Sunday, July 17, 2011

More Obscure Folk Makes For An Odder American Favorite Ballads Volume 2 By (Pete Seeger)

The Good: Good vocals, Interesting lyrics, Some fun instrumental accompaniment
The Bad: Less familiar songs
The Basics: An intriguing collection of lesser-known folk songs, American Favorite Ballads Volume 2 continues the Smithsonian Folkway Recordings archive of essential songs performed by Pete Seeger for posterity.

I find myself still with a surplus of Pete Seeger albums, so my Artist Of The Month continues. My wife is not a fan of Pete Seeger, so she's dreading the rest of the month. Still, it is interesting to hear her reactions and she reacted with surprising good humor on the first leg of our trip to American Favorite Ballads Volume 2. On this album, she heard some instrumental work by Pete Seeger that amused her and she actually found herself (reluctantly) grooving to.

The American Favorite Ballads series is designed to keep the essentials of American folk music preserved for posterity through performances by Pete Seeger. Seeger was hired to perform essentially master tracks of American folk songs that might otherwise have been lost because they were obscure, never popular in a commercial sense or whose time was past and were in danger of becoming lost. Smithsonian Folkway Recordings is responsible for creating an archive of what they consider the essentials of folk music. Overall, the collection is five volumes and while the first was almost entirely recognizable, American Favorite Ballads Volume 2 is far more obscure in its collection.

On the plus side, American Favorite Ballads Volume 2 is also more diverse in its musical and vocal sound, making for a more intriguing overall listen than the first volume. Pete Seeger still refrains from storytelling or presenting musical or instrumental ad libs in his performance, but he seems more free to unwind with his sound. So, for example, his presentation of "Barbara Allen," which sounds almost like "Danny Boy," bears more of an Irish lilt to his vocals. In fact, it wasn't until I considered the title of the album that I realized that the song was not Irish!

Similarly, many of the other songs have other vocal twangs to them, mostly Western. "Poor Boy" is presented as if it were on a lonesome trail, around a campfire at night. Vocally, Seeger takes on a sense of being related to the origin of the song. So, when he plays "Sally Ann," he sings the bluegrass song with a Southern accent. Still, all of his vocals are clear and easily understood. For making master performances of American folk classics, this makes for an intriguing and surprisingly pure twist to the songs.

American Favorite Ballads Volume 2 is a twenty-seven track album that occupies over seventy minutes on the compact disc. Before I listened to the album, the only songs I knew were "House Of The Rising Sun" (yes, it was a folk song before it was popularized as a rock ballad!), "Midnight Special" (thanks to my father's obsession with folk music growing up), "Camptown Races," "The Water Is Wide," and "Wimoweh" (I had heard "Froggie Went A Courtin'" on another Pete Seeger album, though). So, most of the songs were completely new to me. The surprising aspect of "American Favorite Ballads Volume 2" is that while many of the songs were unfamiliar to me, their melodies were not. So, for example, "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" has melodic similarities to "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

Pete Seeger did not create most of the songs, though he co-wrote "Wimoweh." Many of the songs are in the public domain and the whole purpose of the album works as a result because the point is to preserve an essential part of American heritage. "Camptown Races," for example, was never going to top the Billboard charts and Pete Seeger's recording of it insures that it remains available to future generations. Seeger sings all of the primary vocals and he plays the banjo or guitar on each track. Still, Pete Seeger is not credited with any production credit on the album, so he is less creatively in control of this album than he is a willing participant of making the truest recordings of these songs for posterity.

It is in the flamboyancy of some of his instrumentals or vocals that my partner found enjoyment in Seeger on American Favorite Ballads Volume 2. For example, in "Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn," Seeger presents earnest soft vocals, then has a guitar riff that is incongruent which punctuates the themes of the lines. Similarly, on "The Fox," Seeger provides a pretty earnest "quack, quack, quack" which the song calls for and the way Seeger throws himself into the endeavor impressed her.

The more creative selection of songs makes American Favorite Ballads Volume 2 more accessible to those who are not fans of folk music. The strumming banjos and eager vocals are not for everyone. Still, the musical storysongs like "Jesse James" work wonderfully and this is a great album to get people into folk music because the songs do not all sound alike. "Jesse James" is a somewhat repetitive musical storysong, but "Oh, What A Beautiful City" has energy, but less repetition. As well, many of the songs are slow and sad, like "Careless Love" and the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings producer does an excellent job of putting the songs in an order that is quite listenable.

The constant element throughout is, of course, Pete Seeger. Seeger appears on the album only with himself for musical accompaniment and he is a master of the tenor range and the whole "one man with a lone instrument" sound. But on songs like "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and this rendition of "Midnight Special," Seeger's sound is richer. So, while Seeger captures the actual reality that most of these songs were sung by poor folk with a single instrument that they played themselves, the producer balanced the album to make the sound richer to increase the appeal to those with an ear for music that is anything but stark. Seeger's vocals are universally clear.

Judging by the way my wife grudgingly found herself rocking in her seat and occasionally nodding her head, American Favorite Ballads Volume 2 is a good album for those who are not fans of folk music to learn an appreciation of it. And as someone who has an appreciation of folk music, I found I particularly enjoyed the diversity of songs on American Favorite Ballads Volume 2; these were not the same tired, old folk songs I've heard on innumerable other folk albums.

For that, Pete Seeger and the Smithsonian deserve a lot of credit and this album deserves your attention.

The best track is "Barbara Allen" (which was new to me!) and the low point is the less memorable "Alabama Bound."

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 5
Seeger & Hester
At 89


Want to see how this album stacks up against other musical works? Check out this index page with the reviews of the albums organized by rating!

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

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