In Todd Haynes’ wildy inventive 2007 film I’m Not There (winner of the inaugural Robert Altman Award at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards), a character based on Pete Seeger attempts to take an axe to the sound cables at the Newport Folk Festival during the loud, distorted electric performance of a character based on Bob Dylan, played by Cate Blanchett (a performance for which she won a Golden Globe). What’s closer to the actual truth is that Seeger asked the soundman if he could lower the instruments so he could hear Dylan’s words. When told the sound was the way Dylan wanted it, Seeger claims he told the soundman that “if” he had an axe, he’d cut the wires.
That the story has been misconstrued over the years isn’t altogether surprising. Seeger’s influence looms large over American music and social history, but he’s always been largely misunderstood — especially by the U.S. government — for his views on peace, civil rights and ecology. He went from the top of the hit parade to the top of the blacklist — banned from commercial television for more than 17 years. In the American Masters presentation of “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” his inspiring, but not always easy, story is told by everyone from Bob Dylan to the Dixie Chicks and through a remarkable historical archive — a history that Seeger himself, now almost 90 years old, helped create. “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” the first authorized biography of the singer and activist, airs on NPT tonight, Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 8:00 p.m. CT.