Pete Seeger, who was honored tonight in a film broadcast on Channel Thirteen, is a heroic folksinger and activist. He is also a New Yorker. Indeed, it is impossible to understand his life without appreciating how his work has long been woven into our city and state.
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, an American Masters documentary produced by Norman Lear and Seeger's wife Toshi, recognizes both the Greenwich Village Old Left scene that surrounded Seeger's work with the Almanac Singers and his more recent role in cleaning up the Hudson River with the sloop Clearwater.
Th film is honest about the place of the Communist Party in Seeger's life, although it ignores the Almanacs' opposition to US intervention in World War II during the days of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. It also depicts the ugly blacklisting that surrounded his career long after he left the Party in 1949.
In footage of Pete and Toshi visiting the Village, viewers get to see the house where Pete lived in his days with the Almanacs. We also learn that Pete proposed to Toshi while they walked along Washington Square and, more importantly, that his lifelong activism would have been impossible without the enormous work she did keeping home and family together.
Scenes filmed at the log home that Seeger built overlooking the Hudson in Beacon lead into a long section on the sloop Clearwater and Seeger's environmental activism. And a brief appearance by George Pataki endorsing Seeger's work is a well-deserved tribute and a great example of the Old Left's ability to work with mainstream political leaders to achieve valuable goals like cleaning up the Hudson.
In interviews for the film, Seeger persuasively comes off as radical deeply in the American grain. He cites Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and persuasively displays the deep patriotism of a man who loves his country but wants to put it right. In one particularly moving segment, Seeger-who visited North Vietnam in 1972--describes meeting a veteran after a concert. The vet was so angry at Seeger that he wanted to kill him. Instead, they talked and wound up singing together.
The film has plenty of interviews with people such as Dylan, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen. But for me, the best material is old footage of Seeger singing "We Shall Overcome" at a civil rights demonstration and more recent footage of Seeger living in the country by the banks of the Hudson.
I've been singing along with Pete Seeger for almost forty years. For a long time, his ability to combine optimism about the American future with a tough commitment to social change has made me proud to be an American. As the film reminded me, Seeger's life's work, so intimately bound up with our city and state, can also make us proud of him as a New Yorker.