Pete Seeger: Changing the World With Song

Isaiah J. Poole

Folk singer Pete Seeger’s book, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” includes a tribute to the people who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that recalls the spirit of fortitude and hope of the early civil rights movement — and asks us to recapture it in a post 9/11 world. One of the verses in “Take It from Dr. King” goes:

Songs, songs, songs
Kept them going and growing
They didn’t know all the millions
Of seeds they were sowing
They were singing in marches
Even singing in jail
Songs gave them the courage
To believe they were not fail

Seeger’s work in taking the passion against injustice and making it the cadence for change is the subject of a documentary, “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” that will begin airing on PBS stations February 27 (check your local listings) as part of the network’s “American Masters” series. It will also be shown at the first night of the Take Back America conference in Washington March 17.

The film about the progressive troubadour, now 88, was co-produced Norman Lear, who will receive CAF’s Lifetime Leadership award at the Take Back America conference awards dinner on March 18, and by Lara Bergthold.

Seeger’s lifetime of political activism is explored, from the 1950s anti-Communist witch hunts through today’s protests against the war in Iraq. But what Lear found particularly striking, he told The Washington Post, was Seeger’s personal life.

“I didn’t know a great deal of his history, though I knew of him musically,” Lear said of the composer whose writings include “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Little Boxes.”

“I didn’t know this man built a home with his own hands and lived on the land all those years and went out in the world to sing what’s on his mind,” Lear said.

Imagine Lear’s surprise when he first met Seeger at the singer’s home, about 60 miles north of New York: Seeger was outside, pushing a wheelbarrow down a hill, filled with logs he had cut himself.

“I realized I am looking at the mythic American,” Lear said. “This is the American we like to think we were; people who lived off the earth, who were frontiersmen.”

“I look upon myself as a planter of seeds,” Seeger says of himself. That may not fully capture the impact of Seeger’s work, but the documentary does show how the music of passionate progressives like Seeger can serve as the soundtrack of a transformational movement. It promises to be one of the more inspirational moments of the Take Back America conference.

UPDATE: A colleague informs me that one of the films presented at Take Back America last year, “Taxi to the Darkside,” went on receive an Oscar® for best documentary. Take Back America is becoming a showplace for the most compelling movies on the issues we care about.

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