various artists,
Sowing the Seeds: The 10th Anniversary
(Appleseed, 2007)

Appleseed is among the finest folk labels going. Its roster includes the admirable traditionalists Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin, Tim Eriksen and David Bromberg, able singer-songwriters Eric Andersen and John Stewart, and amiable folk-rockers The Kennedys. I have reviewed most of the just-named in this space, in each case enthusiastically. Appleseed is now a decade old, and one fervently hopes it is commencing a much longer run.

You know where this is going, don't you?

I didn't come to folk music through Pete Seeger. To this day -- I've been a serious folk buff since about 1966 -- I've heard fewer Seeger albums than I have fingers on one hand. (On the other hand, I have most everything his half-brother Mike Seeger ever recorded.) I have actually read more about Pete Seeger than I've listened to him.

For that reason, plus a natural skepticism, my feelings about him are never clean and unambivalent. Rather, they speak in an irritating drone in which "on the other hand" repeats in an endless loop. And that's not because I am a "conservative" in the crude, vulgar sense the word is used in the debased political discourse of our time; to the contrary, I am a proud lifelong liberal Democrat. As an admirer of George Orwell, who poked cavern-sized holes in the pretensions of a totalitarian left to which -- notably in his continuing reverence for the undeserving Fidel Castro -- Seeger still owes at least vestigial allegiance (though he walked away from the deeply Stalinist Communist Party USA sometime in the early to mid-1950s), I am of the Orwell view that saints ought to be presumed guilty 'til proved innocent.

On the other hand....

Seeger is a good American, an exemplary citizen who takes his civic responsibilities seriously and who, as an actor on the political stage and advocate (often before the causes became fashionable or were even registering in popular consciousness) for civil rights, the environment and other worthy issues, has been an undeniably positive force in our public life. It can be said, moreover, that if Seeger has some of the wrong friends, he has all of the right enemies. And if one musician can be said to have generated the American folk-music revival -- which continues decades later with, if anything, renewed vigor -- it can be said of Seeger.

On the other hand....

At least as expressed in his music, Seeger's vision of "the folk" is all piety and treacle and campfire sing-along. Worse, it amounts to an infantilization of the true complexities and wrenching mysteries of traditional music. Folk music is not a place to which, in its natural state, one goes for moral instruction. No coherent political vision emerges from real folk -- which is to say traditional -- songs. (For examples of ideological confusion, consider the 1920s-era topical songs of Uncle Dave Macon and Blind Alfred Reed. There's a reason Bruce Springsteen was forced to rewrite Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times & Live?") Here, people behave abominably, murderously, inexplicably, stupidly, if -- once in a while, not often -- nobly. In their unadulterated form, racist sentiments, ethnic prejudices, religious intolerance and amoral, unrepentant violence (as often as not set to unsettlingly lovely melodies) are easily discerned. Folk music, in short, is not for either Sunday school or left-wing summer camp.

Moreover, having lived more than half of my life in the company of rural and small-town people and come to know them well, I do not revere "the folk" -- whoever they are. We'd all be better off if we sent the sentimental swill about "the people" down the drain and paid more attention to people, who answer to any adjective you can throw at them. The country music I grew up with, only on mercifully rare occasion moved to mopish affirmations of average people (by whom they meant average white people), more accurately represented the real lives -- in their tragedies, absurdities, pleasures and occasional kindnesses -- of its audience. Not to mention their depressingly reactionary politics and unthinking nationalism (never to be confused with thoughtful, mature patriotism).

My political life, always an active one, a nearly constant presence in my thoughts (more so now than ever), has always existed in a separate sphere from the part of my life and thought occupied by folk music. When I am in the mood to hear folk-inflected songs of protest (often, these days), I would rather turn to the young Dylan's razor-sharp plaints or to Phil Ochs's wry, black-humored dissections of official venality -- or to John Fogerty's roots-rockin' riffs on war and related madness -- than ... well ... many of the songs on Sowing the Seeds.

This two-disc retrospective/celebration is largely, not entirely, a hymnbook serving the Church of Seeger. The liner notes are replete with Seeger photos, quotes and affirmations, the discs with Seeger performances and songs, or others' versions of same. If that's what you're looking for, you've got it, brothers and sisters, in spades. If you actually want songs with titles like "Music of Healing" (Tommy Sands) and "There is Hope" (Aoife Clancy) -- which prove to be pretty much as titles advertise -- they're the warm bath and soft towels you've been dreaming of. The crashing sound you hear, however, is me hurling myself through the nearest window.

On the other hand....

There's good stuff, too. Together, Seeger and Springsteen expand on the latter's "Ghost of Tom Joad," with Seeger standing in as voice for the Guthrie/Steinbeck (and, of course, Seeger) generation. I like Bruce Cockburn's contemporary arrangement of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" which, incidentally, serves to remind even the most jaded listener how extraordinary a songwriter Seeger can be when he puts his mind to it. Though I am no particular enthusiast of Jackson Browne or Joan Baez, I give credit where due; together they produce an unexpectedly original and appealing reading of the hoary, over-recorded "Guantanamera."

On the other hand....

The two Donovan contributions cause one to reflect mostly that his phrasing has grown even odder with the passing of the decades. And anyway, "Universal Soldier," the Buffy Sainte-Marie anti-war anthem Donovan recorded early in his career and now revives, was always a better idea than it was a song.

On the other hand....

Outside the Seeger canon (the bulk of it on the second disc), there's Ramblin' Jack Elliott's better-than-Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," not to mention an even more harrowing than normal Tim Eriksen reading, this time of his original "Leave Your Light On." In Eriksen's world, one always senses that the distant future is, oh, around 1850. The Kennedys provide their own "Namaste," all sunshiny, melodic folk-pop ca. 1966-67 and flower power. Tom Paxton and Anne Hills provide us with a bracingly fierce treatment of Paxton's powerful environmental protest "There Goes the Mountain."

On the other hand....

It was a very bad idea for actor/activist Tim Robbins to decide he needed actual children to sing along with him on Seeger's "All My Children of the Sun." One is not sure whether the results are sappy or creepy. They certainly aren't pleasant.


Lizzie West & The White Buffalo's "19 Miles to Baghdad" is one terrific Iraq War song, and the reimagined-as-sort-of-reggae "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land," which Ochs wrote about America's last disastrous foreign adventure, shows up here, plucked from Eric Andersen's The Street Was Always There (Appleseed, 2004).

On the other hand....

You might buy this CD and start counting your own other hands.

review by
Jerome Clark

8 September 2007

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