS. Directed by three-time Emmy Award-winner Jim Brown (“The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!,” “We Shall Overcome,” “The Three Pickers”), “The Power of Song” is the first and only authorized film biography of Seeger.

“AMERICAN MASTERS is the perfect venue for showcasing this brilliant film,” says series creator and executive producer Susan Lacy. “Our audiences expect authenticity and demand intellectual integrity in every one of our profiles — the very qualities that also make Pete Seeger a genuine American Master.”

Michael Cohl, chairman and chief executive officer of Live Nation Artists, said, “Pete has had a lasting influence on the fabric of America’s music — and its history — but he has always shunned self-promotion. It is a true honor that he agreed to allow us to document his life’s work. This honest, intimate film serves as a testament of his belief in the power of song above all else and his conviction that every one of us can make a difference.”

Now 88, Seeger was the architect of the folk revival, writing some of its best-known songs, including “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” In the film, anthems including “We Shall Overcome” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” underscore music’s importance to the civil rights and peace movements and show how Seeger used songs to drive the clean-up of the Hudson River, one of many issues still close to his heart.

The film illuminates Seeger’s belief in the ultimate power of song and his conviction that individuals can make a difference. While a member of the American Communist Party, he used music to organize labor unions and was blacklisted as a result. Musicians such as Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt appear in the film to discuss Seeger’s numerous contributions.

“He’s a living testament to the First Amendment,” says the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines in “The Power of Song.” Arlo Guthrie adds, “He really does believe that everybody has some kind of unique value.”

Producer-director Brown said, “Pete Seeger got a whole generation singing together and helped introduce America to its own folk heritage, while using music as an instrument for social change. He has no interest in personal gain and works tirelessly with his wife, Toshi, because he believes we are blindly destroying the world. There are lessons to be learned by exploring his life and music.”

The film is also a love story, an homage to his wife, who helped inspire “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” While on leave from the Army during World War II, Seeger married Toshi Ohta, a Japanese activist, and their marriage has endured for more than 60 years. “The Power of Song” includes first-ever family interviews and remarkable personal footage of the Seegers and their three young children shot in the early 1960s during a world tour to document music in such far-flung locales as Ghana, Tanzania and Czechoslovakia. The Seegers continue to live simply, in the woods, in a cabin Pete built himself.