During the Tribeca Film Festival, I happened to catch the world premiere of the documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. I have vague recollections of attending the Newport Folk Festival as a toddler, long before it became commercialized as the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival. So, I was curious to learn more about the man that taught me to sing such songs as “Little Boxes,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Also, through my brief interactions with the nonprofit organization Clearwater, I heard how he lent his voice to a grassroots movement to clean up the Hudson River, thus enabling me to sail, fish, and even kayak in what was once deemed a toxic waste dump.
In this only authorized biography of Pete Seeger, director Jim Brown documents the life of this popular folk singer/songwriter who was picketed, protested, and even blacklisted. In his quest to “make a difference,” Seeger saw himself as a New Testament planter of seeds (See Matthew 13:3-23, Mark 4:2-20, and Luke 8:4-15), who used his banjo as his tool to sow the seeds of music. While some seeds fell on rocky ground and other seeds blew away like dust in the wind, Seeger observed how some seeds flourished and grew into movements to address issues such as civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the environment.
In today’s cynical world, can we enact positive social change through artistic self-expression or is this notion simply a relic of a bygone era?
The recent success of the U2charists as a means to educate congregations about the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals seems to indicate that this spirit is still alive and thriving. Yes, I’m aware of the criticism surrounding a service that has even been parodied by The Daily Show, not to mention the slew of sappy Bono books penned by those who seem to be capitalizing on the U2 buzz.
Before discounting this as yet another celeb fest, ask Seattle area residents who were able to check out Church of the Apostles’ city wide U2charist worship service, held May 27 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. There was a MDG fair before the service, and offerings went to Episcopal Relief and Development for Darfur. I know Karen and her crew there well enough to know that this was a spirit-filled adventure that rocked the house.
As I explore a bit further the topic of artistic expression as a force for positive change, let me draw your attention to a few other movies that also had their world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Chops follows several multiracial high school jazz bands as they bond through this uniquely American art form while preparing to compete in the 2006 Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival. Anyone thinking about cutting music and art from their local high school curriculums should see this flick first. Simply put, I wonder about the fate of some of those kids had music not entered their lives. Also of note is Shame, which started last night on Showtime. Directed by Mohammed Ali Naqvi, this documentary follows the story of Mukhtaran Mai, who spoke out against her community and government after she was brutally gang-raped. She uses the reparations money granted to her by the Pakistani government to set up the first school for girls in her hometown of Meerwala, hoping to empower the next generation of women. On a side note to Sam Harris and those who blame religion for the world’s woes, this film explores how this tribal system allowed Mukhtaran to be raped and how she found solace in the mosque of all places. If this admittedly illiterate woman can find her voice and in her quest for justice transform her community, what prevents us from doing likewise?