Pete Seeger,
Live in '65
(Appleseed, 2009)

Let's be blunt about it: live recordings by Pete Seeger lean to the unlistenable. Live recordings by anybody are as often as not a hit-or-miss proposition, but in concert Seeger is wont to cast himself less as the star attraction than as the director of a giant campfire singalong. If you like that sort of thing, then, well, you like that sort of thing. Even if -- unlike me -- you count yourself in that number, though, you probably have no particular desire to hear the results preserved on (metaphorical) wax. My personal philosophy is that if I want to hear myself sing out of tune, I'll do it in the shower.

On the other hand, Live in '65 -- culled from a heretofore unreleased tape of a concert at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Music Hall on Feb. 20 of that year -- is not only listenable but largely enjoyable, though you probably will want to skip the first cut on the second disc, on which Seeger tries the listener's patience with quite specific instructions to those present on how they are to follow him on "This Little Light of Mine." But for the most part, audience participation is not overbearing, partly because crowd sounds are mixed into the background, not at the forefront. Moreover, Seeger is in splendid form, singing well and clearly in high spirits. He has a supply of good songs, not just tuneless slogans (well, except for "All Mixed Up" and "Healing River," noble sentiments tied to paltry melodies), ranging from traditional material ("Old Joe Clark," "Going Across the Mountain") to contemporary imitation folk songs (including an attempt at Dylan's "Hard Rain") to his own timeless originals ("The Bells of Rhymney," "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn! Turn! Turn!").

Of course this is Pete Seeger, which means earnest, pious and sentimental in the particular fashion of the world's last living exponent of the Popular Front. One reflects, too, that from a purely musical perspective his influence was not so much on the more committed folk-revival performers as on the folk-pop groups -- e.g., the Kingston Trio -- in the Weavers mold (not incidentally, Seeger was a founding Weaver). Still, a playful, irreverent Seeger emerges here and there, notably with charming versions of a couple of bawdy songs. We are reminded of what a fine singer he was in his prime, and how underrated a banjo player.

Almost single-handedly, he taught Americans where their music came from and why America's musical traditions are worth preserving. You and I are here, chances are, because of him. He also introduced Americans to wonderful songs from other countries and cultures. We all owe him respect and appreciation, though -- as I have written elsewhere (see my review of his At 89 in this space on 18 October 2008) -- there is reason to draw the line at the credulous adulation that typifies most appraisals.

The one essential Seeger recording is his magnificent American Favorite Ballads, which he cut in a series of LPs between 1957 and 1962 for Folkways. In 2009 Smithsonian Folkways reissued them in a five-disc box, without which no respectable CD collection can be. And if you're looking for a sampling of Seeger in performance -- and Seeger considers himself, first and foremost, a live performer -- Live in '65 is the one you want.

review by
Jerome Clark

9 January 2010

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