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 loveBilly Braggs 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. Theyre 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.
Dont get me wrong. I love folk music. I remember singing "If I Had a Hammer" in grade school, and if you play "Guantanamera," Ill usually sing along. Im 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 expanded13 new songs17 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 culturein 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 optimismthe operatic voices, the earnest piano pounding, the trite rhythms of "Wimoweh." Or so I thought after my first listen.