The autumnal feeling that descends over "Pure Pete Seeger" would seem to cut directly against the folk singer's lifetime of passionate commitment to the power of song and grass-roots activism.
This was a man, after all, who rode the rails with Woody Guthrie, cajoled record companies and TV networks into paying attention to folk music when swing and Sinatra ruled, and endured the McCarthy era blacklisting scourge. Pete Seeger, even at 75, is not one to go quietly into that good night.
Just as Bill Moyers did with poet Donald Hall, he has managed to get his crew for "Bill Moyers' Journal" to an artist's abode before that artist fades forever. The Seeger with whom Moyers chats on a slope overlooking the Hudson River is still wiry and has a little fire in his eye, but the fire is definitely waning.
Seeger apologizes for his weakened voice--which he needn't, because it adds a new, reedy, even haunting quality to a spiritual like "How Can I Keep From Singing?" But he admits the impossible, that maybe "I protested too much," and that, unsure about a mildly irreverent version of "That Old Time Religion," "I don't want to offend anyone." Seeger sings the song anyway, showing a glimpse of what the old corporate bosses used to call an agitator.
These are louder, nastier times for many of us, but quieter, calmer ones for Seeger since the Vietnam War era, when he became the anti-war movement's authentic troubadour, the living proof that you could trust someone over 30. He also showed that you can risk much with a song, as he did on "The Smothers Brothers Show" with his dramatic anti-war "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." CBS tried to cut it but relented and here we see a tape of the full, powerful performance as it finally aired.
Agitator? You bet.
\o7 * "Bill Moyers' Journal: Pure Pete Seeger" airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28, and at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.