Saturday, May 14, 2011

Another Folk Artist Of The Month, Pete Seeger, Starts Big With God Bless The Grass!

The Good: Good vocals, Good lyrics, Still relevant today
The Bad: SHORT, Musically limited
The Basics: Dripping and polluted water, corrupt landlords and overpopulation are made musical on Pete Seeger's album God Bless The Grass.

For those who might not read my many reviews, I am a big fan of folk music. In fact, I was raised on the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and Arlo Gutherie, as they were my father's favorite (non-Classical) artists to subject us to on family trips. Despite pretty much loathing the music as a kid, when the time came for me to rebel and develop my own tastes, I found I could not stand the stupid rhymes and dumb dance-themes of traditional pop-rock music and I found myself enjoying artists who actually had something to say. This meant pop-rock artists who never were truly popular and folk-rock artists tended to get my attention. As a result, as I expand my musical knowledge and explore other artists, it is no surprise I might devote a month to Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger was one of my Artist Of The Months and I am pleased to say that I'm starting out with one of his more obscure albums, God Bless The Grass. It is somewhat surprising with all of the music I listen to that I've never yet listened to or reviewed a Pete Seeger album (since becoming a reviewer). The closest I've come before today is Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, but for this month, I suspect I shall be reviewing this valuable artist's work.

With twenty-one songs, clocking in at 46:44, God Bless The Grass is a simple folk-rock concept album focused on saving the environment and fighting over-industrialization. Pete Seeger is not a technophobe, but rather a man crusading to keep natural resources as untainted as possible. Originally an eighteen song record, the compact disc version adds three previously unreleased songs and rounds the album out. What might surprise listeners to this album most is how little singer-songwriter Pete Seeger actually created for the album.

Seeger is only credited with writing "My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song)," and co-writing four other songs. There are almost as many public domain songs or songs written by Reynolds as Seeger wrote! Even so, Seeger provides all of the lead vocals and on the harmonica rendition of "America The Beautiful," it is Pete Seeger who is playing the harmonica. The album was produced by Tom Wilson, so it is questionable how much creative control Pete Seeger had in the making of this album. He plays banjo on most of the tracks and given how stark the instrumental accompaniment is on most of the tracks, he might be the only person playing an instrument on the album.

Folk music is not, traditionally, known for having rich instrumentals and the songs on God Bless The Grass are an embodiment of that tradition. Pete Seeger accompanies his vocals with the guitar or banjo and the overall sound is that of one man and his stringed instrument. On "Pretty Saro," he plays a woodwind that sounds remarkably like an ocarina. That song is slow, sad and carries the flavor of nature that the other tracks use lyrics to convey. Largely, though, the album is banjo and guitar strumming to create a harmony for the singing. The problem here is that several of the songs sound alike. "The Faucets Are Dripping" and "The People Are Scratching" have remarkably similar tunes.

Moreover, this concept album works very well as a concept album, but it does not have a real single. None of these songs stand out like "Where Have All The Flowers Gone;" God Bless The Grass contains no instantly recognizable tunes like that one for those who have never heard Pete Seeger's works to say, "Oh, that's Seeger . . ."

Vocally, Pete Seeger is an able singer. He generally has a smooth tenor voice that clearly articulates his socially-conscious lines. The sound is consistent through most of the album, though he does challenge himself from time to time. He starts the album out with a bolder, more straightforward sound on "The Power And The Glory" and he goes deep and up into the falsetto range for "Coyote, My Little Brother." He is quite able and willing to sing with irony in his voice on songs like "70 Miles" and "My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song)." He also sings in Spanish on "Preserven El Parque Elysian."

"God Bless The Grass" is all about preservation. It reflects a mid-1960s sensibility of environmental conservation and population control. Seeger boldly sings about the problems of overpopulation as he mellowly notes, "I have a rabbit / It's eyes are blue / If I had another / Then I'd have two. . . Look, mommy, look, see what I've found / I found another rabbit, his hair is brown . . . I've got ten rabbits . . ." ("I Have A Rabbit"). The song, naturally progresses until the singer has six hundred rabbits and has no idea what to do! This is something one does not hear in most songs these days, but illustrates a very real problem that is still relevant today.

Even more intriguing is the song "The People Are Scratching," which continues the rabbit motif. Seeger explores a genuine environmental problem in the song by tracing the food chain. In the song, a rough winter kills small plants, the rabbits have nothing to eat, so they eat the bark off trees, which implies menace to crops. Seeger deftly sings, "The farmers said, 'This sort of thing won't do / Our trees will be dead when the rabbits get through / We'll have to poison the rabbits it's clear / Or we'll have no crops to harvest next year' . . . So they bought the poison and spread it around / And soon dead rabbits began to be found / Dogs ate the rabbits, the farmer's just said / 'We'll poison the rabbits until each dog is dead!'" ("The People Are Scratching"). The cycle is carried through with the mice and owls taking over, destroying the crops and the poisons entering the food chain! This is an environmental horror song and it resonates still.

It's not all gross, though, Seeger does use his keen mind - and good song selection - to make his point well. Water conservation is incredibly important to Seeger - the liner notes have Justice Douglas's comments on conservation. He refers to San Francisco Bay as "a garbage dump" in "70 Miles" and he rails against the condition of the Hudson River in the song he wrote.

"God Bless The Grass" is still relevant and because so many of the songs are missing from his collections and anthologies, the concept album holds up brilliantly even today. Anyone who likes folk-rock music or cares about conservation is likely to appreciate the themes and executions of those themes on this album.

The best track is "The Faucets Are Dripping," the low point is the less memorable "Barbara Allen."

For previous Artists Of The Month, please check out my reviews of:
Lifelines - Peter, Paul And Mary
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
50 Greatest Hits - Reba McEntire


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission

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