Friday, June 24, 2011

Largely Unrecognizable, American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 5 Is Still Decent Folk Music!

The Good: Good vocals, Good lyrics
The Bad: Instrumentally limited.
The Basics: A good historical document and a great listen for fans of folk music, American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5 is a worthwhile, if uncomplicated, album.

Sometimes, I find myself in the amusing position of getting collections out of order. For example, I have snagged American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5 before the other four volumes. But given that I have been listening to this collection in high replay for the past few days, there is little reason I can see to not review it first. American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5 is a collection of folk ballads performed by singer-songwriter Pete Seeger.

However, in the truest form, this album is not a collection of Pete Seeger's music. This collection, released by the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, is the final of five attempts to catalog all of the great folk songs that have been written and collected from less-popular sources than the mainstream folk artists. As a result, this is intended to be a historical document that preserves the American musical heritage by having Pete Seeger perform songs that were never made commercially popular by other folk singers or artists. These are the songs that people have sung around campfires or on the frontier or in the mountains back in the day, but generally preceded the rise of radio. They are also, largely, unfamiliar to those who have not listened to a lot of folk music or been camping in groups with elders who know extraordinary amounts of music.

With a whopping twenty-nine songs, clocking out at 69:22, American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5 is a collection of songs whose origins have largely been lost to time. Attributed only to "traditional," these songs are folk songs of the frontier designed to be sung, performed and listened to by anyone. They tell stories musically ("Sweet Betsy From Pike"), capture the enthusiasm of the range ("Buffalo Gals"), and provide a musical reminder of working directions from times when information was passed orally ("Whoopie Ti-Yo-Yo, Get Along, Little Dogies"). They present information on the American landscape and dangers there ("Cumberland Gap") and sing laments about emotions ("I Will Never Marry"). The general theme among the songs on the album is the glorification of freedom of the open world and the simplicity and grandeur of life.

These are not likely to be songs most people know; coming into the album, the only ones I knew were "Buffalo Gals" ("Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight? / Come out tonight, come out tonight? / Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight / And dance by the light of the moon?") and "Whoopie Ti-Yo-Yo, Get Along, Little Dogies" (the title pretty much says it all). This collection is not popular folk songs and the intent is not to jazz up the simplicity of the songs. Instead, Pete Seeger performs the album solo, accompanied only on his banjo or guitar. Seeger performs all of the vocals, but he was uninvolved in the production of the album.

Largely, American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5 is a great showcase of the vocal range of Pete Seeger. Seeger sings all of the songs in his smooth, mellow, tenor voice. This collection is designed to capture the songs as they were sung in the distant past, so Seeger tries to create essential masters of the songs, singing clearly so each and every word might be understood, as opposed to infusing the songs with emotion or burdening the recordings with stories about each songs origins. This is not to say that the album has a lackluster sound to it; Seeger has great enthusiasm and energy in his voice on songs like "Play-Party" and "Texian Boys." He adds a drawl to some of his songs, like "Ox Driver's Song," to give a greater sense of time and place (in this case, the American West). And he hits his notes perfectly. This, truly, is a master collection of folk songs designed to preserve and teach future generations what was being sung and Pete Seeger's vocals are flawless, allowing for that information to be perfectly preserved and transferred to subsequent generations.

As for his instrumental accompaniment, Pete Seeger performs all of the songs on his banjo or guitar. Most of the songs are performed on the banjo and he plucks the strings perfectly, though some of the songs require him to strum with speed - like the "Cowboy Yodel" - and he does it flawlessly. The truth is, though, that American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5 is filled with musically uncomplicated songs. Most of the instrumental accompaniment is just that. The melodies on the instruments never dominate, so the vocals are most responsible for creating the melody. The banjo and guitar do little more than punctuate or underline the main themes of the songs. As a result, this is not the most musically exciting album.

But it is surprisingly engaging, especially for fans of folk music. Because these are not the oft-overplayed folk-rock hits of the 1960s or 1930s, there is a lot to recommend this album. Listeners will be educated to a style of music that establishes the foundation of the popular folk music by setting up the fundamentals; these songs are easy to listen to, easy to sing and tell musical stories that are largely unfamiliar to listeners. That makes for a wonderful listening experience, but also one that replays a little less well than some later folk music which is more musically or lyrically complex.

The best song is "Ox Driver's Song" and the low point is the less memorable "Kingdom Coming (Year Of Jubilo)."

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
Stories & Songs For Little Children
The Best Of Pete Seeger (Vanguard)
If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle
Folk Songs For Young People
Greatest Hits (Brazilian Import)


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

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

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