American Folk Anthology

28 Jan


The news of Pete Seeger’s death, at the age of 94, came this morning so today’s post features a 2008 triple CD compilation on the NotNow Music label (NOT3CD020).

In his long and illustrious career as a musician, writer and activist, Pete Seeger made over a hundred albums and this collection brings together three, recorded in 1957. These are  ‘American Ballads‘ , ‘American Favourite Ballads‘ and ‘American Industrial Ballads‘ plus a handful of bonus tracks bringing the total to sixty songs. In the US the cultural significance of these recordings is recognised and they form part of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution (see ). In Europe though, the recordings are out of copyright although this package has been pulled together with more care and attention than is often the case.

The production throughout  is unadorned –  with Pete Seeger’s own banjo playing the only accompaniment to his light tenor voice. The only exception I can think of without listening to every track is one of the bonuses (The Weavers’ ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’ with full orchestration).  Because of the ‘sameness’ of the sound, I tend not to listen to more than a few tracks at a time – but the songs are ones I return to regularly (as an exercise it’s fun to check out Seeger’s versions of the songs which Bruce Springsteen included in his 2006 ‘Seeger Sessions‘  homage to the music!). The simple unadorned delivery focuses attention onto the songs though – and what songs!

Most of the sixty tracks here are firmly grounded in  the American folk tradition (Old Dan Tucker, Casey Jones, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Blue Tail Fly and many, many more) but there are others that remind listeners how many old songs travelled to the new world from the British Isles with the early settlers and are part of a shared cultural heritage (Barbara Allen, Gypsy Davy,The Golden Vanity and The Derby Ram for example).   Not all songs were familiar to me although there are some (like St James Hospital, aka St James Infirmary/Streets of Laredo/Gamblers Blues, or in the English tradition, The Unfortunate Rake) I have in multiple versions and styles!  Most are traditional – but a fair number of the final 24 tracks (the ‘Industrial Ballads’) are not – although, irritatingly the package doesn’t give details.

The online obituaries (and those in tomorrow’s papers I expect) reveal the richness of Pete Seeger’s legacy: As a composer (If I Had A Hammer and Turn, Turn, Turn) and  as an activist (civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, pro-environmentalism, even Occupy Wall Street).  As a communist, his cannot have been the easiest of paths to follow in the USA. His refusal to be cowed by McCathyite witchunts back in the fifties was laudable but led to him being blacklisted by broadcasters for many years. What stands out for me though is also his  ‘curatorial’ role in passing songs on (he didn’t compose ‘We Shall Overcome’  for example but he certainly brought it to new audiences) and this collection is an ample demonstration  of his role in shaping American music (even when, as with Bob Dylan going electric at Newport, he was wrong).

Time alone will tell, but if only for today, I want to think Pete Seeger’s contribution is up there with Woody Guthrie as a giant of North American folk music.

PS: This Obit is more eloquent but says what I wanted to say!


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