It is no coincidence that folk singer, songwriter and social activist Pete Seeger
(1919-2014) turns up as one of the important voices on the recently released Smithsonian Folkways box set The Social Power of Music
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2019). Seeger, one of the towering figures of American folk music, believed in songs as tools that could transform society bit by bit, but he also subscribed to the social aspect of songs. The songs he played were written by the people and for the people, folk music in the truest sense of the word.
When he himself composed, he found a balance between straightforward language and poetry that can be recognized in the folk songs. The balance between innocence and experience is expressed profoundly in one of his most famous compositions, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." That song and many more are part of a massive collection in his honor released by Smithsonian Folkways, simply titled Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
. The box set follows two other hefty musical monographs released by Smithsonian Folkways, covering the work of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly
. They both laid the foundation for Seeger, and he picked up the baton and continued to play their music. He even turned Lead Belly's song "Goodnight, Irene" into a smash-hit with his group The Weavers, but making the charts was not his goal.
Seeger wanted to communicate to and with the people, and often he did so armed only with a banjo or a guitar. He sang to children, young people and old people. He sang to everyone and made everyone sing. One of the highlights of the set is the waves of voices that wash from the audience choir on a beautiful version of the folk song "The Water is Wide."
Seeger sang with the audience, but he also sang about something, the fight against racism, poverty, war and all kinds of inequality. Seeger was an environmentalist before it became fashionable, and sang about the pollution of the Hudson River in "My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song)"; unfortunately a song like "Garbage" is still relevant today, and the same can be said about many of the issues Seeger sings about. He was not afraid of delivering a message. He was a singer and songwriter, but also a teacher and instructor, who even wrote a book about how to play the banjo. To Seeger, music was empowerment and he picked up songs, wrote them and shared them.
The box set tells Pete Seeger's story in song across six discs and 137 tracks, 20 previously unreleased. It is accompanied by a richly-illustrated 200-page book with an essay by Robert Santelli, a well-written musical biography by Jeff Place and track-by-track notes. The only thing that is missing is the lyrics. For someone who valued the words of the music so much, it seems strange not to have the lyrics to the songs Seeger sang, but presumably they can be found on the internet. One of the lyrics worth savoring was written by Seeger himself. It succinctly sums up what his art was about. It's called "Quite Early Morning" and is worth quoting verbatim as a closing thought (listen to the song in the attached YouTube-clip):
You know it's darkest before the dawn / And it's this thought keeps me moving on / If we could heed these early warnings / The time is now quite early morning / If we could heed these early warnings / The time is now quite early morning
Some say that humankind won't long endure / But what makes them so doggone sure? / I know that you who hear my singing / Could make those freedom bells go ringing / I know that you who hear my singing / Could make those freedom bells go ringing
And so keep on while we live / Until we have no, no more to give / And when these fingers can strum no longer / Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger / And when these fingers can strum no longer / Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
So though it's darkest before the dawn / These thoughts keep us moving on / Through all this world of joy and sorrow / We still can have singing tomorrows / Through all this world of joy and sorrow / We still can have singing tomorrows
Track Listing: CD1: We Shall Overcome; If I Had a Hammer; Turn Turn Turn; Goodnight, Irene; Guantanamera; The Bells of Rhymney;
Where Have All the Flowers Gone; Waist Deep in the Big Muddy; Little Boxes; Tzena, Tzena, Tzena; So Long It’s Been Good
to Know You; Mrs. McGrath; Kisses Sweeter Than Wine; Banks of Marble; Talking Atom; A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Puttin'
on the Style; Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos); Viva la Quince Brigada; Living in the Country; This Land Is Your Land.
CD2: Union Hoot: The Scabs Crawl In / We Pity Our Bosses Five / Keep That Line A-Moving / Join the Picket Line Today;
You Can All Join In: It Takes Everybody to Build This Land / Indian Deer Hunting / Yankee Doodle / Old Chisholm Trail /
The Farmer is the Man / Erie Canal (Low Bridge) /John Henry; Sea Chanties: Boston ”Come-All-Ye” (Blow Ye Winds
Westerly) / New Bedford Whalers / The Bigler/ Johnny Come Down to Hilo; Down in the Valley; Buffalo Gals; UAW-CIO;
Dinky Die; Uncle Sam, Won't You Please Come Home to Guam; Moorsoldaten; Listen Mr. Bilbo; Joe Hill; Roll the Union On;
OPA Shout; Talking Union; John Riley; Banjo Medley: Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss / Cripple Creek / Ida Red / Old Joe
Clark; Jam on Jerry’s Rocks; Lonesome Traveler; Goofing Off Suite: Opening Theme; Chorale from Beethoven’s 9th
Symphony; Suliram; Babevuya; Blue Mountain Lake; Coal Creek March / Pay Day at Coal Creek / Buddy Won't You Roll
Down the Line; Wasn’t That a Time; Which Side Are You On? CD3: Foolish Frog; I Had a Rooster; Mr. Rabbit; Oh,
Worrycare; Hard Times in the Mill; Casey Jones (the Union Scab); The Death of Harry Simms; The Preacher and the Slave; I
Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister; Passing Through; Kumbaya; Black and White; Didn’t Old John Cross the Water / Michael,
Row the Boat Ashore; Midnight Special; Que Bonita Bandera; The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be; In the Evening When
the Sun Goes Down; Hold On; Down by the Riverside; Wimoweh; Tina Sizwe (We the Brown Nation). CD4: In Tarrytown;
Oleanna; Deep Blue Sea; Barbara Allen; Big Rock Candy Mountain; House of the Rising Sun; Shenandoah; Go Tell Aunt
Rhody; Bottle Up and Go; Hard Travelling; Dink’s Song; When I First Came to This Land; The Half Hitch; I Never Will
Marry; Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase; No More Auction Block; Talking Blues; St. James Infirmary; Strawberry Roan;
Follow the Drinking Gourd; Seneca Canoe Song (Kayowjajineh); The Banks of Champlain; My Gallant Black Bess;
Nonesuch; Battle of New Orleans. CD5: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream; Carol of the Beasts (Burgundian Carol); The
Quiz Show; Eight-Hour Day; The Popular Wobbly; Bourgeois Blues; Garbage; Guardian Beauty Contest (Attila the Hun);
Rambling Boy; Mrs. Clara Sullivan’s Letter; Freiheit (Die Thälmann-Kolonne); Battle of Maxton Field; What Did You Learn
in School Today; From Way Up Here; To My Old Brown Earth; My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song); Letter to Eve;
Ballad of Dr. Dearjohn; My Name is Lisa Kalvelage; Don’t Ask What a River Is For; God Bless the Grass; Of Time and Rivers
Flowing; Well May the World Go; Guantanamera. CD6: Quite Early Morning; There’s Better Things to Do; My Father’s
Mansion’s Many Rooms; Estadio Chile; Why, Oh Why?; How About You?;The Sinking of the Reuben James; Abiyoyo; Cristo
Ya Nacio; The Water is Wide; Greensleeves; If I Had a Hammer (Hammer Song); We’ll All Be A-Doubling; Arrange and
Rearrange; English is Cuh-Ray-Zee (English is Crazy); A Little of This and That; Sailin’ Up, Sailin’ Down; All Mixed Up; Star
Spangled Banner / To Anacreon in Heaven; One Grain of Sand.
Personnel: Pete Seeger: vocals, banjo, guitar, axe, percussion; recorder, bass; Lee Hays: vocals; Bess Lomax Hawes: lead vocal, vocals;
Tom Glazer: vocals; Butch Hawes: vocals, guitar; Alan Lomax: vocals; Brownie McGhee: vocals, guitar; Burls Ives: vocals;
Sonny Terry: harmonica; Josh White: vocals, guitar; Lou Kleinman: vocals, piano; Dock Reese: vocals; Hally Wood: vocals;
Bob Claiborne: vocals; Mary Travers: vocals; Erik Darling: vocals; Tom Geraci: vocals; Millard Lampell: vocals; Sam Gary:
vocals; Carol White: vocals; Memphis Slim: vocals, piano; Willie Dixon: vocals, bass; Ed Renehan: vocals, guitar; William
Edward Cook: washboard; Frank Robertson: bass; Mike Seeger: vocals, autoharp; Frank Hamilton: vocals, guitar; Fred
Hellerman: guitar; Tao Rodriguez-Seeger: vocals; David Amram: dumbek; Peggy Seeger: vocals; Barbara Seeger: vocals;
Penny Seeger: vocals; Calum MacColl: vocals; Neill MacColl: vocals; Sonya Cohen: vocals.
Title: Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
| Year Released: 2019
| Record Label: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings