Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Good Idea Gone Very Mediocre, American Favorite Ballads Volume 3 Is The Least Impressive.

The Good: Good folk music, Great vocals, Decent (enough) instrumental accompaniment, Duration, Concept
The Bad: Least recognizable mix
The Basics: A great concept with an excellent execution, American Favorite Ballads, Volume 3 has unfortunately obscure song choices, which make it a tougher sell.

American Favorite Ballads Volume 3 came in the day before I was leaving for my annual cross-country trip and was due back two days before I would return. Unwilling to jeopardize my status at my local library with even two days worth of overdue fines, I had my librarian send it back. It has taken until now for me to get it back in and, frankly, I am at a loss as to why.

The Smithsonian Folkway Recordings began the American Favorite Ballads project with a smart, clear intent: to catalog and preserve the best folk music ballads for posterity. They hired Pete Seeger to perform them and each volume in the collection included songs that either were or once were well known in order to make sure they were not lost for all time. Seeger performed each track in as close to a “pure” form as possible with the intent being to preserve the most universal version of each song. As such American Favorite Ballads, Volume 3 does not have live versions of songs or any improvisations. Instead, it is a very direct presentation of each song.

And apparently, it is none too soon. On every other American Favorite Ballads album, I recognized many (or most) of the songs. On this volume, the only song that I instantly recognized was “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain,” which is unlikely to ever fall out of the American songbook given how many children’s albums it is on. There were one or two other songs I realized I recognized, based upon my studies of the music of Pete Seeger (like “Ground Hog”) and Peter, Paul, And Mary, but the short of it is that American Favorite Ballads, Volume 3 does not have the same universal or timeless quality to it that most of the other volumes have. Instead, this volume is pretty much the desperate catch of historic folk music that was (arguably) a generation away from being lost (I feel it is fair to write that as I was raised on folk music and had not heard most of these songs).

With twenty-seven songs and over an hour of music, American Favorite Ballads, Volume 3 is an appropriately dense collection of songs, mostly about the American experience, as told in folk music. Not exactly the work of Pete Seeger, this album is comprised mostly of songs whose original writers have been lost to time (they are credited as “Traditional”) or whose writing remains, but whose vocals performances were lost. This is largely cover songs then, but Pete Seeger gets credit for being the primary vocalist on all twenty-seven tracks and he plays guitar on all of the songs as well. While Seeger is not credited with production on any of these songs, it is tough to argue that this is not the album he intended to make, as he was essentially commissioned to do these (and the others) by the Smithsonian.

For those unfamiliar with folk music, American Favorite Ballads, Volume 3 actually does an excellent job of exploring what the genre is all about. Outside a few songs which are blues like wailing (“Boll Weevil”) or closer to bluegrass (the origins of both genres are remarkably similar) (“St. Louis Blues”), most of the songs are musical storysongs. In these songs, there are characters, things happen and there is some sense of resolution, like “When I first came to this land, I was not a wealthy man, / So I got myself a farm, I did what I could / And I called my farm, 'Muscle in my arm' / And I called my shack, 'Break my back' / But the land was sweet and good, I did what I could“ (“When I First Came To This Land”). The bulk of the songs on American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 3 are such storysongs and they tend to explore American places (“Swanee River”) or events, like the sinking of the Titanic (which, to be fair, was a world event, but American folk singers sure got into singing about it!).

As well, songs on American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 3 explore the changing social life in the United States. While some of the songs are longing ballads that express the loneliness that comes from moving across the wide country (“When I First Came To This Land,” “Arkansas Traveler”), there are also songs about social mores and problems. Folk singers tended to be pretty liberal (or at least honest) about the state of the United States and the writing on some of these songs is frank and expresses a reality that many find uncomfortable. One has to wonder why the Smithsonian Folkway Recordings would want to immortalize “I'm a decent boy just landed / From the town of Ballyfad; / I want a situation, yes, / And want it very bad. / I have seen employment advertised, / 'It's just the thing,' says I, / 'But the dirty spalpeen ended with / "No Irish Need Apply."'“ (“No Irish Need Apply”), but the concept of preserving even the unpleasant realities that future generations might learn from them is remarkably smart.

American Favorite Ballads, Volume 3 also has a few songs about more universal human emotions. Take, for example, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” That folk song clearly illustrates a sense of feeling unfulfilled when Pete Seeger sings “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / A long ways from home / A long ways from home / True believer / A long ways from home“ (“Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”).

While Pete Seeger might not have much in the way of creative control on this album, he sings masterfully and it is clear that he was an ideal choice for a project like this. Seeger has an amazing tenor voice that is able to hold the few long notes required on the songs on this album and to articulate the lyrics perfectly while still being musical. Seeger has amazing pitch and a clarity to his vocals that make every single word easily understood.

And Seeger plays his guitar, which accompanies every song on the album. Because this album is classic folk music, the intent is to make music that is easily shared. As such, the tunes on this album are very simple and they act more as simple accompaniment to the lyrics than in any way dominate the vocals. Seeger may have simple songs to play, but he plays them without any sense of being bored with it or anything less than complete competence.

Still, after eight listens to this album, I find myself only mildly impressed. The concept is better than the execution and while this is worth hearing, it is the least inspired collection of folk songs in this series of recordings. Then again, perhaps as more people hear them, they will come back into the collective conscious and this will have served its purpose.

The best song is “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” the low point is “El-A-Noy.”

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)
A Link In The Chain
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
Headlines & Footnotes
At 89


For other music reviews, please 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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