Like its name, The Songs of Pete Seeger Vol. 2: If I Had a Song is a big album. It encompasses a lot of songs (16, in fact), not to mention a lot of musicians (several dozen, representing three generations, including Seeger, who himself personifies an entire generation), a wide variety of musical styles, and even three languages. Doing justice to someone who has performed virtually everywhere on Earth, began recording more than six decades ago, and has written some of the best-loved songs on the planet, cannot be an easy task. Fortunately, executive producer Jim Musselman, president and founder of Appleseed Recordings, has made a major project of it. Volume 1, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, is a two-CD set. Volume 3, concluding the series, is due later this year.
It is well worth learning about Pete Seegers life and work, but that's a long and magnificent story best told elsewhere. Even The Songs of Pete Seeger series has a long and interesting tale to tell. Following the release of Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Appleseed "received hundreds of letters from people in Japan, India, Russia, Australia and all over the world who wrote how their lives had been touched and enhanced by Pete and his music over the years. The version of Where Have All the Flowers Gone on Volume 1 featured Catholic and Protestant school children singing together, and it became the anthem of peace in Northern Ireland."
This CD offers some very engaging songs. In "Guantanamera" Jackson Browne and Joan Baez, two veteran performers with dissimilar repertoires and careers, harmonize beautifully together and add to the life of a classic tune with some surprising chords. Billy Bragg, who in recent years has released two CDs of lyrics penned but never put to music by Seegers longtime friend Woody Guthrie, belts out a rousing "If I Had a Hammer" with fine vocal and violin accompaniment by Eliza Carthy. John Wesley Harding provides the albums best-rocking cut, "Words, Words, Words": "Words, words, words in my old Bible/How much truth remains?/If I only understood them while my lips pronounce them/ Would not my life be changed?"
A very tender and melodic, little-known song, "Youll Sing to Me, Too," which Seeger wrote for his grandchild, features the Nicaraguan brother/sister duo Guardabarranco (named for a bird that dies without freedom) singing prettily and gently, mostly in non-native English: "I dont know/Where Ill go/But were here/And were near/So Ill sing to you/And someday youll sing to me, too."
Also masterfully performed and very melodic, though much more haunting, is Eric Andersens rendering of "Snow, Snow" -- even barbed wire is beautiful with snow upon it.
Far from here on the musical and spiritual spectrum are the powerful songs of conscience. "Walking Down Death Row" sung by Steve Earle and "Last Train to Nuremberg" performed by the Joel Rafael Band both illustrate Seegers knack for revealing the universal human accountability for the worst crimes and our possibilities for redemption.
The very good, but less-than-superlative, rating I have given this CD in no way means it is not to be treasured, but, like most good tribute albums, it contains some experiments that dont pan out and some participants who dont blend well. Both the music and the liner notes will be of special interest to those who find it rewarding to hear and learn about music that fully reflects the human spirit -- desire, wit, aspiration, conscience, playfulness, love, regret -- and to those who wish to learn more about folk music and its extraordinary revival in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
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