Various Artists: Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger Volume 3
What a joy it is hearing Pete Seeger sing again! For those wondering, his voice has held up remarkably well over his 84 years. In their respective 80-plus age group, he might be the best singer since Champion Jack Dupree. Seeger now sounds like -- and this is a compliment -- a weathered cross between Kermit the Frog and Mr. Snuffle-upagus (Big Bird's friend the mammoth, remember?). In this, his first full release since winning a Grammy for 1996's Pete, Seeger's voice is relaxed, warm, and surprisingly supple, combining experience with his ever-present sense of child-like wonder.
The first disc of two consists of Pete Seeger performing with others. It's heartening to hear Seeger still has his old, un-self-righteous touch with a protest song: on a "Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)", updated for the invasion of Iraq, Seeger says, "I may be right, I may be wrong / But I got a right to sing this song / [spoken] Isn't that the wonderful thing about America? You got a right -- to be wrong!" It's in that warmth, tolerance, and the acknowledgment of his own fallibility that Seeger demonstrates the charm, affability, and humanity that continues to make him not only right about a variety of issues, but, unlike some of his folk peers, likable being right.
On the second disc, songs Seeger either wrote or popularized are covered by a wide range of folk and pop artists. Dick Gaughan does a memorable version of "Bells of Rhymney". Instead of the jangly sound of both Seeger's original and the Byrds' well-known cover, Gaughan recounts Seeger's miners' lament over a landscape of brooding synthesizers pierced only by the wrenching cry of electric guitar chords.
Gaughan's take becomes especially memorable given the social upheaval that, as related in the liner notes, infuses his cover of the song. "When the original poem was written," executive producer Jim Musselman recounts, "hundreds of coal mines were operating all throughout the country." The brooding atmosphere of the new cover is to "stress the bleakness of the nature of the mining industry in Wales today."
Gaughan's cover is a moving example of the folk music process at work, a process that Seeger has been a champion of in both theory and deed. Taking a familiar song, Gaughan reinterprets it both as an artistic creation and as a social document. Jangle is replaced with painfully drawn chords, an artistic statement that represents the death of Wales's mines. The protest of working conditions in the older versions becomes an evocation of the triumphs and tribulations of a vanished world. The liner notes mention that it is the hope of those who participated in these recordings that "some of the anti-war songs will become obsolete and never need to be sung again. The day when 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone' [the title track to volume one of this three volume series] becomes less relevant will be a great day for humankind." Gaughan, however, demonstrates that, even when the specific issues are gone, there can still be a raw power in the basic human drama of the songs themselves, as well as in their power to evoke what is no more.
On the other hand, there are also dangers to covering songs often tied to specific historic incidents. Natalie Merchant, for instance, does a version of "Whose Side Are You On". Fearing the worst, I was happily surprised at first when both the music and Merchant start slow, letting the quiet power of the lyrics implicate the actions of the murderous (real-life) company owners without any unnecessary histrionics. Unfortunately, Merchant then gets caught up in her own agitating and ends up sounding as strident as Joan Baez, whom Merchant no doubt admires. Still, in contrast to many of her own songs, at least here Merchant is protesting a cause that's actually worth protesting.
Most of the covers here fall somewhere in between. Most of the time, they benefit from a lighter touch than Merchant's. Taking a cue from Seeger himself, one that Merchant could have used, Carolyn Hester performs "One Man's Hands" with quiet optimism and lets the words themselves speak for which side she's on. The choice of covers also benefit from the choice of songs. Instead of every artist choosing a song of Great Social and Political Import, many opt for one of the humorous or personal numbers that have always humanized Seeger's protests. Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert's "Precious Friend", for instance, is graced with a touch of Dixieland jazz and vaudeville and balances out Merchant's protest nicely. For the most part, the pleasures from the covers on the second disc are from similar strokes of small inspiration and likability. Yet, if they rarely come with the brilliant, sweeping reinterpretation and recontextualization of Gaughan's cover of "Bells of Rhymney", they do usually come with the common touch, the unpretentious, good-humored affection, tolerance, and decency that always characterize Pete Seeger himself. After all these decades, the world could still learn a lot from him, perhaps now as much as ever.