Selecting material mostly from the pages of Sing Out! magazine, Pete Seeger here performs 20 "contemporary topical and political songs," as Folkways Records head Moses Asch puts it, with "contemporary" defined as the 25 years leading up to the album's 1958 release date. Actually, many of them are very contemporary, but for touchstones, Seeger includes a number of songs from the pen of Woody Guthrie, starting with the tribute to "Pretty Boy Floyd," the Oklahoma outlaw who was killed by Federal agents in October 1934, as newspaper reports reprinted in the album's booklet document. Seven years later, as another article shows, the U.S. destroyer Reuben James was sunk by a German submarine, and Guthrie and the Almanac Singers (a group of which Seeger was also a member) came up with "The Sinking of the Reuben James," which Seeger revives, calling out its famous chorus, "What were their names?" As it happens, this question is answered in the booklet, which copies a list of the 88 casualties from The New York Times. Earlier in that same year of 1941, Guthrie spent time in the Northwest writing songs for a film about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, one of which was "Roll On Columbia," featured here. Similarly, Seeger includes George Rucker's "The TVA Song," a celebration of another power project, the Tennessee Valley Authority, paid for by the government. He is less enthusiastic about a different form of power, atomic power, however, at which he points fun in Vern Partlow's "Talking Atom (Old Man Atom)." Humor is a frequent means for getting across the editorial points in the songs, notably "42 Kids," a teacher's lament that is a rewrite of "16 Tons"; Tom Lehrer's "The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be," which also concerns nuclear proliferation; Partlow's "Newspapermen," which satirizes the press; and Dave Lazar's "Doctor Freud," which is less than complimentary to the father of psychoanalysis. On other occasions, however, Seeger is deadly serious, decrying the power of banks in Les Rice's "Banks of Marble," and segregation in "State of Arkansas (My Name Is Terry Roberts)" and Malvina Reynolds' "The Battle of Maxton Field," and promoting unions in Russ Farrell's "The Scaler" and John Handcox's "There Is Mean Things Happening in This Land." Although many of these songs key off of specific incidents, they use those incidents to make general political points. Annotator Irwin Silber (also editor of Sing Out!) calls the result a "living newspaper of history," which is fair enough, if it is added that, in these songs, one rarely gets off of the editorial page.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann