Interview: Director Jim Brown
Wed, 27 Aug 2008 13:29:19
Jim Brown holds great affection for folk singer Pete Seeger. That's why the director crafted an entire documentary about the trials and tribulations Seeger faced as a left-leaning American whose patriotism was called into question because of media misconceptions. But Brown didn't make the documentary for himself. He made it for Americans, who ought to thank Seeger for toiling for intangibles like freedom and civil rights while confronting issues like environmentalism and labor unions, since these problems continue to plague our nation. If you've not been previously privy to the folk songs or the folklore of Pete Seeger, who is still alive and well, then
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song will serve as an educational tool about a time in America when the Communist Party meant something markedly different then it did in the 1980s and when protest was a form of patriotism. It also lets the audience in on Pete Seeger the man, the singer, and the radical. We chatted with Brown, a longtime folk documentarian, around the time of the DVD's release.
You have a colorful past, having worked on Sesame Street!
I did work on Sesame Street on a freelance basis. I was doing their remotes and I did a series on ethnicity for children and we did sketches on Native Americans and Mexican-American kids, like Big Bird going to a Mexican rodeo. I worked on parts that had the characters going outside of the studio.
You've made a career out of documenting folk singers and folk music. What's the impetus for that subject?
I am 58-years-old, so I grew up in the 1960s and I was learning guitar in the late 1950s when folk music was hitting its stride in terms of being a commercial form of music with Peter, Paul & Mary and such. I learned from good people. Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger's best friend and writing partner, moved to the town where I was living. I loved hearing about Woody Guthrie and I was aware of how American roots music was like bluegrass, folk, and gospel. Lee Hayes became a big influence on my life and he was a mentor of sorts. I went to film school in the early '60s and '70s and was active in music. When I got out of film school, I was taking polluters of the Hudson River to court by using film as evidence! As it turned out, a few years later, in my late 20s, Lee was sick and dying and wanted to have a Weavers performance, which we filmed and recorded at Carnegie Hall. It was popular theatrically and was on PBS for the next 16 years as part of a fundraiser. That was a hit. And I was interested in music, so I worked with Pete's manager and did projects with some of his clients. It all fell into place.
How do you maintain objectivity with your subjects? It must be hard for documentarians to distance themselves from their subject matter to remain unbiased, but you get so close. Do you have any methods for keeping things objective? Any tips for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
That's a hard one. With Pete, it was difficult since I admired him so much as a person that we would see each other for work and had known each other a long time. The hardest thing was that I wanted the film to be so good for him that it was hard for me to finish the film. I wanted to get his message across and not just reach folkies but the widest possible audience because he is a necessary and important voice for some of the problems we are facing in the present. That was the hardest thing, to finish the film since I was going to greater lengths than usual to make it look good for him. In terms of shaping the film and showing it, since it's an organic process and since the subjects are so close to their own story, they may not even be objective about their own life story. That is where I tried to maintain a little bit of distance, by telling the story through final editing. I thought it did him justice and made him understandable and made his politics and philosophies understandable. Here's a guy who was speaking up for what he believed in, like civil rights, peace, labor unions, and environmentalism and he was chastised because of the left-leaning nature of his politics. At the end of his life, he became a local and national hero. The things he stood for, the things that were controversial during the 1960s, turned out to be right.
Pete was a member of the Communist Party in America, but that term and political belief system meant something quite different in the '50s and '60s.
The American Communist Party was political party in the United States at a time when the Depression was going on, when capitalism had failed and bosses and corporations were trying desperately, and using violence, to prevent organized unions. At that time, Communists were idealistic people in America who spoke out on issues of racism and unionism when there were segregation laws on the books. They believed in equal treatment of all people and fought for that. After World War II and during the Cold War, there was a recasting of what the Communists were. To be an American communist meant to be subversive. Pete never meant to be subversive. He is one of the greatest patriots I know. There was a popular equating of Marxist and Communists as Stalinists. That's when Pete fell out with the party. But he was always well-meaning.
Was it difficult to secure interviews with folky icons like Bruce Springsteen and the interview-shy Bob Dylan?
I worked with Bruce before. I had worked with him on two films and he was fine with being a part of a biography on Pete. Bob's manager is a friend and a partner, and it was impossible to get Bob to sit down for an interview! Few interviewers have gotten him. When he did interviews for the Scorsese film, No Direction Home, he talked about Pete and the people who worked on that film were kind enough to share that footage of Bob talking about Pete with us. Pete was important to Bob in the early days. Pete was a little different. He would promote people and say, "You should listen to this guy." He did that with Dylan, said Dylan was important, and they had a mutual admiration of one another.
Why did you pick Pete Seeger? Was your thesis to paint him in a more sympathetic light, since he was so misunderstood?
The story angle was good. Pete was an important voice that spoke out early on about peace and environmental issues, all the things that we face now! His whole relationship with the government offers a lot of lessons for today in terms of censorship, when he was being hauled before The House of Un-American Activities Committee! He was the only artist kept off television. There were lessons that might be applicable to some things we face today! Classically, Pete's story is a good story. Here's a guy who goes out and speaks his mind for idealistic reasons and is made an enemy of the people. Decades later, time proves him to be right on most of the issues and he becomes a national hero for it. That is the lesson that sometimes the press spins in an untrue way. Pete also turned America onto its own wonderful folk music and he popularized that music, by researching it at the Library of Congress. He had a vision. He saw America as this new country with this music that came from different ethnic groups, got shaken around and came out as a new culture. He saw the music as important and pervasive, since it spawned rock and roll. He used music as a social catalyst.
There's a lovely scene in the film when Seeger talks about how music can either help you deal with troublesome situations or be used as a vehicle to change your troublesome situations in life.
Right. That is what he was about. He was trying to get people to sing at his concerts since he felt that if everyone sang together, it unified them and amplified social issues they faced. He found electronic media taking over and that people were beginning to listen to records and consumers were paying people to make music when he wanted to people to learn to sing and to play the music themselves. He wanted people to play banjo so they could enjoy that and enage in it.
What's something you learned by profiling Seeger than you may not have known prior, even though you knew him already.
He's a good skier and that surprised me. That's in the DVD extras. I knew he skied but I didn't know he was so good. I knew his love of nature was profound but I learned more about it and his philosophy. I got to go deeper with the labor movement struggles and various chapters in his life. I got to probe deeper than our friendship had allowed at the time. I knew his family but got to know them better. These people hauled water, started fires, built a log cabin by hand, and followed an honorable American tradition that Pete tried to uphold.
Any recommendations for viewers watching the DVD?
In film, you have to squeeze everything down to 90 minutes, so it's good to watch the extras. Having DVD extras is a great concept, since you can include special gems that didn't fit into the flow of the film but that we wanted to keep but couldn't when we were trimming or tightening the story. They are still important and worth keeping, so we put them in the extras. There are great ones on this DVD! Watching Pete Seeger ski is interesting as he is a guy in his late 80s. There are some films the Seegers made, in their entirety, to teach the banjo. That's rare! Those are two that I think people would enjoy most.
— Amy Sciarretto