Thursday, June 2, 2011

Someone Really Jumped The Gun With The Best Of Pete Seeger!

The Good: Good vocals, Some lyrics
The Bad: Musically bland, SHORT, Not all Seeger's best, Some truly annoying presentations.
The Basics: Fifty years of singing and songwriting is reduced to nine poorly-recorded tracks that Pete Seeger fans will quickly tire of. Easy to avoid!

No one can reduce the career of Pete Seeger, who has been recording albums for over fifty years, to a single disc with only nine tracks, call it The Best Of Pete Seeger and be taken seriously. That's the bottomline and it doesn't matter when this album was originally released, the 1994 Vanguard Records compact disc The Best Of Pete Seeger seeks to do just that. This is a cheap, obvious attempt to capitalize on the commercial viability of Pete Seeger and his music.

Even more insulting than trying to convince . . . well, apparently anyone who has never heard of Pete Seeger or his music, because no true fan of Seeger is going to fall for this! . . . anyone that this album is the best Pete Seeger produced in the forty years (at the time it was released) of his recording career is the fact that only a single song on the album is written by Seeger! As well, one of the tracks is such a chorus of reigning names in folk-rock music that Seeger's voice is drown out after the first few seconds! If you're going to attempt to reduce the vast career of an artist like Pete Seeger to a single disc, it should at least have Seeger performing all of the songs! Vanguard, apparently, did not agree with this concept.

With only nine songs on the c.d. clocking out at a paltry 34:14, The Best Of Pete Seeger is anything but. First, Seeger only wrote a single track on the album and co-wrote another, which is ridiculous considering he is an incredibly prolific singer-songwriter. He was not involved in the production of the album either, so this is mostly the presentation of Pete Seeger as a performer, not an artist. Seeger sings the primary vocals on all but one of the tracks and he plays banjo or guitar on the songs as well. But on "Down By The Riverside," he is merely leading a chorus made up of Odetta, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Theodore Bikel, Bernice Johnson "and others" (the crediting for this album is terrible!). There is little that is distinctly and uniquely Pete Seeger on The Best Of Pete Seeger and that is just wrong!

As well, on songs like "It Takes A Worried Man" and "Oh Marry Don't You Weep," Seeger is preoccupied with leading the audience in singalongs. The result is that these recordings are not the most inspired or even direct versions of each song. The whole idea of yelling out to an audience seldom works for me on "live" albums and here the little stories Seeger is recorded presenting before "Never Wed An Old Man" and the way he finds different chords for the audience to sing along to in "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" replays poorly. The result is a collection of songs that are hardly as good as they could be in addition to a poor selection of songs.

As for the song selection, this is a ridiculously small sample of songs Pete Seeger performed in his career, in addition to being a poor sample of Seeger as a writer. The album lacks any songs that made Seeger a force to be reckoned with for labor rights. "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" and "Down By The Riverside" are all great antiwar songs, but even with a limited experience with the works of Pete Seeger, there is something seriously lacking to have no songs of environmentalism or pro-labor on this disc.

Vocally, The Best Of Pete Seeger is not Seeger's best recording either. The opening to "Deep Blue Sea" has some almost inaudible talking from Seeger, but beside that the album is generally listenable. This is unfortunate for "Hold Ground" where Seeger yells out the refrain to the audience in a salty voice and it just sounds terrible. Outside that, the album is dominated by Seeger's tenor vocals and he clearly sings all of the lines. He yodels on "Never Wed An Old Man" and that is interesting, but not enough to make picking up the album worth it. Vocally, the rendition of "Down By The Riverside" with the full folk chorus is interesting and enjoyable, but still not worth buying the album for.

Usually, I do a lyrical analysis as well, but given that Seeger is only fully responsible for "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" on this album, there hardly seems to be a point. Most of the songs are wanderers folk songs, making observations or telling musical storysongs as opposed to fighting for political change. "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" is, of course, the wonderful song which develops over the stanzas to trace the absence of flowers to the loss of men in war and the presence of flowers at tombs and it remains as clever and timely today as it did when it was first released.

So there, for those who have argued for brevity in my reviews, there it is. Vanguard Records does a huge disservice to the life, voice and career of Pete Seeger by releasing The Best Of Pete Seeger, which is not a collection of his best songs - written or presented - and seems more to be a pointless cashgrab.

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


For other music reviews, please visit my index page on the subject for organized lists!

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

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