, March 2002
"I suppose that one's reaction to musical documentaries tends to circumscribe as well one's own life history. For a current college-age generation that sees Bob Dylan somewhat the way my generation viewed Bing Crosby, Naxos's wonderful resurrection of the Almanac Singers might be deemed an admirable archeological project at best, and mere nostalgia at worst. Indeed, by the early '60s, when I was in university and the civil-rights movement effected among my peers a renewed interest in the plight of blue-collar workers and black-skinned underclass, several members of the Almanac Singers were already pursuing individual solo careers. Pete Seeger and Lee Hays (the latter winning my affection by declaring that his ashes should be sprinkled into his garden compost pile) were later members of the popular, high-energy group, the Weavers, who even made it to Carnegie Hall. One of the strangest concerts I ever saw in Boston, where Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were still appearing in Cambridge coffee houses, was a recital by the black blues singer and ex-Almanac member, Josh White, belting out 'folk songs' to white Harvard undergraduates seated politely on the dark wooden pews of Memorial Hall. The commercial broadening of folk music was well underway...
During their day, the Almanac Singers crusaded around the United States appearing in factories, at college campuses, on street corners and at demonstrations of union strikers. Inevitably, the anti-fascist nature of the songs' messages incurred the suspicion of the FBI, an early prelude to Senator Joseph McCarthy's cleansing of "unAmerican" activities in the '50s.
Although the front and back covers of the Naxos disc affirm that Woody Guthrie is a featured performer, in truth he only appears on two of the 21 cuts. (Cisco Houston, who sometimes joined the group, is also absent.) In almost every other selection, the clear guiding voice, even when abetted by other singers, in that of Pete Seeger, with the deep bass of Lee Hays adding harmonies below.In so many ways, this fact describes the overall impression of the Almanac Singers. Seeger, after all, did not walk out of the fields and up to the microphone. He came from an upper-middle class, intellectual family with a double devotion to pacifism and ethnomusicology. His father was a well-known Yale music professor, his uncle was the poet Alan Seeger and he himself was educated at Harvard. Seminal in Pete Seeger's post-graduate education were meetings with the folklore collectors John and Alan Lomax, as well as with legendary blues singers Leadbelly and Muddy Waters.
Pete Seeger's influence on the Almanac Singers' performances is quite clear: the quality of the singing and banjo picking is very high -- one might call professional. The level of sincere commitment to the social causes espoused is similarly keen and undeniable. In folk music, either from the field or from the stage, one may often find one of these qualities -- fine musicianship or zealous enthusiasm -- but seldom both together. Thus it's a pleasure to hear these performances of talking blues, celebratory ballads, satirical jibes, angry protests and biographical paeans in such lucid and stirring renditions.
The Almanac Singers were an important link in the evolution of popular folk music in North America, and most of the issues raised by the group are still quite pertinent today. Naxos is to be applauded once again for making a valuable anthology available at such a giveaway price. David Lennick's audio transfers are superb."