Thursday, July 28, 2011

Two Discs Of Extraordinary Music, Pete Seeger's A Link In The Chain Holds Up Well!

The Good: Great duration, Good mix of songs, Good renditions
The Bad: A few versions with guest vocalists that are distracting, Stories don't hold up well.
The Basics: Outside a few stories between songs that replay less well, A Link In The Chain is close to an ideal folk set that offers great value for Pete Seeger fans!

Pete Seeger, prolific singer and songwriter that he is, has a wealth of albums and I still have many to review. The one I have been listening to most and holding off writing about (for no particular reason other than lack of time) is A Link In The Chain, a two-disc set of classic folk music that illustrates exactly why Pete Seeger is considered the master singer and performer that he is.

A Link In The Chain wonderfully includes songs I've not heard before, like "Aimee Semple McPherson," and is a mix of storysongs and songs with social messages. Broken into four groups, the two-disc set covers Tall Tales and Stories (songs like "My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away" and "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy"), Songs of Freedom (social conscience songs, like "Draft Dodger Rag" and "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize"), songs about people, most notably folk legends (like "Jesse James" and a female bandit, "Belle Starr") and a few songs for children (like the socially-relevant and ironic "What Did You Learn In School Today?" and "Be Kind To Your Parents"). This is one of the strongest collections of works by Pete Seeger yet and is pretty much a must-own for fans of Seeger or folk music in general.

With a total of thirty-eight songs on two discs, A Link In The Chain holds up as an amazing work of Pete Seeger as a creative person and an artist. Occupying 60:42 and 52:55, the two discs offer a number of tracks that illustrate Seeger as a creative talent as well as an archivist of classic folk music. Ten of the songs were written by Seeger and an additional three were co-written by the venerable folk singer. The rest are traditional or are by Seeger's contemporaries, like Woodie Guthrie and Tom Paxton and the like. On each track, Pete Seeger plays either guitar or banjo. He also performs the lead vocals on every song, so this is very much his creative vision, even if he is not involved in the production of the album.

A Link In The Chain features Pete Seeger's beautiful tenor voice on all of the tracks and part of what makes Seeger so memorable as a folk singer is his emotive ability. He sings with irony and good cheer on "Get Up And Go" and "Aimee Semple McPherson." He is also able to infuse "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy" with a sense of danger and sociological horror, making it quite distinct from what most listeners might hear on the radio today. Always singing with a perfect clarity that is a model for all performers, Seeger is able to sing with a grandfatherly kindness to his voice on the songs for children, like the classics "Michael Row The Boat Ashore" and "This Land Is Your Land." He carries a weight in his voice as well, especially when he is singing about social issues. On "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize," he goes slightly lower than his usual range to connote a sense of slow-burning importance that works perfectly for the song.

In fact, one of the few places the album goes astray are the tracks where Seeger's voice is distracted from. For example, on "Jesse James," one of the background vocalists is a bass who sings significantly lower than Seeger and his voice overshadows Seeger's during the refrain. Similarly, on "Belle Starr," the background vocals are more overwhelming than supportive. There are only a few tracks like that on the album and far more indicative of the norm and of Pete Seeger's talents are songs like "Oh, Had I A Golden Thread" where his tenor voice rings out with clarity and gusto that is articulate and warm.

On all of the songs, Pete Seeger plays his guitar or his banjo and for those unfamiliar with the works of Pete Seeger, his instrumental accompaniment is just that. There are no songs where his instrument overwhelms the vocals, save on the instrumental only tracks, like "Nameless Lick" which acts as an interstitial between different sections of the albums. Songs that have later been popularized by others, like "Turn! Turn! Turn!" might sound more stark to listeners than their rock-produced cover versions. Seeger makes it work for him and because the lyrics are presented at the forefront and as well as they are, it becomes clear that his message is what is important.

Like most of Pete Seeger's music, A Link In The Chain has a positively liberal agenda in the lyrics. He sings about the need for social justice ("We Shall Overcome") and the need for peace ("Draft Dodger Rag," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?"). He also sings a number of songs that seek to illustrate that we may learn from the past. "My Name Is Liza Kalvelage" is sung as a first-person account of a German following World War II crying out about wars after the fall of Hitler and the Nuremberg judgments. That is the sort of socially-conscious song that is almost entirely absent from the current American songbook.

Anyone who likes musical storysongs will enjoy A Link In The Chain because the songs are often fun - Seeger sings about brothels on "Queen Anne Front" and escaping work "Hobo's Lullaby" - and they carry a sense of history to them. Anyone who likes classic Country or folk will likely enjoy the style and stories on this album. And for those not yet into them, this is a great set to get one there!

The best tracks are "My Name Is Liza Kalvelage" (disc 1) and "What Did You Learn In School Today?" (disc 2), the low points are the instrumental interludes on both discs.

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
Headlines & Footnotes
At 89


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