Something was missing from “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the otherwise very good movie set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s.

The filmmakers captured the feeling of being broke during a cold city winter and the confusion of a character trying to reconcile the difference between who he really is and what he wants to be. It even got the cars, clothes and cigarette smoke just right.

But it left out the politics, and that’s a big omission.

The folk scene was made up, for the most part, of men and women “of the Left,” who saw injustices in the world that they wanted to fix. Their method to achieve those goals was collective action, where even the poor and weak are powerful if they stand together. And the way to bring those people together was through song.

You can see why the filmmakers might leave that part out. The idea of earnest people singing together believing they would change the world seems hopelessly naive. Could we take a character seriously who thought he was working for universal peace and freedom by learning the chords to “John Henry” or “Jimmy Crack Corn”?

Then there was Pete Seeger, not a movie character but a real person, who died Monday after 70-plus years of trying to do just that. He started with the labor movement in the 1940s (“The boss won’t listen when one man squawks, but he’s got to listen when the union talks!”) and went on to lead group singing around every important social change movement that followed.

Seeger’s biggest contribution might have been a small change he made to a traditional hymn that had been adopted by labor organizers in Tennessee. He changed “We will overcome,” to “We shall overcome,” providing the civil rights movement with an anthem that has been borrowed by freedom movements around the globe. He made the change, he said, because “we will” was too hard to sing.

“My basic philosophy of life is that I’m a teacher trying to teach people to participate, whether it’s banjos or guitars or politics,” he later said.

The high-water mark for this kind of participation was the March on Washington of 1963, when as many as 300,000 people, mostly black and mostly poor, sang “We Shall Overcome” in support of a civil rights bill that was languishing in Congress. Everybody remembers Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but the same podium was used that day for sing-alongs led by Seeger proteges Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.

At that time you would not be considered naive if you believed that a mass movement could change the world and that a song could bind that movement together. From that vantage point, it probably looked like an unstoppable force.

But that’s not how it ended up. There were plenty of victories after that, but the culture became progressively more individualistic and less inclined to collective action.

There is a great moment filmed at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival that is captured in the Martin Scorsese documentary about Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home.”

Dylan was performing in something called a “topical song writing workshop.” A year earlier, he had been the star of the festival, singing songs about war and injustice. This time, he was unveiling a new tune, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

The camera catches Seeger, head down, eyes closed, not moving a muscle, obviously concentrating. What was he thinking when he heard lyrics like “Take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind” or “And but for the sky there are no fences facing”?

Could he have seen that his movement of disparate people bound together by ancient songs anyone could sing was just about over?

If not then, he certainly saw it a year later, when Dylan, his star pupil, came back to Newport with a rock band that blasted the song “Like a Rolling Stone” (“How does it feel? To be on your own …”) so loud you couldn’t tell who was singing along.

Folk music just kept retreating from its place as a means of political organizing.

Seeger lived long enough to be a venerable institution. He performed on TV and at concerts on college campuses. His time on the McCarthyite blacklist in the ’50s became a badge of honor, and he led sing-alongs at the White House.

He became a celebrity, but he never was as powerful as when he was binding groups together.

Unions don’t sing much anymore, and neither do political campaigns. That’s too bad.

When people are all singing the same song, they are focusing on what connects them and not on the things that drive them apart. And a group that works together will always be more powerful than powerful individuals acting alone.

That might not be how it looks in the movies, but that’s how it happened in real life – and Pete Seeger is the proof.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at [email protected]