By BILL WHITE
SPECIAL TO THE P-I
Unlike Jane Fonda, Pete Seeger is not about to apologize for his trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
One thing that comes across strongly in Jim Brown's documentary, "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song," is the consistency of the folksinger's beliefs throughout a long and turbulent career. He didn't quit The Weavers when they were blacklisted for their leftist politics; he quit when they did a cigarette commercial.
Whenever Seeger came up against a wall, he opened a door. Banned from network television, he produced his own folk music program for public TV. When the FBI made it difficult for him to perform in commercial venues, he took to the schools.
The film is an illustrated oral history of Seeger's life and work, driven by wall-to-wall music, most of it written and performed by Seeger. Exceptions include a rare clip of Bob Dylan singing "Blowin' in the Wind" from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, and Elizabeth Cotton performing "Freight Train" on Seeger's television show, "Rainbow Quest."
The music is always well integrated into the biographical material. The lovely "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" accompanies a collage of photographs picturing Seeger and his wife, Toshi. A clip of Paul Robeson singing "Joe Hill" introduces the beginning of Seeger's problems with the anti-Red movement.
Although Seeger was among the leading forces of the 1950s and '60s folk music revival, the film mistakenly credits him as its sole instigator. No mention is made of the political refugees from South Africa, such as Miriam Makeba, who fueled the civil rights movement with their forceful protest music. Also significantly absent is any reference to Phil Ochs, the country's most important topical songwriter since Woody Guthrie.
Director Brown has made a career of chronicling the history of American folk music, and "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" is a worthy companion piece to his 1982 debut, "The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time?" Somewhat compromised by an reverential tone, it is most successful when approaching its subject as a man, not a saint. Seeger's greatest attribute as a performer was his ability to get an audience to sing along, even when they didn't want to. Two years shy of his 90th birthday, he sums up his philosophy in these words: "Participation is going to save the human race."