Hero is an abused term. In a time where only the famous (athletes, actors) or the faceless ("firemen") have the term applied to them, it seems a little disconcerting to actually attach a name to one. Most of the people I'd name as heroes to me would be scientists, thinkers, and a couple of musicians, one of whom is Pete Seeger. Fast approaching his 85th birthday, Pete has, to me at least, spent decades defining the American notion of Free Speech. Censured, censored, and even threatened with treason, Seeger never shut up: he continued to express his view of his nation, of his planet, and his fellow beings. I don't always agree with his ideas and opinions, but I've never trusted anyone I totally agree with; it's akin to arguing with yourself.
Appleseed Recordings, Pete's recording outlet, has released three tribute discs to Pete. The idea in these compilations is that, while Pete's name may be known, to go through his entire catalogue is a formidable task for any listener. Not only are there countless releases under his name, not all are exceptionally accessible albums to non-Folkie ear. Many are quite old timey sounding, often sparse and devoid of extraneous filigrees. In addition, while being a great songwriter, interpreter of song, and a great picker to boot, Seeger doesn't have the solo voice that many would go out of their way to hear. (Frankly, I like it -- all guts, little technique, very punk of him indeed...) So, mix Pete and his songs with other artists and see his exposure increase.
The first of these compilations, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, takes many divergent artists and many differing ideas of how these songs could be sung. Many play it straight, like John Gorka's take on "The Water Is Wide" or Odetta's incredible solo take on "One Grain Of Sand." Many fool around, like the reggae take of "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" by Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. And some fall frankly flat, such as the opening "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" by Tommy Sands, an orchestra, a kid's chorus, and more pompousness than the song deserves (it's apparently a recording being used as an anthem for peace in Northern Ireland, so maybe...). Some artists sleepwalk through the material, adding nothing, like Roger McGuinn's bland take on "Bells Of Rhymney." And while the experimentation of the Indigo Girl's "Letter To Eve" bring the tunes to the modern age, Ani DiFranco's mumbled version of "My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage" removes the power and the beauty of the stripped down original. But in the end, it's hard to go wrong with material this strong, and despite the grimaces, I found this a good compilation.
Pete gets more involved on the second of these compilations, If I Had A Song. A single disc, it presents the listener with a less overwhelming showcase for the songs contained. The level of experimentation is stronger as well, including a rap take on "Talkin' Union" by Corey Harris and John McCutcheon, and a searing "Words, Words, Words," by John Wesley Harding and the Minus Five. When Pete pops up, twice with Arlo Guthrie, the songs are lighter, more lilting, and perhaps a little less forced than some of the other offerings. Seeger has always seemed to gain most of his musical power in the plainest of renderings, but even surrounded by the myriad of instruments and voice on his take of the English ballad "Well May The World Go," with Larry Long on lead vocals, that ole banjo shines through, singing in a voice of it's own. This is, in my opinion, the best of these discs, and the most focused. Highly recommended.
But the true focus of this page is on the latest of these releases. Entitled Seeds, it returns to the two disc format, but with a twist: one disc is covers, but the other is all Pete Seeger, his first full solo album in over a decade. Time has been kind to him: sure his voice is reedy, and his timing wanders a bit, but he proves himself no museum piece. The songs vary between reworks of previously released songs ("Maple Syrup Time"), covers ("Somewhere Over The Rainbow"), and new tunes. He appears on many numbers accompanied by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, in a duet setting that echoes many of his classic recordings. On others, he goes from having guest vocalists (including Anne Hill on "Flowers of Peace") to a full blown orchestra on the gorgeous "Sailing Down My Golden River."
His views haven't been tempered with time, either: the haunting "Estadio Chile," an adaptation of a poem by Victor Jara, recalls the atrocities of American involvement in the bloody overthrow of the Chilean government in the early 1970's. The opening song, and centerpiece of the set, "Bring Them Home," resets his 1960's Vietnam protest in the current Iraqi situation; it guests Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, DiFranco, Hills and others in a plea for common sense. The only real bring-down on this disc is a children's song, "Take It From Dr. King," which while being a good song and an obviously fun one for kids to sing, has an overblown recording that recalls the worst of the children's discs I endured in those same early 70's. (Seeger has recorded much, much better children's records in the past.) Save that track, the disc is glorious, and reaffirms Seeger's place in the American musical landscape: a vibrant artist, with new and exciting things to say, and not just some old folk singer.
The second disc is more tribute material, and it falters, especially in the context of this trilogy. The exploration of Seeger's themes in differing musical contexts is missing here, save for Dick Gaughan's overblown "Bells of Rhymney." Several songs are covered for a second time, as well as artists reappearing, which somehow makes it seem that Seeger's catalogue and influence have been spread thin. But when John McCutcheon starts singing "Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter," you realize that all is not for naught. And Last Forever's version of "When I Was Most Beautiful" comes around, one can forgive some of the dullness that surrounds them.
Holy cow -- that's a lot of music I've been listening to! In the final analysis, I'd probably recommend anyone to track down Pete's back catalogue over any of these comps (Waist Deep In The Big Muddy And Other Love Songs is a great starting point). But If I Had A Song is a great primer, and Seeds made me smile a great deal. But that Pete & Toshi are still with us, still up in Beacon chopping wood and tending the garden, is enough of a legacy for us all. Oh, and all that wonderful music.