Thursday, July 17, 2014

Songs for the ages

The stage of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y. is usually dominated by a large white screen. On July 10, it shared space with four guitars, three banjos and a violin propped up on stands – signals of an evening devoted to folk music icon and activist Pete Seeger.

With clips from the film Pete Seeger: The Power of Song and live performances by folk singers Tom Chapin, Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar, the evening kicked off “Sounds of Summer,” a festival of documentaries about music, running until Aug. 31.

“We certainly believe in the power of song to make the world a better place,” said John Platt, the evening’s host and director of communications & special projects at WFUV, the Fordham University-based radio station that is the series’ media partner.

The festival includes films on Woody Guthrie, Amy Winehouse, David Bromberg, Sgt. Pepper, Balkan brass music, gospel music, retired opera singers, indie pop and a restored 50th anniversary release of A Hard Day’s Night, the ultimate “music video.”

Folk singer Tom Chapin, with images of Pete and Toshi Seeger on screen.
Photo/Lynda Shenkman Curtis
Several of the screenings also will be accompanied by Q&As and performances, such as Ndiphilela Ukucula: I Live to Sing, which is about black opera singers from South Africa’s townships  studying at the once all-white University of Cape Town Opera School. One of the singers, baritone Thesele Kemane, who starts at Juilliard in the fall, will perform at the film’s screening on Aug. 25.

Seeger’s magnetism as a performer and his conviction that music holds us together and calls to our higher natures was apparent from the first few frames of The Power of Song. In black and white concert footage, Seeger, chin typically tilted upward, is playing guitar and singing Jacob’s Ladder.

“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” he sings, as a few audience members join in. Breaking off, he says in his distinctively clear, trumpet-like voice, “I don’t hear you!” and the singing in the auditorium swells on the next few lines until he is accompanied by a chorus of hundreds.

Seeger, who died last January at age 94, lived in Beacon and had an intimate connection with Westchester through his music and the Clearwater initiative to clean up the Hudson River. The film traces his eventful life, from his early years researching American folk music with historian Alan Lomax, through World War II military service to commercial success with The Weavers quartet.

In the 1950s, Seeger, a former Communist Party member, was blacklisted and refused to answer questions about his loyalties from the House Un-American Activities Committee. He said that as an American, his political and social beliefs were a private matter and their questioning was “immoral.” In the film, he is asked if he was frightened by that time. No, he said, because “I really believed in the long run that this country doesn’t go in for things like that.”

The film was paused several times to allow Chapin, Merena and Ungar to perform some of Seeger’s most beloved songs, with the audience enthusiastically joining in. Seeger composed or popularized such standards as Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, Turn, Turn, Turn and If I Had a Hammer. The film also describes Seeger’s part in making We Shall Overcome the anthem of the African-American civil rights movement and Waist Deep in the Big Muddy a searing indictment of the Vietnam War.

Platt interviewed on stage Seeger’s grandson, filmmaker Kitama Cahill-Jackson, and Guthrie’s granddaughter, Anna Canoni. Cahill-Jackson particularly noted Seeger’s late wife Toshi’s essential management of family and career. “If you see a homeless person playing on the street, that would have been Pete without my grandmother,” he said.

The Guthrie and Seeger families are still very close, said Canoni, adding that Seeger edited some of Guthrie’s early song versions, making lyrics simpler so they were easier for everyone to sing. “Pete found a way to make [a song] bigger,” said Canoni.

Cahill-Jackson noted that SeegerFest, a festival of free music and events, will take place July 17-21 in various New York City and Hudson Valley locations. Sing-alongs, of course, are part of it.

This story first appeared HERE