Written by: William Badgely
[WHAT’S UP: Bellingham’s Music Magazine, June 2014] Film maker Laura Archibald brings us this beautifully complex documentary, narrated by Susan Sarandon, weaving together animation, stock footage, beautiful music, and an impressive amount of interviews by an all star cast of characters to tell us the story of how a tiny neighborhood in New York City changed the world in the 1950s and 60s.
Through an exploration of the careers of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Loving Spoonful and many more, the film paints the Greenwich Village scene of the 1950s and 60s as the explosive blasting point for the miraculous social change to come in the back half of the 20th century.
Built on an artistic appreciation for the American Folk Music tradition, largely brought to light by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk music released in 1952, and a healthy disdain for the seemingly unmovable American social and political modes of the first half of the 20th century, the Greenwich Village movement brought about an immense amount of social change simply through the seeking of it.
“In the early 60s people were searching for something, they didn’t know what it was because what it was, was that they really weren’t searching yet, they were running away from something… and in running away, it was a free reign horizon,” stated Ritchie Havens (RIP) in the film.
As people began to adapt the American Folk Tradition to tell a modern American story, rather than just dutifully re-singing the songs of the past, the youth of Greenwich Village quickly realized the power of the then modern art form… and so did the City.
The city government of New York banned singing in Washington Square Park where hundreds had been congregating every Sunday to sing the songs of the new revolution. The backlash against the police action was paramount, cementing the anti establishment attitude and things quickly turned political.
But the art scene that had been largely concerned with social change up to that point had always had political undertones. Woody Guthrie, arguable the most revered fore runner of the Greenwich Village scene had a sign taped to his guitar during his time in WW2 that read, “This machine kills fascists.” And when he returned to the states when the war was over he decided that the sign was still relevant.
“People would ask him… ‘Hey Woody, Hitler’s dead, why don’t you take the sign off? And he would reply ‘Well this fascism comes around whenever the rich people get the generals to do what they want,’” stated Pete Seeger.
The suspicion and scrutiny of the activities of the American Government through the words and music of artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were quickly returned… both artists, and many others, were brought before The Committee of Un-American Activities for questioning. A beautifully simple reaction to the hearings is personified in the following quote: “What in the world is an ‘Un-American Activity’?” stated Pete Seeger.
Who knows? But one thing is certain, after the police action taken by the city no one in the Greenwich Village scene ever questioned the power or validity of what they were doing… and soon that power would be transferred into the homes of the average American teenager through the music of folks like Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan typified the pop expression of what was going not only because of his wide spread popularity but because his music clearly expressed that it wasn’t about being a good singer or about being a good guitarist but that it was about the message of the music.
Once the Vietnam conflict began, the elements of the Greenwich Village art and music scene exploded into a wild fire of change that roared through the next 40 years defining and aiding to movements such as gay freedom, civil rights, the rise of feminism, etc. movements of such epic proportions that they comprise a great part of how we are able to live today.