Seeger, Pete

Family Songs

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.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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Where Have All the Songwriters Gone?

Music has many functions, worship included. But one of its primary roles is its ability to move people. It’s not surprising that many of the great social movements of this century have included memorable songs—tunes with a beat and a message that drawfolks into a broader vision and a confidence to work for change.

The music of the labor movement has provided much of the dynamism for itself and other movements (see "From the Church to the Union Hall," September-October, 1996). The Smithsonian has captured on its Folkways label the power of labor songs on the 1990 CD Don’t Mourn—Organize! Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill. Included on this recording are a number of songs by Joe Hill ("The White Slave" and "There is Power in a Union") and about him (Phil Och’s "Joe Hill" and "Joe Hill Listens to the Praying," by Kenneth Patchen). Paul Robeson’s powerful voice on "Joe Hill" is especially memorable, as is Utah Phillips’ "Joe Hill’s Last Will." This recording is a powerful witness to the strength of workers united, and to their resilience in the face of corporate power. As the liner notes indicate, by the end of listening to this CD, you will feel like you know Joe Hill.

Pete Seeger has long been a stalwart in the movements for the common good. (He contributed "Casey Jones—The Union Scab" to Don’t Mourn.) He has become a motivating force, as well as a symbol, to the movements, as can be experienced by listening to the recent release Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger (Appleseed Recordings, 1998).

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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