Monday, June 13, 2011

Memorable Folk Music, If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle Is Wonderful!

The Good: Good vocals, Good message, Decent recordings, Duration
The Bad: A little repetitive.
The Basics: A good collection of Pete Seeger's songs about union solidarity, peace, civil rights and living with hope, If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle is worthwhile for any folk fans!

As I continue through my exploration of the works of Pete Seeger, I find myself enjoying my own discovery of a whole lost tradition in American songwriting. For sure, current artists like Dar Williams, Bruce Springsteen and even one of those emo bands that my wife listens to, occasionally make timely songs singing about the issues of the day not at all disguised in their lyrics. But to hear an album like Pete Seeger's If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle is to hear something very different. On this album, ALL of the songs are socially-conscious fighting songs that challenge their listeners to rise up and take action. At best, today we get wry social observation, but we have no musical equivalents of V For Vendetta. Pete Seeger hit at the right time, at a time when people cared and would risk their jobs for principles. Today, we do not risk our comfort to stop our nations from becoming the enemy we seek to stop.

With If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle, Pete Seeger creates a concept album that are grouped into themes: anthems about labor and unions, ballads about peace, historical songs about the civil rights struggle, and songs about hope in changing and uncertain times. Seeger and the producers of the album find a decent mix of folk songs and make their point well; Seeger's songs are more than just historical documents, they remind listeners to act and stand up for something. The struggles relayed in the songs are just that, but songs like "Talking Union" remind listeners that life is a struggle regardless and that we have the right to fight for how we want the struggle in this life to go.

With twenty-six tracks, clocking out at a hefty 71:09, If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle is a concept album which serves as a history lesson and a wake-up call to listeners to the struggles which made America a force that was not simply at the whims of capitalism. Seeger presents twenty-five songs ("If I Had A Hammer" appears twice, opening and closing the album), seven of which are written by Seeger, an additional four co-written by Seeger, and a further two arranged or translated by the venerable folk artist. Seeger provides the lead vocals on all twenty-six songs and he plays banjo or guitar on every song. Seeger is not credited with any form of production credit, but given his involvement in the liner notes of this compilation, it seems he is generally happy with the music as it is presented.

If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle is a concept album compiled from over forty years of performances and it has real value to fans of Pete Seeger's works given that three of the recordings are previously unreleased and many of the tracks are from obscure or out-of-print recordings that would be difficult, if not impossible, to hunt down on compact disc. The songs here range from the almost universally familiar - "If I Had A Hammer," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," "We Shall Overcome" - to the utterly obscure, songs like "We'll All Be A-Doubling," "Talking Atom," and "Casey Jones (The Union Scab)." Seeger's messages are well compiled, though, to be both listenable and well-presented. This is a poignant mix of suffering, rebellion and hope.

On most of the songs, Seeger is accompanied only by his banjo or his guitar. His fingering is generally slow, precise and his vocals overwhelm his instrumental accompaniment quite dramatically. So, for example, fans of the popular cover of Seeger's song "Turn, Turn, Turn" might well be surprised to hear his version; the starkness of the guitar and the way his voice overpowers the gentle strumming is a big contrast to the version most people have heard on the radio.

As for those vocals, Pete Seeger has an amazing, smooth tenor voice that is both melodic and articulate. He is emotive with his musical storysongs on tracks like "Casey Jones (The Union Scab)" and he has a wonderful sense of irony that carries through with his delivery on "Talking Atom." He has a lot of fun - in his voice - in the lyrically serious "We'll All Be A-Doubling" and that he gets through it without flubbing any of the quickly-delivered lines is impressive. Seeger also has quite a bit of accompaniment on some of these songs, though. "We'll All Be A-Doubling" is essentially a duet between Peter Seeger and Tao Rodriquez. He becomes a choral leader on songs like "Which Side Are You On?," "Solidarity Forever," and the final presentation of "If I Had A Hammer." Those songs have a good combination that helps their themes become better realized. "Which Side Are You On?" has a stark, lonely feel with the backing vocals, whereas "Solidarity Forever" sounds like a tidal wave of union strength.

The concept here works remarkably well and the order of the songs is cleverly arranged. The Union section of If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle presents songs that establish clear differences between union and nonunion workers ("Whose Side Are You On?"), sings stories about crossing the picket lines ("Casey Jones (The Union Scab)"), and how to actually organize ("Talking Union"). The other songs in that section reinforce the idea of peaceful strikes and sticking together as a union. This is followed by songs urging peace ("Where Have All The Flowers Gone," "Talking Atom") and the section bridges the fights for labor and civil rights well by cooling the album off with songs like "Study War No More (Down By The Riverside)." The civil rights section is surprisingly brief, with songs like "Bourgeois Blues" which explores economic as well as ethnic oppression. It is capped by "We Shall Overcome," which is very much an anthem of passive resistance. The songs of hope allow those unfamiliar with folk music to gain an appreciation of the simple philosophies espoused in a lot of folk music for balance ("Turn, Turn, Turn") and living for today ("Tomorrow Is A Highway"). Seeger sings about the greatness of America (or its potential, on "He Lies In The American Land") and population control ("We'll All Be A-Doubling").

In all, this is an excellent album for anyone intimidated by the concept of folk music as it is a great introduction for most listeners into folk music. Pete Seeger is a master and this is a good collection, for more than just historical reasons.

The best song is "Talking Atom," the low point is "Well May The World Go," if for no other reason than it is unmemorable.

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)


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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