ARTIST: PETE SEEGER

TITLE: AMERICAN FAVORITE BALLADS, Vol 1-5

LABEL:  SMITHSONIAN-FOLKWAYS

I Hear America Singing:

Re-released With Notes by Dr. Guy Logsdon and Jeff Place

By Ross Altman

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The last time I saw Dr. Guy Logsdon, former Head Librarian at the University of Tulsa, he was singing dirty cowboy songs. I don't mean dirty as in dusty, or straight off the trail, I mean dirty as in unprintable in a family magazine, daily newspaper, or any media outlet controlled by the FCC. His classic book, "The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing" and Other Songs Cowboys Sing, was the result of a lifetime fascination with the songs that John Lomax missed when he pioneered the field. Lomax's late Victorian sensibility had some blind spots when it came to appreciating the less cultivated aspects of the folk.

There are a dozen collections of cowboy songs wherein you will find The Strawberry Roan, for example, but if you want to learn The Castration of the Strawberry Roan you will need to find Logsdon's book.

We shared the stage once during an evening devoted to Woody Guthrie at the late great folk venue The Barn at UC Riverside, created and kept going for nearly twenty years by Dot Harris and her late husband, Professor of English Bill Harris. Dr. Logsdon has also made Woody Guthrie one of his scholarly specialties, devoting two years of his life just to compiling a bibliography of Woody's prolific output for the Woody Guthrie Foundation in New York City.

And now he has teamed up with Jeff Place, librarian and archivist for the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, to compile and extensively annotate a CD re-release of Pete Seeger's classic series on Moses Asch's original Folkways Records, American Favorite Ballads, which I am proud to have acquired on the original five volume LPs. They form the basis for Pete's first song collection published by Oak Publications, and still in print, American Favorite Ballads, Tunes and Songs, as sung by Pete Seeger, (of which I am proud to have a signed copy!).

But enough about me; let's talk about me. I also have a goodly portion of Pete's surrounding Folkways recordings, going all the way back to his first 10 inch album on Folkways, Darling Cory, in which you can still hear the traditional sources for his unique banjo style that emerged some years later with the Weavers. On these early records he played traditional songs the way he learned them in the field, from Pete Steele, Doc Boggs, Uncle Dave Macon and others. If you recall my FolkWorks essay on the development of the American folk festival, Pete's father (musicologist Charles Seeger) took his 16 year-old son to his first festival in Asheville, North Carolina. That's when Pete Seeger fell in love with the five-string banjo, and began his lifelong love of folk music.

You can trace Pete's development as a musician in many of the tracks on this newly packaged and annotated seminal boxed set, American Favorite Ballads. It includes recordings from many of Pete's Folkways albums in addition to the five-volume original series which provides the series title. There are 139 songs in this remarkable collection; whereas there were only 84 in the Oak Publications book with the same title.

Smithsonian Folkways could not have picked a better series to re-release on CD, and just in time for Pete's 90th birthday, coming up on May 3rd. It is required listening and reading. The original liner notes were tentative and sketchy compared to this new masterpiece of historical scholarship. Let me give you one telling example of the difference.

In Pete's note to the gold rush classic, Clementine, you find the following:

"A popular song of the California gold rush of 1849. The tune is probably much older. Sounds German to me, but I've been told it was Mexican, early 19th Century." (American Favorite Ballads, Oak Publications, NYC, 1961.)

Here is Guy Logsdon's and Jeff Place's elaborate, if inconclusive, note on the same song:

"Also known as Darling Clementine, My Darling Clementine, and Oh, My Darling Clementine, words and music by Percy Montrose."

But that's just the head note; they go on to add:

"In 1863 lyrics similar to Clementine were published as sheet music under the title, Down the River Lived a Maiden (Oliver Ditson & Co. Boston) with H.S. Thompson credited for "Song and Chorus," but in 1884 the melody and lyrics were published by the same company under the title, Oh, My Darling Clementine, with Percy Montrose credited with words and music. The following year, a variant was published as Clementine by Willis Woodward & Co., New York, with credit given to Barker Bradford. Even though reference is made to "miner, forty-niner," no lyrics remotely similar appear in songsters related to the gold rush. It became identified as a western song in 1946, when John Ford's film about Wyatt Earp and the Tombstone shootout, hit the screens, and the song was constantly played as the theme music."

Then they go into its recording history:

"The song was recorded by Floyd Thompson & His Hometowners in 1928 in Indianapolis, Indiana, for Vocalion Records (Vo 5242) and six years later by Bradley Kincaid for Decca (DeW4271). It is strange that only two commercial recordings prior to 1941 have been documented, but the song was being sung for decades by people of all ages. Many variants, including bawdy lyrics [Dr. Logsdon couldn't let that pass], and the song has been included in numerous popular collections. Folklorists have not listed it in field collections-which makes it one of the songs Pete considers an American favorite without being classified as a folk song."

In other words, it was not a "gold rush song" at all, but a late popular addition that got folded back into twentieth century retellings of the gold rush. (For an additional source, see Songs of the Gold Rush; Edited with introduction by Richard A. Dwyer and Richard Lingenfelter; Music edited by David Cohen. Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1965. 200p.)

You get the idea: If you have been wondering where these songs we call folk songs come from, when and where they have appeared in print, and who first recorded them-in short, if you want a genealogy of folk music, you have come to the right place.

As you go through the collection, you will not only hear Pete's growing mastery of the banjo, but his 12-string labor of love on behalf of preserving the music of Huddie Ledbetter-Leadbelly-whose theme song Goodnight Irene was the Weaver's biggest selling record. It was on the Hit Parade in 1950 for 17 weeks, and was Life Magazine's choice for "The Song of the Half Century." Pete plays it, and many other songs, on his 12-string guitar, including, surprisingly, I've Been Working On the Railroad, with which he backs up the line "strumming on the old banjo." Maybe he left his banjo back at the log cabin for that recording session.

What was so revealing to me, however, as I began my own labor of love in listening to this amazing set of performances, is how Pete's musical personality kind of sneaks up on you, almost like the old John Wayne movie, Big Jake, where the opening scene slowly and cryptically unfolds until the camera suddenly pans onto John Wayne behind a tree, gun at the ready, watching the same scene develop as you did, of a sheepherder about to be hung, and Wayne muttering to himself, "No sir, I ain't a gonna do it; everytime I get involved in somebody else's business I live to regret it." Of course, he then saves the sheepherder's life.

With Pete, it's a banjo and 12-string instead of a gun, but the effect is similar: for the first three songs I recognized Pete's voice and knew the song, but there was something missing. Pete's full musical personality had not quite developed yet. And then, before he sings a note, he starts to play Skip To My Lou on the banjo, and you realize it's Pete Seeger playing-and no one else in the whole world. Like looking at John Wayne for the first time, that's when the movie begins-and that's when the record takes off, you can sit back, relax, and know you are in the presence of an American original-the Yankee troubadour who captured the songs and stories of this land and made five generations of young people fall in love with their folk music heritage.

Did I mention that Pete got a Grammy this year, at the tender age of 89! He got it for another great collection of his songs-many of which he wrote: Pete Seeger at 89. I mention it because to fully appreciate the depth and breadth of Pete's musical journey you really should hear both collections back to back. Pete at 89 singing his classic antiwar song, Waist Deep In the Big Muddy, and Pete at 39 a half century before, singing a simple children's play party song like Skip To My Lou.

Today when we think of Pete Seeger it is more as the creator or co-creator of some classic modern songs like Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Turn, Turn, Turn, and If I Had a Hammer, than as a folk singer who sang and recorded most of the traditional songs that make up "the American song-bag." But had Pete never written a song he would still be America's greatest folk singer, and this landmark multi-volume set documents why. Pete chose his songs carefully, and together they create an immense sound mural of American history, from early American hymns like Wond'rous Love, to Yankee Doodle during the Revolution, John Brown's Body in the Civil War, the Greer County Bachelor of the westward expansion, immigrant ballads like Paddy Works On the Railroad and No Irish Need Apply, sea shanties like Shenandoah, and African-American spirituals like Go Down, Moses. And these titles just scratch the surface. Taken together, this astonishing collection is a core curriculum of American folk music.

In the midst of recording this paean to his country, and just ten years after serving his country in the Pacific during World War II, Pete was unaccountably called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, where his refusal to name names led to a six-year long battle to clear his name and stay out of prison. In typical Pete fashion, he did it his way, relying not on the 5th amendment designed to protect him from self-incrimination, but rather the 1st amendment designed to protect everybody from being asked-as he memorably put it-questions no American should be asked. (I explore this turning point in Pete's life in a previous FolkWorks column, Pete Seeger's Finest Hour.)

The Supreme Court of the United States decided his case in 1961, cleared him of the contempt of Congress charges that stemmed from that August 18, 1955 appearance before HUAC, and let him get back to the life of a traveling musician who blazed the trail for countless folk troubadours and songsmiths since. And yet it would be another six years before his blacklisting from network TV would finally be successfully challenged by The Smothers Brothers, so Pete could appear on their show and (on his return visit in 1968) finally sing Waist Deep In the Big Muddy.

My admiration for and indebtedness to Pete Seeger is incalculable, so permit me one cavil about this collection-I wish I could say there is not one sour note in the magnificent six hours of recorded music and annotations in this beautiful boxed set, but there is one song I wish they had left off, and let find its way to the dustbin of folk music history. That would be Ain't It a Shame, another song Pete learned from Leadbelly, which goes, in part, Ain't it a shame to beat your wife on a Sunday, ain't it a shame? Dr. Logsdon and Jeff Place try to ameliorate its macho down home advice to rustic husbands by writing in the notes, "The verse Ain't it a shame to beat your wife on a Sunday is true for all other days, months and years; it is a shame and sin." Except that is not what the song says; what the song says is, Ain't it a shame to beat your wife on a Sunday, when you got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Friday, Saturday-ain't it a shame. To which I say, ain't it a shame to keep this song making light of domestic violence in circulation.

But perhaps that only demonstrates what makes this collection a true treasury of American folk music: it was created at a time when every song did not have to pass a political litmus test before it could enter the folk canon, when folk music was understood to document what real people actually say and feel, rather than what they ought to say and feel, when, in short, folk music was played for fun more than for profit or to impress a willing audience of fellow true believers.

This was the music I grew up on, and thanks to Pete Seeger and Jeff Place and Guy Logsdon and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, yet another generation of young people can grow up on it too. And finally, unbelievably in the face of the modern economics of recorded music (see my last column, Bob Does Pepsi: The Surreal Thing, for a summary of what working musicians and songwriters are now up against if they seek to earn a living from their music), Smithsonian Folkways has held the price on this set to just $38 and change. Considering all that went into its original production, and its recreation here as a masterpiece of scholarship as well as music, I'd call that dirt-cheap. If there is any one essential recording of traditional American music, this is it. And did I mention, it also includes Curly Fletcher's cowboy classic, The Strawberry Roan, to whet your appetite for the cowboy's after-hours version-but that's another story.

In sum, if you are concerned about what your government is doing with your money, in bailing out Wall Street bankers, brokers and Detroit CEOs, here is a reason to rejoice: One government agency is using your tax dollars to preserve something truly worth preserving, America's priceless musical heritage. Quick, go out and buy a copy, or order it directly from the source, before some senator on the Budget Committee figures out that the Smithsonian is spending your money on an un-American folk singer. Meanwhile, God bless Smithsonian Folkways; and Happy 90th Birthday, Pete Seeger. And Toshi too!

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Ross will be doing a tribute to Pete Seeger at the Sunset Hall Garden Party at Paramount Studios on Sunday, May 3rd, and a second tribute to Pete and other "Unquiet Americans" at the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival on Sunday afternoon, May 17, at 4:00pm on the Railroad Stage.

You may order your own personal copy of Pete Seeger: American Favorite Ballads, Vol 1-5, listen to samples from the recordings and download the complete tracks of Buffalo Gals and Oh Mary Don't You Weep for free from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings by visiting the Smithsonian Folkways website.

To explore their remarkable catalog, which now includes a number of other independent folk music labels such as (Richard) Dyer-Bennett Records (about whom I wrote in a previous FolkWorks essay, A Minstrel Out of Time), Monitor Records and Fast Folk Records, you can visit their web sites www.folkways.si.edu and www.smithsonianglobalsound.org

Their direct mail address is: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 600 Maryland Ave. SW Ste 2001, Washington, D.C. 20024

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..