Pete Seeger

American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 1 [1957]

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The first in a series of five immensely popular Pete Seeger releases, American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 1 was intended to gather together and set down songs that "everyone" knew (or seemed to know), in simple, unadorned musical settings, accompanied by his guitar or banjo, that adults and children could learn and sing together. At the time, the albums were primarily aimed at schools and libraries, though one can bet that more than a few progressive-minded and left-leaning families bought them a well, even if these weren't the union and topical songs Seeger was loved for in those circles, if only as a statement against the blacklist that had hurt the artist's career; one also wonders, as a minor point, if the decision to include "Big Rock Candy Mountain" wasn't a little zing at Burl Ives, for whom the song had been something of a signature tune, and who had ended up on the opposite side of Seeger in the ideological wars of the 1950s (a hatchet that wasn't fully buried between them until the '80s). Seeger's range on this album is stunning, from the gentle simplicity of "Skip to My Lou" to the rousing exuberance of "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep" -- his voice is melodious and powerful across a range that may surprise listeners who only know the artist for the recordings done in his seventies and eighties -- and while his guitar playing is fine, it's his banjo work that is the real treat across these songs. For a man who (supposedly) so resented the electrification of folk music, Seeger isn't shy about spinning some (admittedly acoustic) pyrotechnics out of his banjo when the song seems to call for it. Moe Asch's recording technology was more than good enough for Seeger and his instrument, and the tapes have held up across five decades. And as to the songs, they encompass folk, country, and gospel standards, and their sheer power is perhaps the most amazing aspect of this record (and its four follow-ups): the world and its so-called culture, popular or otherwise, have moved on so far (even in the late '60s, these seemed kind of hokey to kids who thought they knew better) that 50-plus years later, this record is still an education, as well as a rare treat.

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