Almanac Singers

Talking Union, Vol. 1

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Naxos here begins its compilation of the recordings of the trailblazing Almanac Singers, starting with one version of the group and ending with quite another. The core members of this folksinging collective were Pete Seeger, indefatigable Harvard-educated boy wonder of American folk; the barrel-chested-voiced singer/playwright Lee Hays; and Millard Lampell, an actor who, it is alleged, used the group as a means to meet girls. Other drop-ins from time to time are the now-canonized Woody Guthrie who, despite his prominent billing, only sings lead on one song ("Babe O'Mine), and Josh White, whose distinctive timbre can be heard in the earliest recordings. Another element that changes as this CD spins is the political stance of the Almanacs. The first seven tracks comprise the 78 RPM album Songs for John Doe, a collection of peace songs that toe the isolationist (and Soviet) line against participation in World War II, hitting lustily away at President Franklin Roosevelt. The next six are union songs from the Keynote album Talking Union -- a touching reminder of how much fervor the now-maligned union movement could stir up in its heyday during and after the Great Depression. Luckily, the Almanacs had a sense of humor -- particularly Seeger in his still-entertaining take on the talking blues, "Talking Union" -- and Naxos' fine transfers bring out nuances that couldn't be heard over the brutish surface noise of the original 78s. When Hitler invaded Russia and Pearl Harbor was bombed, the Almanac party line took a breathtaking 180-degree swerve. Changing their tune in a hurry, they put aside their squabbles with the Administration and threw themselves into the war against Fascism -- best-served by Seeger's mea culpa talking blues "Dear Mr. Roosevelt," and a rousing "Round and Around Hitler's Grave." The urban folk boom in the United States essentially started right here -- a good decade-and-a-half ahead of its time -- and however their political views changed, the Almanacs still sound exuberant and life-affirming on these aging grooves. This CD reissue was released everywhere in the world except the United States; one would like to think that the reason is that these songs are still as politically dangerous now as then, but no; licensing restrictions are probably to blame.

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