Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Great Social Commentary Turns Monotonous In American Industrial Ballads By Pete Seeger.

The Good: Good lyrics, Generally decent presentation.
The Bad: Monotonous presentation, Musically unimpressive, Thematically oppressive, Short.
The Basics: Thematically oppressive and failing with any sense of musical or vocal diversity, American Industrial Ballads might have historical significance, but it is not Pete Seeger's best.

I am all too happy to admit that I have some weird pet peeves. One of them is I become unusually irked by people who tell me the reason I don't consider 2001: A Space Odyssey one of the top ten films of all time is because I don't "get" the film. I get it; I just think it is stiflingly boring. By similar extension, my father and I have a serious difference of opinion over some of the works of Pete Seeger. My father seems to take the tact that historical importance trumps any aesthetic issues with a musical work. So, in the case of American Industrial Ballads by Pete Seeger, he argues that because the folk songs on it made an impact at the time and reflected shifting attitudes in the late 1950s, the album is an instant classic that everyone should listen to and own.

I take a different view; American Industrial Ballads is musically mediocre, thematically repetitive and boring to listen to repeatedly. I'm not saying that the Smithsonian did something wrong by buying out Folkways Recordings to preserve the recordings of people like Pete Seeger and keep them in print, but rather that the album is not one of Seeger's best for anything OTHER than a historical document. Pete Seeger is my Artist Of The Month and I have enjoyed God Bless The Grass (reviewed here!) and generally liked his live album We Shall Overcome (reviewed here!), but American Industrial Ballads lacks a repeatable quality that those other albums have. Perhaps this is because I was born after the eight-hour workday was instituted or because I am a happy socialist (yes, I'm one of those people who argues that if you want to help the economic problems in the United States, lower the workweek to thirty hours a week while maintaining wages at their current rate!) who understands how much work our forebearers did on the problems, but the music on American Industrial Ballads is just old music. It has value, but low repeatability and low musical quality. The value of this album is almost exclusively in the lyrics.

With twenty-four songs, clocking out at 50:35, American Industrial Ballads is a concept album about the struggles of the labor movement. It casts workers as heroes against oppressive capitalist organizations. Workers are victimized physically, emotionally and spiritually throughout the album and given hope only in the unions and a sense of political optimism that is quaint. Indeed, it is only on a Pete Seeger album where the problems of political naivete will be solved when the abused shout, "But now I've roused up a little / Their greed and corruption I see / And the ticket we vote next November / Will be made up of hayseeds like me" ("Hayseed Like Me").

The album has very little of Pete Seeger's creative influence on it; the liner notes are especially unhelpful, but there are ten credited songs, none of which were written by Pete Seeger. The remaining fourteen are not credited with any writers, but it appears they are "traditional," meaning there is no known writer. Songs like "Peg And Awl" and "Seven Cent Cotton And Forty Cent Meat" have an older flavor to them, so the assumption that they are not written by Pete Seeger and are public domain songs is a fair one. In addition to not writing any of the songs, Seeger does not appear to have any production influence over the album. The result is an album where all Seeger does is sing and play his banjo.

This is not to say that he does either of those poorly. However, track to track, there is little musical deviation on the songs and the album has a monotonous quality to it that gets old fairly quickly. Instrumentally, the album is stark, basically one man strumming his banjo. He uses the banjo as an accent to his vocals on songs like "The Farmer Is The Man" and "The Blind Fiddler." "Beans, Bacon, And Gravy" has more of a tune to it, but still the vocals overwhelm the instrumental accompaniment to such an extent at times one can barely hear the banjo. There are no songs where the instrumental accompaniment actually dominates; there are no banjo tunes per se on this album and as a result, Seeger's playing is more punctuation to his words.

Vocally, Pete Seeger presents on American Industrial Ballads two ways. His range is smooth, mellow and mid-range, never going high on this album. He goes into a slightly lower than tenor range for songs like "He Lies In The American Land." But for the most part, he sings or singspeaks his songs one of two ways; forceful or slow and mournful. Songs like "Casey Jones" and "Hayseed Like Me" are loud, articulate, direct and energetic. They are songs designed to enrage and energize the listeners, to get them to overthrow the oppressive factory owners and institutions of capitalism. The singsong "The Farmer Is The Man" is designed to stick in the listener's head with the reminder of how important the farmer is to all walks of life and Seeger performs it memorably.

The other style of presentation on American Industrial Ballads are more traditional-sounding ballads. They are slow, mournful and sing the pain of the workers. Songs like "Peg And Awl" and " have sad-sounding refrains that make it sound like Seeger is weeping through the words. This very effectively captures the sense of angst and pain of the workers. "Let Them Wear Their Watches Fine" sounds like a funeral dirge.

One of the thematic problems with American Industrial Ballads is that some of the songs that are designed for social change are not accompanied by a socialist message. So, for example, on "Peg And Awl," the singer tells the story of making shoes and how hard and dangerous it is. By the end of the song, the worker is replaced by a machine which makes one hundred shoes to the human's one. It's hard to feel bad for the guy who is now out of the dangerous work because of automation when all he's done before that is cry out how bad his conditions are. It becomes a problem because he now has no training or experience for anything else. Given how anti-industrialization so many of the songs are (the next one has a man going blind from an industrial accident - "The Blind Fiddler"), the song is counter-thesis. The machine prevents more wounds, even as the man retires. The song becomes a horrifying history, but nothing beyond a record of conditions. As a result, it is hard to listen to over and over again.

As well, many of the songs - "Cotton Mill Colic" and "Seven Cent Cotton And Forty Cent Meat" - have the musical narrators dying of starvation and oppressive bills, so it's not like this is an upper of an album. Music does not need to be happy, but it is hard to see the audience that would find this an album they would want to keep listening to over and over again. I mean, sure, you could take it into your factory job and blare it, but I think your coworkers would probably be less impressed (I suspect they already know they work in crappy conditions for too little money) and if one of the supervisors heard it, they would most likely ask you if you wanted to take some time off to think. This is not like an album of depressing love lost songs where one can listen to them and wallow about universal human emotions; these are songs about being poor and oppressed. It's nowhere near as cathartic to listen to those over and over again!

So, this is a good historical document and it bears listening to, but it's a tough album to want to recommend people buy; it is intense, monotonous and fairly monotonal. As a result, I'm not recommending it . . . and it's not because I don't "get" it or appreciate the history of it.

The best song is "Hayseed Like Me," the low point (which is saying something on this depressing album) is the unmemorable and repetitive "Raggedy."

For other, former Artist Of The Month reviews, please check out my takes on:
@#%&*! Smilers! - Aimee Mann
It Ain't Easy: The Essential Recordings - Wilson Pickett
Greatest Hits - Red Hot Chili Peppers


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

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

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