Pete Seeger

American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 2 [1958]

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Pete Seeger's second Folkways LP of American ballads was as strong as the first, and a bit more diverse and more ambitious: blues and gospel songs work their way up in the pecking order and there are fewer children's songs, but the lineup of material was still intended to appeal to all ages. The album was a soft-spoken masterpiece in its time, Seeger doing basic, unadorned renditions of material in a simple, straightforward style that is no less beguiling five decades or more later. What's even more striking, hearing them 50 years later, is the understated richness and diversity of the "voices" that Seeger adopts, based on the nature of the songs. He had a beautiful voice, to be sure, but his range is amazing: his quiet fervor on "Beautiful City," as it was then credited, is startlingly different from the more wistful romantic approach he takes in "The Riddle Song" (a piece best known to younger listeners for its use in one of the funnier scenes in Animal House, it's the song the folksinger is performing when John Belushi smashes his acoustic guitar). The latter track is also a special treat for Seeger's banjo playing, which highlights several other songs here as well. This album, like its preceding and succeeding volumes, was a commercial venture, to be sure. Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records, saw a marketplace that the rest of the record business was ignoring, and he and Seeger reached out to grab it, and they did it to the tune of five long-playing records. But they unexpectedly accomplished much more than just making some records that sold and paying the company's bills: the songs here may be "as old as the hills," as they used to say, but Seeger imparts a wonderfully low-key, vibrant intimacy and involvement that brings them to life, even for the most jaded listeners; and he brings to them a quiet, subtly bracing authenticity akin to the best rural blues records of the '20s and '30s. And they're almost as important as any of the latter, a half-century on, as a representation of authenticity as it was perceived in the '40s, '50s, and early '60s, before that term and its attendant considerations fell into disuse, and the pop market absorbed the folk music world.

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