When I think of Pete Seeger, I don’t think of movies. His impact was best felt in person: a guy with a banjo spreading the word about the dignity of work, the value of freedom, the horror of war, the desperate need to make the world a better place. Or, as one of his most famous songs would have it, to contribute to the “love between my brothers and my sisters . . . a-a-a-all over this land.”
Pete Seeger roamed the country, singing for whoever would listen, and encouraging folks to join in on the chorus. Some friends of mine once had a big adventure that speaks to Seeger’s creative activism. A New Yorker by birth, he was deploring the sorry state of the Hudson River. So in 1966 he commissioned a replica of a 19th century sloop, christened it the Clearwater, then gathered a group of young musicians to sail it up and down the river, singing traditional sea chanties along the way. The sloop still exists, as does Seeger’s annual music and environmental festival, the Great Hudson River Revival.
But though Seeger was best savored by live crowds, he couldn’t be everywhere at once (though he sometimes seemed so). Which is why many know him mostly through his media appearances. One such was 1967’s Festival, an Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicles performances at the famous Newport Folk Festival from 1963 through 1965. Seeger was very much in evidence, especially backstage at the notorious 1965 appearance of Bob Dylan, who chose to segue from traditional acoustic music to electric rock. The camera captures Seeger’s disapproval, though he may have been speaking more to the quality of the sound than to Dylan’s musical choices when he told audio technicians, “If I had an axe, I'd chop the microphone cable right now.” Dylan’s apparent betrayal of the folk music ethos adds drama to the documentary, which was soon followed by such major concert films as Monterey Pop (1968) and Woodstock (1970).
Also in 1967, Seeger validated his anti-war credentials on the popular Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song obviously referring to the dangerous escalation of the Vietnam War. His performance was snipped by the CBS brass, not the first time Seeger was treated as a serious social threat. But years later he received a Kennedy Center honor, and led Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at the inaugural concert of Barack Obama. I don’t recall him being mentioned in Inside Llewyn Davis, but every folk musician portrayed in that film would surely consider Pete Seeger a mentor and an inspiration.
Like Pete Seeger, the Super Bowl has owed much to mass media. It debuted in 1967, by which time most American households owned color TV sets. As we’ll surely see this Sunday, when Super Bowl XLVIII kicks off in New Jersey, the merger of sports and showbiz is part of the whole point. Among the elaborate commercials planned for this year, at least one will promote an upcoming movie, Muppets Most Wanted. (Presumably Pete Seeger was never asked to do a halftime show.)
Personally, I prefer folk music to football, and so I have not seen many movies with gridiron settings. I do remember Alan Alda playing George Plimpton, the journalist who made an unlikely neophyte quarterback in Paper Lion, but I never watched Burt Reynolds’ Semi-Tough, nor the Friday Night Lights film and spinoff TV series. I’ve survived, though, the corniest football movie of them all, Knute Rockne All American, with a dying Ronald Reagan heroically urging his teammates to win one for the Gipper.