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Monday, June 1, 2009

Pete Seeger

American Favorite Ballads (Smithsonian Folkways)

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Pete Seeger, who turned 90 last month, can look back on a life of accomplishment. Many tributes marked his birthday, including this five-CD box set comprised of the traditional American folk tunes he recorded for the Folkways label between 1957 and 1962.

Seeger was always more folklorist than folk singer in the strictest sense. The product of a comfortably well-off New York family with an Ivy League education fell in love with the material being discovered in the American hinterlands by the first wave of "songcatchers" and the good offices of the Library of Congress, and he was determined to archive the country's fast-fading heritage. Like many who turned to performing this music by the 1940s, Seeger divined a link between the homey words and melodies and progressive politics. He paid for his belief during the McCarthy era.

Especially when heard nowadays, American FavoriteBallads seems the picture of innocence. Could "Home on the Range" conceal subversive intent? By the late-'50s Seeger became the kindly uncle of the folk music revival that would bring Bob Dylan to the fore and performed a less acknowledged role as ambassador for what would later be marketed under the dubious moniker of "world music."

If others enjoyed a deeper emotional connection with the material on American Favorite Ballads, no one can doubt Seeger's intellectual integrity and the influence he wielded. Although he saw himself as the guardian of folk traditions, he wound up having enormous influence over popular culture in the '60s and beyond.


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