Pete Seeger Pete Remembers Woody
Pete Seeger and Lorre Wyatt A More Perfect Union
both Appleseed Recordings
Even today, Pete Seeger records more albums of higher quality than many musicians a fraction of his 93 years. This autumn, Appleseed came out with two additional collections of Seeger material to complement their previous Seeger-focused tribute albums and Seeger’s own Grammy-winning set of a few years ago, At 89.
Pete Remembers Woody is simply amazing. For those of us who find ourselves under the spell of Seeger, there are few things more enjoyable than listening to the troubadour sharing his tales; in this instance, all are focused around Woody Guthrie. As the liner notes state, it would have made sense to record a collection of Guthrie songs recorded by others with the occasional anecdote from Seeger. Fortunately, project coordinator David Bernz realized the treasure he had in hand and opted for a set featuring “Pete Seeger telling us about Woody Guthrie, punctuated by music.”
What we are gifted here then is two hours of Seeger yarns accented by music from Bernz, Pete and Arlo Guthrie, Cathy Fink and Marnie Marxer, Work o’ the Weavers, and others. Mostly though, we have Seeger educating about Woody Guthrie- mentor, friend, enigma- through story. It would be a disservice to Seeger to tell his remembrances here because half the charm is in the delivery, the voice that is instantly recognizable. The parallels of history to modern politics, the flip-flops more specifically, are readily apparent. The elements of social justice, viewed now as then by many as a threat to the social fabric, are provided a historical context that appears both quaint- because, in hindsight, they don’t appear that radical- and scary: imagine a time with the merest hint of one’s beliefs could label one as a threat to the country. Seeger’s memory of his times with Guthrie appear clear and the stories roll off his tongue with both charm and vinegar.
The musical interludes that bridge the various experiences are spot-on. Work o’ the Weavers bring the folk sound of the fifties and early-sixties alive. Cathy Fink’s banjo is always welcome. David Bernz’s “Woody’s Ghost” is a three-part composition that captures the album’s over-arching spirit admirably. Guthrie is heard a couple times, once with Cisco Houston performing “New York Town” and with the Almanac Singers on “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” Seeger breaks into song throughout, providing his stories with additional colour.
Pete Remembers Woody is more than a recording documenting one man’s memories of a legend. It is a historical perspective on a movement that altered the course of the American story- and, more importantly for some of us, the American musical journey. Stunning stuff, this.
The second volume is A More Perfect Union which Seeger recorded with his long-time friend Lorre Wyatt. Several guests- most notably Bruce Springsteen, Dar Williams, Tom Morello, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris- add their voices to this collaborative recording.
Springsteen appears on the lead track, taking a couple leads throughout the sing-a-long “God’s Counting on Me…God’s Counting on You.” His phrasing when singing “It’s time to turn things around, trickle up, not trickle down” is impactful considering what he has done over the years to support many labour and social causes. One can be cynical of multi-millionaires singing for social change, but one needn’t be when the cause is true and heartfelt.
The album may be overwhelming to those not used to listening to music of conscience. The principles of social justice is woven into each note of each song: take it or leave it.
Wyatt’s signature song “Somos el Barco/We Are the Boat” is performed here with the songwriter joined by Seeger and Emmylou Harris along with a large choir of voices. “Howling for Our Supper” winks at the self-indulgent nature of songwriters while the following track, “My Neighbor’s Needs” is- like several of the songs- a call to action. Listening to “This Old Man Revisited,” one realizes that Steve Earle has based his cadence on the childhood staple more than once, and I don’t mean that in the smart ass way it sounds. Dar Williams joins in on “This Old Man Revisited” and does an even more impressive job on the Hurricane Katrina opus “Memories Out of Mud.”
Included on A More Perfect Union are fourteen newly written tracks from Seeger and Lorre. This freshness is palatable as each song seemingly reinvigorates the duo. There are those who will run from any collection of Seeger music, put off either by ones interpretation of his politics or by his voice, but those folks are missing something special. Like few others, Pete Seeger is a folk essential. And even as he slows down on his performance commitments, there is no shaking his commitment to the power of folk music.
While the guest vocalists will get more than their fair share of mentions- including here- it is Seeger and Wyatt who deserve the glory. Whether partnering with songwriters and singers who share their vision, or simply singing their songs together, the pair carry the album for more than an hour. They crack wise on “Old Apples” and reveal wisdom elsewhere, as in “A Toast to the Times,” the stark “These Days in Zimbabwe,” and “Bountiful River.” If he never records another song, Seeger’s “Somebody Else’s Eye” will stand as sentinel of his power as a writer and his prowess as a vocalist. As she does within “Bountiful River,” Sara Milonovich contributes violin accompaniment that is more than impressive.
A More Perfect Union, a recording fraught with challenge and perseverance as detailed in David Bernz’s notes, is a folk delight.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee; I hope you find writing and comment of interest and value. Donald