By Judith S. Gillies
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Pete Seeger, now 88, has songs that he's been singing for decades all over this land.
The folk singer, songwriter and activist has raised his voice for organized labor, peace and civil rights.
And he's largely managed to elude the trappings of celebrity. He and his wife of nearly 65 years live simply in a log cabin they built overlooking the Hudson River.
A 90-minute PBS documentary, "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song," presented as part of the "American Masters" series, is a tribute to his life.
The film uses clips from Seeger's performances and covers his childhood as the son of two musicians; his Communist Party membership; his service in the Army during World War II; his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee; and his anti-war and civil rights activism.
"Everything moved around him, but he stayed centered," said Norman Lear, an icon himself and an executive producer for the show.
"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."
Seeger likes to be connected to the land. A lack of money was part of the reason he built his log home years ago, he said, "but philosophically I feel happier when I can get my own fresh water out of a well."
He has been a strong voice for the environment, working to clean up the Hudson River.
The film biography includes interviews with musicians such as Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, as well as family members.
Toshi and Pete Seeger will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary in July, and he attributes the long marriage to her "being patient with me for decades," he said.
"It's a family joke that Toshi has always said, 'If only Peter had chased women instead of chasing causes, I'd have an excuse to leave him,'" Seeger said.
But, as Pete's brother John says in the film, "Toshi enabled Pete to be Pete and to play all over the United States while she brought up children."
Regrets? Seeger says he has "millions of them -- stupid things I've done here and there." His criticism of the PBS tribute is that it "didn't show any of the stupid things I've done."
Director Jim Brown has known Seeger for a long time, said Susan Lacy, executive producer of the "American Masters" series, and Brown wasn't trying to make a totally balanced film. "That's not meant in a negative way," she said. "It's just that Pete Seeger is such a principled idealist, such a good man."
Of the many things he's done, Seeger said he's proudest of being able to get people singing together.
"I don't just like to sing songs [by myself] but like to get crowds singing along," Seeger said. Remembering one of his concerts at New York's Lincoln Center, he said, "you'd be surprised how good 5,000 people can sound."
AMERICAN MASTERS: PETE SEEGER
Wednesday, 10:30 p.m.
March 2, 10 p.m.
ONLINE: Listen to "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," one of Seeger's songs, at http://washingtonpost.com/tv.'Everything Moved Around Him, but He Stayed Centered'
A sampling of what Seeger has done:
Rode the rails with folk singer Woody Guthrie
Worked with music historians John and Alan Lomax, documenting folk music for the Library of Congress
Served in the Army in World War II, initially repairing aircraft engines
Traveled with the Henry Wallace presidential campaign in 1948
Wrote an instruction manual on how to play the banjo
With the Weavers, topped the charts with hits such as "Goodnight Irene," "On Top of Old Smokey," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine"
Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee; cited on several counts of contempt of Congress; found guilty on some of the charges, which later were dismissed on appeal
Took his family on an around-the- world trip to play/study music in 1962
Organized a revival of the Newport (R.I.) Folk Festival
Added verses to, and helped popularize, "We Shall Overcome"
Awarded National Medal of Arts, a Grammy and Kennedy Center Honors
Wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," a sing-along memoir, with the third edition due out later this year