The Common Good
January-February 2002

Family Songs

by | January-February 2002

At first, listening to A Time to Sing!

At first, listening to A Time to Sing! and If I Had a Song seemed a bit like stumbling into a wondrous party thrown by Appleseed Recordings for Pete Seeger. I wander the room a bit, recognize a few people I know and love—Billy Bragg’s over in the corner chatting with Steve Earle; Arlo Guthrie and Dar Williams play Old Maid at a table by the kitchen. Voices ebb and flow through the room; I overhear one conversation in Spanish, catch a bit of another in French. They’re all related somehow; I sense the resemblances. But things feel mighty uncomfortable, especially once the entertainment begins. The opening chords strike, and Jackson Browne and Joan Baez bounce into "Guantanamera." I crane my neck to find the nearest exit.

Don’t get me wrong. I love folk music. I remember singing "If I Had a Hammer" in grade school, and if you play "Guantanamera," I’ll usually sing along. I’m not heartless. But I also like my music unpretentious and/or painful. Few of the songs offered on A Time to Sing! or If I Had a Song are either.

Recorded live at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles, A Time to Sing! has been reissued and expanded—13 new songs—17 years after the event. In September 1984, Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, and Pete Seeger performed together in the name of all that was conscientious folk culture—in the face of the Reagan administration, the tragic reality of AIDS, apartheid, and hearts embracing feminism and civil and gay/lesbian rights. Unfortunately, much of how conscientious folk culture expressed itself then, especially as it manifests itself on this double album, smacks of elitist and naive optimism—the operatic voices, the earnest piano pounding, the trite rhythms of "Wimoweh." Or so I thought after my first listen.

I sat down with A Time to Sing! again. And again. And again. I still don’t care much for Ronnie Gilbert’s soaring soprano, but after hearing her straightforward and plaintive "The Water is Wide," she’s family. You’d still have to tie me down to get me to listen to "Take Back the Night!" which tells of the murder of a young woman and the need to "take back the night and make it safe for everyone to use." Evil exists. Tragedy happens. No amount of insistent singing will change the fact that we live in a broken, broken world.

STILL, THESE ALBUMS stand as testament of the people—past and present, activists and songsters alike—who worked tirelessly to call attention to, care for, and mend this broken world. Emma Goldman, Bob Dylan, José Martí, Marvin Gaye, and Steve Goodman join with Seeger, Guthrie, Near, Gilbert, and their audience as the concert continues, either by their own words or through ones written in their honor. And this circle of voices grows larger with If I Had a Song.

I can count on one hand the songs that grab my gut and force me to know the bittersweet reality of human existence. On Steve Earle’s "Walking Down Death Row," Billy Bragg and Eliza Carthy’s "If I Had a Hammer," and Dar Williams and Toshi Reagon’s "Oh, Had I a Golden Thread," both the artists and the songs speak with singular clarity and poignancy. Still, the significance of this album, the second of a soon-to-be three-volume tribute to the songs of Pete Seeger, rests less in its art than its expansion of community. More than 30 musical artists from England, Canada, the United States, and Nicaragua gather to pay testament to the influence of one of the original Old Left folk ramblers. As difficult and uncertain as life is, I need this community, this family, now more than ever. Just don’t expect me to join Moxy Früvous in its barbershop quartet rendition of "Maple Syrup Time."

Beth Isaacson, a former Sojourners intern, lives in Washington, D.C.

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