The Good: Consistently great vocals, Competent instrumental accompaniment, Some amazing songs, Great historical value, Duration
The Bad: Some obscure songs (but that's the point!)
The Basics: A scholarly collection of classic American folk music, American Favorite Ballads is a five-disc set which performs known and obscure folk songs in an engaging way.
When one writes a lot about a subject, it is sometimes hard to get excited to continue writing about it. In that regard, I am feeling pretty bad because I do not want to undersell the value of the Smithsonian Folkway Recordings boxed set American Favorite Ballads. I've written reviews of each of the component albums and because the purpose is clear throughout the entire project, all that actually changes album to album is the tracklist. Pete Seeger's presentations in them are meant to have an almost scholarly direct quality to them and as a result, leave little to write about. Now, the five volumes of the American Favorite Ballads collection are boxed together in one convenient pack and this gets no points off for me for using all five discs; each disc is so packed with music that none of them could be condensed.
This collection might well be the essential volume for those looking to build an instant folk collection. The Smithsonian Folkways Recordings sought to archive popular and obscure folk music in the United States before it passed from memory and the collective unconscious. The concept was to produce a series that archived in a fairly scholarly way all the songs in the public domain (which could possibly be forgotten at any time). The collection has Pete Seeger performing songs that used to be sung around campfires and in the hills, a series of musical storysongs that capture the simple soul of the American South, West and the mountains where history and information were often recorded and passed on in songs
This is a simple bundle pack of the albums:
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 1
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 2
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 3
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 4
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5
With all of their original liner notes and musical content, there is no additional programming or features for purchasing the albums in this way. However, one does get all five albums in a nifty slipcase.
The clear purpose of the collection is to get songs which are classic folk songs performed in a way that is clear. As a result, the collection does not have songs written by Pete Seeger (though there are one or two and The Weavers "Wimoweh" manages to make it on), but rather is a collection of songs largely by writers whose names have been lost to time. Most are simply credited as "Traditional," like "On Top Of Old Smoky," "Camptown Races," "Swanee River," "Go Down, Moses," and "Cowboy Yodel."
Vocally, Pete Seeger is an ideal choice for this type of endeavor. His vocals are clear and he enunciates each word perfectly, insuring future generations will have no problem understanding the words to these classic folk songs. Similarly, he has a beautiful tenor voice that is very easy to listen to. He sings in a voice that has a silky smoothness to it and an energy that holds up over many, many listens to the album. Seeger is able to combine energy and enthusiasm with clarity and that is quite something.
He is also able to emote beautifully with his voice, as he does on songs like "Wagoner's Lad" and "Goodnight, Irene." He infuses those slow ballads with a sense of longing that is heartwrenching to listen to and each time those tracks come on, they fill the listener with melancholy. By contrast, the fast lines on "Old Dan Tucker" would easily get mixed up by a lesser artist, but Pete Seeger sings each of the fast words clearly and with eagerness that makes for an ideal jig song.
Seeger is accompanied on each song only by himself on the guitar or banjo. Folk music has its origins with common people who had little money and the simplicity of the music is reflected well by the stark instrumentation. Seeger remains true to the intent and feeling of the original songs by playing them on simple instruments alone. Unaccompanied by anyone else, Seeger has a "one man and a banjo" (or guitar) sound that rings very true for folk. On these albums, he sounds professional and clear, which makes for a valuable collection.
The songs on American Favorite Ballads tend to be songs about relationships, like "Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair" and "Lady Margaret," or the American experience as it pertains to the Westward expansion ("Buffalo Skinners," "Jesse James") and slavery ("No More Auction Block"). The songs range from the instantly recognizable ("Camptown Race") to the obscure ("Play-Party"). What makes this endeavor perfect is this: Smithsonian Folkway Recordings set out to create a definitive collection of folk songs and over the course of the 139 songs on five c.d.s, they achieve that goal admirably by mixing songs which are undeniable folk masterpieces with songs that have already become obscure. If the Smithsonian was trying to preserve for posterity the musical history of American folk music, the fact that many of these songs were unknown to me (making them about a generation away from being lost entirely) achieves the goal.
Pete Seeger might not have much creative control over American Favorite Ballads, but he became the perfect vessel to preserve the classics of folk music for posterity in a way that is clear, easily understood and devoid of poorly-repeating aspects like ad libs or stories about the songs. The liner notes to this collection makes up for that by detailing what history might be known of each song, making this an ideal scholarly collection.
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
Birds, Beasts, Bugs And Fishes (Little And Big)
Seeger & Hester
Headlines & Footnotes
For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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