Some may find them merely diverting melodies. Others may find them incitements to Red revolution. And who will say if either or both is wrong? Not I.
— Pete Seeger in Rolling Stone, April 13, 1972
At some point during the folk music movement, it became nearly impossible to separate the message from the music, the politics from the poetry. Somehow the peculiar political bent of the genre would come to be ascribed to it by those who sought to catalog, “preserve”, and present these backwoods ditties to a wider audience and not necessarily by those artisans of rural America who created them.
Contained within the efforts of John Lomax and Charles Seeger (and later, their children) to rediscover the American folk song was also their vocal support of Socialist political theories. The rash of Depression-era New Deal “alphabet soup” programs implemented by the Roosevelt administration to fight the problems of widespread unemployment — with an emphasis on the “ennobled” culture of rural America — made it an exciting time to believe in the promise of Socialism in the United States. The culture of the common man was the rallying point of the day; simply said, the proletariat would save America.
Twenty-five years later, the fleeting tolerance of leftist political views would evaporate with 1950s McCarthyism and the Red Scare, but the association between established musicians like Pete Seeger (Charles’ youngest son from his first marriage) and the folk genre would not dissipate. Blacklisted for his outspoken Socialist views and ostracized for his staunch support of the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, Pete Seeger was notorious. As a result, folk music would be known as the music of protest and folk musicians, dangerous radicals.
Born from the context of political upheaval and cultural revolution, the music celebrated on If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 seems hardly dangerous or all that radical. Instead, many of these songs contain a simple sense of empowerment and deliver a forthright feeling of honest hope. Careful, though: some of the more politically-charged lyrics (“Last Train to Nuremberg”) have lost little if any of their impact, serving as timeless admonishments that there are still some hard-learned lessons that cannot be forgotten.
Following on the heels of 1998’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, If I Had a Song once again brings together some of the biggest names in popular and folk music, including Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, and Billy Bragg, just to name a few. The disc is successful in culling a number of passionate individual performances, especially with Earle’s pained rendering of “Walking Down Death Row”, an unflinching examination of capital punishment, and the breathtaking collaboration of Dar Williams and Toshi Reagon on “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread”. On the same note, Bragg’s rough-edged version of “If I Had a Hammer” brings back some much-needed bite to a song marginalized by one too many campfire cover versions.
Unfortunately, If I Had a Song is at best inconsistent on an equal number of fronts. Moxy Früvous’ offering of “Maple Syrup Time” is disposable. Meanwhile, Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s cover of “Little Boxes (Petites Boîtes)” would be forgettable if it were not so annoyingly repetitive. To lay all of the blame at the feet of the performers would be unfair in this case but with the sheer amount of Seeger’s work to choose from, some of these decisions are easy to call into question.
Yet the album still stands strong as a celebration of Seeger’s prolific talents, thought-provoking lyrics and his charming sense of humor. Oddly enough, the three strongest cuts belong to Seeger himself — “66 Highway Blues”, “This Old Car”, and his classic anthem “Well May the World Go” — and each track serves as a painful reminder that few will be able to take up his mantle.
Enough cannot be said about the spirit of individual accountability, to stand up and speak out for those who cannot. This burden is all too often carried by a selfless and largely unheard class of artist who has constantly sought to remind an apathetic public that free speech is not just a right, but a responsibility. Changing his corner of the world one song at a time for over 60 years, it would seem that no one knows this better than Pete Seeger.