Tag Archives: Pete Seeger

[19] The Almanac Singers – The Complete General Recordings

16 Aug

It’s is a strange feeling, reviewing an album when you have met the artist in question, got to know him a little over many years.

I have had the privilege of interacting with Pete Seeger over two decades working at the summer camp “next door” to his home. I have seen him awe and inspire kids year after year with his storytelling, his integrity.

He really is larger than life, and at the same time utterly unpretentious, completely ego free.

This week’s recording is a career retrospective of Seeger’s first band, formed with performers every bit his equal as heavyweights of Folk – Lee Hayes and Woody Guthrie.

The Almanac Singers

The Almanac Singers











The music chugs along with the oh-so-familiar call and response structure – repetitive and comforting, with simple seeming banjo picking and harmonica flourishes.

A valid question becomes, was it so familiar before these earnest young men introduced it to a wider audience?

There is a slightly odd mix of protest songs – for and against all manner of things – and traditional sea shanties, all of it incessantly catchy.  Each song is a new earworm.

The album introduces an early cut of an upcoming “1,000 Recordings” entry “The House of the Rising Sun.” Here are the original lyrics, sung by Woody Guthrie from the point of view of the woman rather than the  testosterone laden version made famous by The Animals. It is interesting enough from a historical perspective, but this is far less musically engaging than seemingly every subsequent cover.

“House Of The Rising Sun” is not the only gender bending song – a number of them are sung unapologetically from the point of view of the opposite sex, with no fuss or reference to the phenomenon.

Even more fascinating is the changing and emerging politics of the songs. The very first ones, recorded in 1941, are quite defiantly anti-war as well as consciously towing the Communist line – militant, decidedly inflammatory anti-owner sentiment that would be almost unthinkable today:

“He’s a bastard / Slave driver / Unfair / Bet he beats his wife . . .”

You can pinpoint the moment that both The Almanac’s and Communist Party’s position changed – Pearl Harbor.

The reversals can give a listener whiplash – they are epically schizophrenic. One minute the singers are bashing the warmongerers, the next dancing “Round, Round Hitler’s Grave.”

And somehow each song is as heartfelt and believable as the other.

The one constant is the staunch pro-union stance that underlines it all. Even the Old-English sea shanties take a backseat to these seemingly effective (and undeniably catchy) slices of 40s propaganda.

Seeger and company sang at a time when union organizing was a necessity, when unions really were for the little guy, rather than as much a part of the problem as “the bosses” that they can be today.

What is amazing is that he’s still singing some of these songs more than seventy years later with the same passion and conviction, if with an undeniably diminished instrument.

I saw him perform “Union Maid” (along with many other songs from his unbelievable career) to an audience of 500 kids just last summer. Before beginning his performance, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer paused to look from the stage, into the faces filling the beautiful outdoor theater and said, “I’m looking at the future of this country.”

Still a storyteller at heart. Still inspiring. Still with one key message, summed up in “Dear Mister President”:

This is the reason that I want to fight / Not ’cause everything’s perfect or everything’s right / No it’s just the opposite I’m fighting because / I want a better America and better laws / And better homes and jobs and schools / And no more Jim Crow and no more rules like / “You can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro” / “You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew.”

Hard to disagree with someone who talks this kind of sense.

Owned before blogging? No. (1 of 19. 5%)
Heard before blogging? No. (3 of 19. 16%)
Recommend? Yes. (15 of 19. 79%)

Next Week: Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – Whipped Cream & Other Delights


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