Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pete Seeger Archives For The Next Generation Again With American Favorite Ballads, Volume 4.

The Good: Great vocals, Decent, recognizable songs, Instrumentally adequate, Duration
The Bad: Not terribly complicated, especially lyrically
The Basics: A good album continuing to catalog American folk music, American Favorite Ballads, Volume 4 is strong, powered by Pete Seeger's clear vocals.

The idea of archiving for posterity the essential works of American folk music is a great one and its success is insured more by the volumes of work that bear familiar music to their listeners than those that preserve already-forgotten works. After all, when people know what they like, they are apt to listen to it over and over again, as opposed to songs that they are unfamiliar with and they might even be biased against. In the case of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the various volumes range from the almost entirely familiar (to anyone who went to summer camp or enjoys folk music) to the downright obscure. I was, therefore, surprised upon picking up American Favorite Ballads, Volume 4 just how familiar many of the songs actually were.

Pete Seeger, working for the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, lent his talents to American Favorite Ballads, Volume 4 just as he had for the prior three and subsequent one albums. The Smithsonian chose well with Seeger, who belays his usual conversational style of storytelling with his songs to present standards of folk music intended to be the masters for those who come after to learn from. On this album, the Smithsonian capitalizes on Seeger's cool vocal abilities and strength as a performer in his ability to articulate clearly to present well-known American folk songs to those who might not have heard them before.

With twenty-eight songs, occupying 71:28 on a single compact disc, American Favorite Ballads 4 is a compilation of songs, most of which are in the public domain. Seeger did not write any of the songs; that's not the purpose of this album. In fact, outside five of the songs, the original authors have been lost to time and the words are in the public domain, often with regional variances. Seeger provides the vocals on all of the tracks with the most universally-accepted version of each song. The intent of the album is to provide the standard for classics of folk music before they become changed by subsequent generations. As a result, this is a huge task of research and execution and Seeger and those producing the album for the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings took the task on with a gusto that led to many volumes. By the fourth volume, Seeger is compelled to sing more songs that have obvious European origins ("Washer Lad," "Molly Malone") as well as songs that are little more than sea chanteys and drinking songs ("What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?").

The songs on American Favorite Ballads, Volume 4 continue to tell musical storysongs about social mores in colonial times as well as relate a history of the United States from the perspective of the underclasses. For example, "Lolly Too Dum" explores the attempt of a widow to remarry as her "adult" children are reaching marrying age themselves. "Washer Lad" is the heartwrenching story of an underpaid servant and "No More Auction Block" relates life as a slave in the United States. As well, songs like "Lolly Too Dum" and "Hole In The Bucket" help establish (and reinforce) gender roles as Seeger sings about spinster women and nags. Fortunately, the album is a little more rounded than that, including "Johnson" where the damsel in distress is actually a murderess.

Outside the obscure songs, there are several songs that are almost instantly recognizable. These include "You Are My Sunshine," which Seeger records with a perfect delivery, despite other artists making is more soulful, "Army Life" (a humorous ditty about all of the things in the army that are "fine"), "Hole In The Bucket" (which is much more tame than the version my father and his friends used to sing when we were on campouts!), and "Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier." Even the simple song "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Soldier" has a familiar ring to it from summer camps, which is often how many of these songs were passed down from those who knew to those still learning.

Even songs like "Hallelujah, I'm A Bum" have a familiar ring to them. This might also be because the songs are not terribly musically sophisticated. Pete Seeger plays the guitar or banjo on all of the songs and as a result, there is a consistency to the album that is admirable and makes it very easy for listeners to learn the songs. These songs almost universally (only "Talking Blues" stands out as an exception) come from a time where the instruments were played by people with limited musical knowledge and part of the goal of each song was to be easily disseminated. Complex and sophisticated melodies and fingerings make that virtually impossible, so the somewhat monotonous musical quality to this album is actually a more sensible execution of the album's goals.

This is not to say the album is boring. Pete Seeger is able to infuse the songs with energy, enthusiasm and emotion while still singing them clearly. He takes on slower ballads like "Molly Malone" and "Go Down, Moses" with a presentation that is often heartwrenching to listen to. The lyrics are sad, but Seeger is able to present the lines both with clear enunciations and an emotional resonance that achieves the goals of each song. Conversely, on up-tempo songs like "Old Maid's Song," Seeger is able to sing quickly and with enthusiasm that makes one want to dance or skip. He infuses appropriate irony into "Army Life" and the sense of loss necessary to make "Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier."

In the end, that is what makes American Favorite Ballads, Volume 4 such a good album; Seeger makes ideal masters for folk songs without robbing them of emotion. This makes the album easy to listen to and enjoy as well as providing a lasting historical document. The simple songs replay well, despite being instrumentally limited and the diction being remarkably simple. Even so, this is a definite buy for anyone who loves folk music.

The best song is "No More Auction Block," the low point is the unmemorable "Monsieur Banjo."

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 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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