Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Seeger's Animal Songs, Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big) Is A Good Collection.

The Good: Good vocals, Fun tunes, Good duration.
The Bad: Largely uncomplicated - lyrically or musically, Instrumentally simple
The Basics: Fun and occasionally memorable, Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big) is more an ideal album for children than adults as it is plagued by a lot of repetition.

Because of how often I advocate combining old albums that might have once been decent-length records - but make poor use of the compact disc medium - I think it behooves me to mention that Pete Seeger manages to do just that with his compact disc Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big). Originally released in the mid-1950s as two separate albums focused on animals intended for children (Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Little Fishes) and another for adults (Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Bigger Fishes), Seeger and the Smithsonian Folkway Recordings compiled both into a single album intended to keep the songs on the albums alive in the public ear through the Smithsonian's attempt to archive American Folk Music. The result is a theme album that has a light, enjoyable sound for people of all ages and makes for a decent compact disc.

Unlike many of Pete Seeger's theme albums that are put together to make a social statement or chronicle a specific epoch of American folk music, Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big) seems designed just to entertain listeners. The early half of the album includes children's favorites like "I Know An Old Lady (Who Swallowed A Fly)" and "Skip To My Lou" (there are lines about flies in the sugar bowl and cat's in the cream, which is where the animal association comes in), while the latter half of the album includes slightly more racy songs like "Leatherwing Bat" (I'm using "racy" pretty liberally here!) and the absurd storysong "The Foolish Frog." The thing is, having listened to the album many times before checking out the liner notes (thank you cross-country trip for that!) I can say with some authority that there is little difference in the musical or lyrical quality between the two original albums and there is nothing inappropriate for children on this combined album. In fact, it is surprising Seeger attempted the marketing of the original albums as one for children, one for adults, as opposed to trying to sell twice as many children's albums.

That said, Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big) is a pretty solid 65:46 of music, none of which appears to be the original works of singer-songwriter Pete Seeger. The twenty-eight songs are broken up almost evenly between the original children's album and the adult album as far as the duration goes, though there are two more songs on the original children's album than the original adult one. The liner notes indicate that the songs were transcribed from the Library Of Congress and performed in the 1950s, but there are no credited writers, which implies that the songs are in the public domain. Seeger does perform all of the songs by singing and by playing on his banjo and guitar, depending on the song.

For those who might not have heard of Pete Seeger, Seeger is a folk singer who grew up riding on the coattails of Woody Guthrie and whose career was solid enough to promote the burgeoning career of one Bob Dylan when that younger artist was just starting out. Seeger has a beautiful, clear tenor voice which he uses to articulate lyrics that others might stumble over, like the packed lines of "The Old Hen." He is able to infuse his sense of irony into his voice in "Ground Hog" and his sense of enthusiasm into classics like "Skip To My Lou." He sings soulful and lower on "My Little Kitty" and on songs like "I Had A Rooster" and "Leatherwing Bat" he makes animal noises or inarticulate - though melodical - utterances that are emotive and expressive, if not coherent.

It is Pete Seeger who is finally giving me an appreciation for the less articulate vocalists of my own generation; listening to Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big) becomes an exercise in boredom on heavy repeat because Seeger is so articulate. Because he is so clear with his vocals and he enunciates each and every line (even the annoying squawks of roosters on certain songs) the repetition of lines and refrains soon wears thin. Simple songs like "My Little Kitty," "The Elephant" (arguably the most political song as it is anti-ivory poaching in its subtle way), "Mister Rabbit" and "Grey Goose" become tiresome quicker than these songs might otherwise have had they been performed less well or been put in a different mix - i.e. thematically different songs.

The songs on Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big) all have to do with animals and most are either fun with animals or educational. Even the latter half of the album includes historical education, like on "Little Dogies" where the song is about the role of herding cows and coming to the end of the drive. For those who might not know about how ranchwork is done, songs like "Little Dogies" keep the basic information in the collective unconscious. Most of the songs are intended to express relationships between animals - "I Know An Old Lady (Who Swallowed A Fly)" teaches children both about size relationships between different animals and food chains - or educate youth on how to recognize different animals ("Racoon's Got A Bushy Tail"). The value of the songs is easy to realize; adults and children both learn better when learning is fun and music can make mundane information interesting.

Conversely, animals only play a peripheral role in some of the later songs, like "Turtle Dove" and "Old Paint." "Turtle Dove" is a song of love lost and the mournful quality to it has little to do with animals, but it is still a good song. Similarly, "Old Paint" is more a travel song about leaving one place for another than an actual song about horses.

In addition to having a beautiful and clear voice to articulate the folk songs on Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big), Pete Seeger has the nimble fingers for playing the banjo and guitar. While none of the songs are terribly complicated - though some of the children's songs are surprisingly melodic and not in an unsophisticated way - Seeger is a master at the banjo and the guitar, allowing him to accompany his vocals perfectly. On all of the songs, Seeger uses the instruments he plays as accompaniment and they never dominate his vocals, though on "The Foolish Frog" he comes close.

All in all, Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big) is a fairly mundane album of folk music. Seeger is articulate, but the music is simple, intended to be easily taught to listeners as part of a time long gone when people traded songs and stories around campfires and as such it is tough to listen to this with any sense of frequency. The sense of repetition for music that is simply light and fun also makes it difficult to get excited about as there is little emotional resonance to the overall album. Even so, it is easy to recommend the album as it is inoffensive and children respond well to the repetition. Indeed, despite the fact that this combines two albums, only one of which was intended for children specifically, it might be an ideal album for children for its educational and entertainment value.

The best song is "The Foolish Frog," the low point is the unmemorable "The Darby Ram."

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
Seeger & Hester
At 89


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

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