In 1961, two brothers, Michael and Philip Burton, set out to make a documentary about the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) by examining the citizens that were affected by their witch-hunts. One of their subjects was folk singer Pete Seeger, who granted the two young filmmakers, then in their early 20s, remarkable access. They Burton brothers pitched Seeger on the project at his Beacon, N.Y. home over pancakes, which ultimately led to the 26-minute documentary Wasn’t That a Time. “He was open to participating in the film from the get-go,” Michael Burton tells Rolling Stone of working with Seeger on this project. “He was self-effacing, wanting to hear as much from us as we heard from him. When he finally saw a rough cut, he momentarily showed a more image-conscious side of himself, but within a day gave us his permission and an endorsement.”
In the clip above – only recently made available online – viewers can watch 10 minutes of footage spliced together, which gives an impressive snapshot of Seeger’s life in very different phases: On his way to being sentenced for contempt of Congress in 1961; on his Beacon homestead; and lastly at a concert he gave at New York City’s Town Hall, where he plays “This Land Is Your Land” and greets throngs of young fans afterwards. Watch throughout the video as Seeger explains his philosophies on the Constitution and the power of music. But take time to cherish just how cool he was, whether it was staring down time in the slammer or playing in front of 1,000 people.
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Wasn’t That a Time premiered in January of 1962 at the New Yorker Theater. Over the years, occassional screenings have been shown at the Anthology Film Archives. Talks about wider distribution occurred, but distributors wanted narration and the filmmakers passed on that option. Still, it’s a fascinating peek inside a small fraction of Seeger’s life that would later become a defining part of history. “His affect was nearly always like the persona he displayed on camera,” Burton says. “Folksy, extremely earnest, idealistic to an unrealistic degree, community-minded, obsessed with curing social ills through music and a model family man.”