Thursday, June 16, 2011

Another Underwhelming Collection Of Children's Music: Folk Songs For Young People.

The Good: Good vocals, Nothing offensive
The Bad: Very short, Generally similar to other kid's albums (nothing distinctive)
The Basics: An utterly underwhelming collection of children's songs, Folk Songs For Young People has nothing special from Pete Seeger.

A few days ago, as part of my monthlong study of Pete Seeger's works, I encountered one of Seeger's many albums compiled for children, Stories & Songs For Little Children (reviewed here!). As one who is blissfully childfree, I have little use for albums of kid's music. Still, to try to get a well-rounded view of all of the works of Pete Seeger, I still gave the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings album Folk Songs For Young People a fair shake. Now, though, I am wishing I had not wasted my time.

This recording is similar to the other one I listened to, only a minute longer, and lacking in the social progressiveness of the other album. Whereas the other album had interesting stories and a few truly multicultural songs, Folk Songs For Young People is bogged down by singsong tunes that do not resonate and pointless little songs - like "Pepsi-Cola" - that are troubling coming from Pete Seeger. This became an even easier album to recommend avoiding when I played it for some progressive children and they are bored by it.

With seventeen songs, clocking out at 37:32, Folk Songs For Young People is more like "simple songs for people with short attention spans. Most of the songs are two minutes or under in length and some of the longer ones - "Oh, Worrycare" - are utterly unmemorable. Almost all of the songs are public domain songs and as a result, it is not like these are definitively Pete Seeger's works. They are his interpretations of them, but he plays songs like "Skip To My Lou" and "Dayenu" in remarkably pedestrian ways, adding little flare of his own to them. In fact, were it not for Seeger's introduction to "Skip To My Lou," that song would lack any sense of educational value and start the album off poorly.

Pete Seeger did not write any of the songs. He does perform all of the lead vocals on this album - though he does lead singalongs on "Dayenu" and "On Top Of Old Smokey." He plays his banjo on the various songs as well. He does not, however, have any production credit on the album, so this is very much a limited view of Seeger as an artist. This is noteworthy because the Smithsonian tried quite hard to preserve Seeger's recordings and this seems like something of an academic exercise in this case.

Pete Seeger does have a nice voice, which he displays on the songs on this album. He is energetic on "John Henry" and he opens the album with a sense of being a benevolent, wisdom-bearing grandfather on "Skip To My Lou," when he explains how music is passed from person to person. Seeger has a beautiful tenor voice and he is perfectly articulate throughout the album. There is not a single line which cannot be easily understood by Seeger's vocals on Folk Songs For Young People.

However, there are a few moments that drag because of how he presents his smooth, easy vocals. When he presents "Vignidig A Fremd Kind" in its original German (?) and the song "Pepsi-Cola," which is little more than a schoolyard jingle, the flow of the album is disrupted. Seeger's banjo playing is flawless on Folk Songs For Young People and on this album, Seeger presents himself as a musical purist. Outside the interjection of stories and observations to his songs, Seeger is straightforward with his presentations. As a result, Seeger's banjo playing is very much by the numbers, there are no improvisations, no variations and nothing that makes this children's album more distinctive than any of a hundred other children's albums on the market.

The problem with this album comes in its lack of educational value or originality. "The Farmer Is The Man" helps educate children to the capitalistic realities of a farmer's life, but while it sounds good, most children are likely to miss the subtlety of the social agenda being presented. This album, unlike the other one I listened to, lacks a strong multicultural core. Instead, it has anthems that work better within the dominant judeo-christian tradition that Seeger's other works occasionally rebel against. Those looking for that kind of album (the conformist view) will appreciate the presence of songs like "Joshua Fought The Battle Of Jericho" and "Dayenu."

But the use of traditional songs like "Skip To My Lou" and "On Top Of Old Smokey" dominate the album with their simple tunes and the fact that Seeger does not present them with anything to make them distinctive or his makes Folk Songs For Young People an impossible sell. Given how many of Seeger's songs have simple melodies anyway, I'd argue that parents who want their children listening to folk music would do better by simply picking up some of Seeger's other albums which have some of these songs on them anyway; that way they have something to grow up with as opposed to set aside when they get tired of it.

"John Henry" sticks out as the album's superlative track and "Vignidig A Fremd Kind" passed in and out of my perception quite quickly.

For other Pete Seeger albums, please check out my reviews of:
American Industrial Ballads
We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert June 8, 1963
God Bless The Grass
The Best Of Pete Seeger (Vanguard)
If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle


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

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

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