Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Flawless By Default, Headlines & Footnotes Is A Great Collection Of Folk Music!

The Good: Great vocals, Fun lyrics, Good mix, Social commentary, Duration
The Bad: None that I can find (slightly limited instrumentally).
The Basics: Fun and filled with irony and Pete Seeger clearly enjoying himself as he sings, Headlines & Footnotes is an album for anyone who loves (or is intimidated by) folk music.

There might be some irony in declaring Pete Seeger's album a true "Best Of" album of the folk singer's works when I've spent so much time and effort deriding such claims in other reviews. The truth is, for a career like Pete Seeger's which spans over sixty-five years, it is pretty much impossible to make a single disc compilation that encapsulates all of the best of Seeger's works. Still, he does not make the claim that this is a "best of," but the mix is so strong and recognizable for anyone who loves folk music that it becomes a de facto "best of" album for those who study his works.

For those unfamiliar with Pete Seeger, he was the leading folk singer in the United States following the Woody Guthrie era of folk. He supported young folk-rock singers like Bob Dylan and was an influence on people like Bruce Springsteen. He has a strong Populist viewpoint, urging for protection of the environment, worker's rights and the inherent rights of all people to equality and freedom. On Headlines & Footnotes, Pete Seeger combines many of his social viewpoints for an easily enjoyed album that anyone who likes music is likely to enjoy. One need not like folk music to appreciate this compilation.

With twenty-three songs taking up 73:36 on compact disc, Headlines & Footnotes is a collection of folk songs compiled by the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings to encapsulate a wide range of folk themes. Performed exclusively by Pete Seeger, with a little audience participation on "Wimoweh" and "A Little This And That," Headlines & Footnotes is a compilation from harder to find albums of musical story-songs written by Pete Seeger and other greats of folk music. Seeger, who is a prolific writer in his own right, only wrote three of the songs on this album and he co-wrote another five songs and he put music to another song. The others are songs from folk greats like Woody Guthrie ("Sinking Of The Reuben James") and Malvina Reynolds ("Little Boxes") or traditional songs whose original authors have been lost to time ("Peg And Awl"). Pete Seeger plays guitar or banjo on each track. He is not credited with any form of production credit on the album. Still, given the number of albums Seeger has released through the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and that Anthony Seeger supervised the production of this compilation, one has to figure this is Pete Seeger's intended musical vision.

That said, this is a pretty wonderful compilation of folk music. Thematically, it is one of the most diverse compilations of Pete Seeger's albums. There are songs about organized labor ("Peg And Awl," "Roll Down The Line"), the civil rights movement ("Hold The Line," "The Battle Of Maxton Field"), gender and ethnic equality ("Listen Mr. Bilbo," "There Once Was A Woman Who Swallowed A Lie"), as well as general American history ("Passing Through," "The Sinking Of the Reuben James"). Seeger sings about the horrors of war ("Waist Deep In The Big Muddy") and about the absurdity of the English language ("English Is Cuh-Ray-Zee"). And despite the thematic diversity, Headlines & Footnotes is a remarkably strong album that is very easy to listen to.

Chiefly, the listenability comes from the smooth vocals of Pete Seeger. Seeger has an incredible tenor voice evident on each and every song. He masters his range and he challenges it when leading the audience in "Wimoweh" when he tries the higher and lower parts. Seeger is able to articulate quite clearly and some of the lines are packed with words, like on "There Once Was A Woman Who Swallowed A Lie," which makes the clarity of his vocals even more impressive. Similarly, on "Guantanamera," he sings in Spanish and he makes the words melodic long before he translates them.

Also impressive is the engaging style of Seeger's renditions of the musical storysongs. I've listened to this album over a dozen times and his presentation of the story for "Coal Creek March/ Payday At Coal Creek / Roll Down The Line" is still engaging, which cannot be said of all the stories Seeger tells to his audiences. The history lesson mid-song is well presented and while Seeger speaks it in a musing tone, it has a strangely musical quality that makes the song seem more cohesive than broken up.

As well, Seeger is able to emote wonderfully as he sings. "English Is Cah-Ray-Zee" is presented with a smile that the listener can hear as he sings about the peculiarities of the English language. Similarly, his voice is laced with such irony when he sings of the Klan "If you are free and white and bigot / And your courage comes from a spigot . . ." ("The Battle Of Maxton Field") that champions of ethnic equality can do nothing but smile and be glad there once were artists with the courage to sing such things. Not limited to simply presenting humor in his voice, Pete Seeger makes ballads like "Guantanamera" soulful and the two disaster songs early on the album ("The Titanic" and "Sinking Of The Reuben James") emotional cacophonies of loss expressed through music.

As far as the instrumental accompaniment goes, Headlines & Footnotes is a collection of very simple songs. The vocals of Pete Seeger are only accompanied by a single instrument, either his banjo or his guitar, and while he is a master of them, the musical accompaniment is just that. On Headlines & Footnotes Seeger is a musical storyteller whose purpose is to spread information and he does that masterfully, but he does not prioritize the tunes over his voice and this makes for a wonderful effect. Still, there are some recognizable melodies; "There Once Was A Woman Who Swallowed A Lie" is essentially "There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly" with new lyrics.

Ultimately, Headlines & Footnotes might be musically simple, but songs have a universal quality, like Seeger's ode to aging "My Get Up And Go." Anyone intimidated by folk music in theory will find the broad execution of this album enjoyable and easy to understand. What more could anyone hope for from folk music?

The best song is "There Once Was A Woman Who Swallowed A Lie," the weak point is "Viva La Quince Brigada," though it is not at all a bad song.

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
Waist Deep In The Big Muddy And Other Love Songs
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 1
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 2
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 4
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5
Birds, Beasts, Bugs And Fishes (Little And Big)
Seeger & Hester
At 89


For other music reviews, please be sure to 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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