Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Classic American Folk, Perfectly Presented By Pete Seeger In American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 1!

The Good: Great vocals, Good duration, Decent instrumentals, Recognizable songs
The Bad: No Pete Seeger-written songs
The Basics: A truly great anthology of American folk music, Pete Seeger creates a wonderful and easily enjoyed archive with American Favorite Ballads, Volume 1.

Folk music seems to a strangely take-it or leave-it thing for more Americans than I ever would have guessed. Of course, I was raised on folk, so I have an attachment to it, but my wife very much does not. Still, it is an important part of the American and human world musical tradition, so there is some value in passing the traditional folk music on to the next (and subsequent) generation(s). One of the indisputable great performers and creators of folk music in the modern era is Pete Seeger. So, it seems quite fitting that the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings would make a special effort to archive the essential songs of American folk music using Pete Seeger on American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 1.

This album might well be the essential volume for those needing a folk album or those looking to hear a classic presentation of important American folk classics. The album has Pete Seeger performing songs that used to be sung around campfires and in the hills, a series of musical storysongs that capture the simple soul of the American South, West and the mountains where history and information were often recorded and passed on in songs.

With twenty-eight tracks, packing the c.d. full at 70:09, American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 1 is an archive of essential folk music performed by Pete Seeger. Almost all of the tracks are old to the point where the credited writers are simply "traditional" because the origins have been lost to time. There are fourteen tracks with writers who are known (artists like Huddie Ledbetter and Woodie Guthrie), but none of the songs are written by Pete Seeger. This album is intended to be a historical archive of songs that more often than not predate studio recording equipment and it succeeds admirably at that. Pete Seeger provides the vocals on each and every song and he plays his guitar or banjo on each track as well. Seeger was not involved in the production of the album either, so it is clear he had little creative control or involvement in American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 1.

This, however, is not a problem for this type of album. Pete Seeger provides a true, direct presentation of all of the songs on the album, recognizable folk songs like "Yankee Doodle," "Clementine," "On Top Of Old Smoky," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "I've Been Working On The Railroad," "America The Beautiful" and "This Land Is Your Land." Unencumbered by stories, audience participation or production problems, Pete Seeger's recordings on this album offer the most simple and pure recordings of songs that we still teach our children today. As well, there are few songs that Seeger puts a mild creative spin on, but they tend to be lesser known songs, like "The Wreck Of The Old 97."

Vocally, Pete Seeger is an ideal choice for this type of endeavor. His vocals are clear and he enunciates each word perfectly, insuring future generations will have no problem understanding the words to these classic folk songs. Similarly, he has a beautiful tenor voice that is very easy to listen to. He sings in a voice that has a silky smoothness to it and an energy that holds up over many, many listens to the album. Seeger is able to combine energy and enthusiasm with clarity and that is quite something.

He is also able to emote beautifully with his voice, as he does on songs like "Wagoner's Lad" and "Goodnight, Irene." He infuses those slow ballads with a sense of longing that is heartwrenching to listen to and each time those tracks come on, they fill the listener with melancholy. By contrast, the fast lines on "Old Dan Tucker" would easily get mixed up by a lesser artist, but Pete Seeger sings each of the fast words clearly and with eagerness that makes for an ideal jig song.

Seeger is accompanied on each song only by himself on the guitar or banjo. Folk music has its origins with common people who had little money and the simplicity of the music is reflected well by the stark instrumentation. Seeger remains true to the intent and feeling of the original songs by playing them on simple instruments alone. Unaccompanied by anyone else, Seeger has a "one man and a banjo" (or guitar) sound that rings very true for folk. On this album, he sounds like the consummate musical storyteller because his vocals are never overwhelmed by his instrumental accompaniment.

And that's folk music and American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 1 is Pete Seeger at his best as a performer, keeping the essential songs of American folk music alive in the collective unconscious with clear, simple performances of songs most audiences will already know. And those that don't, should.

There are no bad tracks on the album; this is a perfect compilation.

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)
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5
Seeger & Hester


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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