Art Doc of the Week | Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

We’ve long passed the point where someone saying they’re convinced that Donald Trump (or Ann Coulter or basically anyone on the Fox News payroll) is a performance artist might elicit a wry smile. Shit’s too grim. The current primary campaigns for the Republican and Democratic parties have made it painfully clear that whoever is elected or selected for president is irrelevant in one very crucial sense: the hellhounds of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and general ill-informed, misdirected rage won’t be brought to heel for years and years to come. God bless.

A frequently heard lament right now is that the music of our time, unlike that of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s (the decade that birthed Public Enemy and countless hip-hop acts they inspired and influenced before the culture was gentrified) is notably absent the protest songs and activist music artists of yesteryear. That’s not completely true (Jasiri X and Immortal Technique immediately come to mind) but if you’re looking to the pop charts, radio, or American Idol for your political fix, you’re looking in the wrong places.

It would also help if we counter the ahistorical culture in which we live and turn our ears to protest music from the past. The work of Miriam Makeba, Woody Guthrie, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone and many others is still tragically relevant today. And so is that of radical folkie Pete Seeger, who risked life and career repeatedly to call out the powers-that-be and dare this country to walk the talk of its so-called ideals. His best known songs include “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn Turn Turn” (a massive hit for the Byrds when they covered it in 1965) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – all of which he wrote – and his cover of “We Shall Overcome.”

“He saw himself as a citizen artist, an activist,” says Bruce Springsteen in the 2007 documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, describing one of his musical heroes (and a clear role model for him). The film itself serves several functions in the context of now. It puts the current moment in contexts both political and cultural, reminding the viewer that social struggle is simply a necessary component of American life. The ideals of freedom, justice and the unencumbered pursuit of happiness that are constantly espoused by mainstream politicians were never meant to apply to women, black people, people of color, immigrants or poor whites.

Seeger’s music is rooted in the impulse toward justice, and – as the trailer below makes clear – he was at the forefront of the social struggles of the mid-20th century. A lightbulb moment when he was a young man illumined the fact that the music of ordinary, poor Americans was as layered and worthy as highbrow classical fare, and that shifted the way he perceived the people. His run-ins with the FBI and the toll it took on his career and life are woven between testimonials from Bob Dylan, Natalie Merchant (whose infamous backlash after her withering comments about then-president George Bush was a most powerful, frightening barometer of just how far right and loony much of the country had swung), and other friends, family members and admirers. Watching the film is to be both hugely inspired and, perhaps oddly, a little soothed in the knowledge that “the fight” is nothing new, and it is possible to survive it as a thinking, empathetic human being.

Photo Courtesy Reuters

Previously on Art Doc of the Week: