Pete Seeger,
Pete Remembers Woody
(Appleseed, 2012)

Pete Seeger & Lorre Wyatt,
A More Perfect Union
(Appleseed, 2012)

As one who can barely remember a time when folk music did not loom large in his life, I sometimes have felt as if I am living in the world Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie created. At the same time, though, admiration has never shaded, as it has in some, into worship. If both men had all of the right enemies, they had some of the wrong friends (their fellow Stalinists who peopled the Communist Party USA of the mid-century). Guthrie was a genius, but also a deeply flawed human being and ultimately a tragic one. A kinder man and a better husband, father and friend, Seeger has lived much longer, evolving over time into an avuncular figure in American culture, an in-the-tradition native democratic radical. There can be no doubt the Pete Seeger we know is a patriot and an exemplary citizen, a profoundly good influence on a country with its own litany of shortcomings.

Still, genuine virtues aside, hagiographic excess surrounds him to this day -- for particulars, see the chapter "American Dreamers" in historian William Hogeland's Inventing American History (2009), which compares Seeger to conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. as one on whom his admirers have bestowed a mythical biography -- and such hagiography does neither Seeger nor historical truth any favors. To his credit Seeger himself, always an honest man (if sometimes a reticent one), has not sugarcoated his past. On the absorbing two-disc Pete Remembers Woody, Seeger speaks openly about his and Guthrie's obedience to the dictates of Stalin's Soviet Union, trilling, for example, anti-war anthems when Stalin and Hitler were allies and changing on a dime -- as Seeger himself acknowledges ruefully here -- when suddenly they weren't.

Does this still matter? Certainly not in any immediate sense. It's just that it's always wise, as Orwell warned long ago, to be skeptical of saints. Seeger certainly doesn't mistake himself for a saint, but many others do. Isn't it enough that -- often courageously -- he has battled for civil rights, environmental protection, peace, labor, the poor and more? Beyond that, he has led an extraordinary life, and besides being a singer and occasional songwriter of note, he is a first-rate storyteller. A good part of Pete Remembers Woody consists of anecdotes of life with, or at least contemporary with, Guthrie. Some of the story is amusing, and some of it is sad, especially those parts remembering Guthrie's long, grim illness, decline and death.

A part of this engrossing recording (part recitation, part musical numbers by various folk musicians) is taken up with the inexplicable effort of Seeger and associates to restore the radical verses to "This Land is Your Land." The effect, unfortunately, is to reduce this American hymn to a piece of agitprop that, if successful, would have rendered the song accessible to maybe a few thousand citizens -- all of them, no doubt, congratulating themselves on the pureness of their hearts.

There is nothing wrong with political-protest songs, of course, and Guthrie, along with Seeger, wrote some very good ones. (Let me be clear about this: my own political sympathies lean left.) But the power of "This Land" is in its inclusiveness, in its almost mystical vision of an American nation of all of us. It transcends the Depression troubles recalled in the Popular Front-derived alternative verses. Those verses, which feel as if dropped from two other songs (a comic one about trespassing, another, more somber one about starving people on relief), also date the narrative. It was "the people" -- supposedly revered, after all, by the Guthries and Seegers -- who decided which version they wanted to sing, and they were right. Even Seeger concedes that version is pretty good.

In any event, Pete Remembers Woody both entertains and encourages the listener to reflect on what he's hearing. Anybody intrigued by the modern folk revival's early history will want to have this little gem at hand. Here's a grateful nod to Appleseed Recordings for making it possible.

A More Perfect Union is a collection of more or less recent political songs, many environmentally themed (sometimes metaphorically), by Seeger and longtime friend Lorre Wyatt, with occasional assistance by such notables as Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Dar Williams and Tom "Watchman" Morello. Good-natured or hard-hitting, it's consistently tuneful and admirable in its moral commitment. Most of all, it's a little beam of light on an American moment that sorely needs the illumination. You'd have to have a heart of stone, or be the head of your local Tea Party, if it doesn't lift your spirits and remind you that resistance need not be futile.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 February 2013

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