About this Recording
8.120733 - ALMANAC SINGERS: The Sea, The Soil And The Struggle (1941-1942)



The Sea, The Soil and The Struggle

Original Recordings 1941-1942


The brief time that the Almanac Singers were together went by like a meteor shower, only with more lasting effects. During the two years of their existence, the ad hoc assemblage of folk singers, left-wing activists, and writers who got their name from the rooming house that they shared recorded five albums and a handful of singles for independent New York-based record labels including General, Asch, and Keynote. But more than sixty years after their short time together, their recordings continue to fascinate not only musical but cultural and political historians. The core members of the group included Pete Seeger (b. 1919) and Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), although performers such as Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Tom Glazer, Josh White, Butch Hawes, and others drifted in and out, with no set group appearing from session to session.


On this CD we have included a variety of selections recorded by the Almanac Singers during 1941 and 1942, both politically oriented as well as those reflecting authentic folk traditions. The albums Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Songs and Sod Buster Ballads were trailblazers in documenting traditional American folk songs from, respectively, Pete Seeger’s seafaring New England ancestors and frontier songs from the plains of Woody Guthrie’s Southwest. The album Songs of the Lincoln Battalion commemorated the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), in which German and Italian fascist forces succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected Republic of Spain. 




The songs featured on Sod Buster Ballads and Deep Sea Chanteys & Whaling Ballads were record-ed on 7 July 1941 and issued on John Green’s General label. On Sod Buster Ballads, the group included Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays (1914-1981), and Millard Lampell (1919-1997). 


The Dodger Song, sung with sardonic glee by Lee Hays, had its origins in the 1884 presidential election, which pitted Democrat Grover Cleveland vs. Republican James Blaine. The populist song cynically warns against promises made by lawyers, merchants, and other authority figures (including politicians!). It had been collected from an Ozark balladeer and first published by Pete Seeger’s father, Charles, a noted educator and ethnomusicologist.


Ground Hog, which had its origins in the Southern Appalachians, featured Pete Seeger and his banjo in describing the hunting down and feasting on one of the smallest and least fierce of animals.


State of Arkansas is sung by Lee Hays from the point of view of an Irish immigrant who comments on the backwoods ways of the state’s inhabitants.


Hard, Ain’t it Hard is a Woody Guthrie tune that may have been based on the Delmore Brothers 1938 Bluebird recording, “Ain’t it Hard to Love”. The song became one of Guthrie’s most popular compositions, and made its way into the repertoires of many folk groups of the urban folk revival, including the Weavers and the Limeliters.


The cowboy song I Ride an Old Paint is credited by Carl Sandburg in The American Songbag to balladeer Margaret Larkin and playwright Linn Riggs, who collaborated on the Broadway play Green Grown the Lilacs, the literary basis for the hit musical Oklahoma!  In 1931, Larkin was the first collector to publish a book of cowboy songs that included musical notation.


Although House of the Rising Sun in its most familiar form describes a New Orleans brothel, the song’s origins go back as far as 17th century Britain, where the symbol of a rising sun often represented a house of ill repute.




For this collection, also issued on General, Lee Hays was replaced by John “Peter” Hawes, Butch Hawes’ older brother, who sang the baritone part on the recordings. Hawes grew up in New England, listening to the sea chanteys sung by old-time seafarers. The songs represented on this album were all occupational work songs, sung to the rhythm of whatever menial tasks were required by sailors, and flexible enough to allow infinite verses to lessen the load of the dreary labour.


Haul Away, Joe is a short-haul shanty, sung to accompany the hoisting of sails and other chores that required synchronized labour (similar to songs sung by railroad workers and chain gangs).


Blow Ye Winds, High-O relates the hardships and inequities of a whaler’s life, from the meagre and unappetizing rations to the paltry pay earned on the long journeys.


The familiar Blow the Man Down tells of the shore activity of a naïve sailor looking for female companionship on Paradise Street, the red-light district of Liverpool.


The Golden Vanity (Child #286) dates back as far as 1682 when a broadside was printed making reference to a ship built by Sir Walter Raleigh called the Sweet Trinity. The song tells of a cabin boy’s bargain with the ship’s captain to save the vessel from being captured by a galley ship, only to be double-crossed by the captain after doing so and drowned.


Away Rio translated well to the American West, with some performers believing it referred to Texas’ Rio Grande River. Its true meaning is probably more obscure, possibly referring to a mythical golden river where sailors’ dreams come true, but it could also refer to the Brazilian port of Rio Grande do Sul, a favorite of sailors.


The Coast of High Barbary tells of a fierce battle in the English Channel between a British clipper ship, the Prince of Luther, and a pirate ship, the Prince of Wales.




Songs of the Lincoln Battalion was recorded by Moe Asch in 1942 at the request of veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Pete Seeger led the group, which included his boyhood friend Tom Glazer (1914-2003), Baldwin “Butch” Hawes (1919-1971), and Bess Lomax Hawes (b.1921), sister of folklorist Alan Lomax, who had married Butch Hawes in 1942.


Jarama Valley (sung to the tune of “Red River Valley”) marks a reunion of survivors of the 15th brigade of the Lincoln Battalion who were killed in a battle at Jarama in February 1937.


Cookhouse is a brief sarcastic complaint about the food served to the soldiers, and includes the line ‘old soldiers never die, they just fade away’, which was most famously invoked by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in his famous 1952 farewell speech (the quote had its origins in Britain during World War I).


The melody used for The Young Man from Alcala comes from a 19th century song called “Yip-Ay-Addie-I-Ay” that was later adapted as the theme song for the animated spinach-loving seafarer, Popeye, in the 1930s.


Similarly, Quartermaster Song also features griping about food, and has its origins in another old British army song called “The Quartermaster’s Store”. With its easy adaptability for endless verses, the song has since been adapted as a campfire song by the Boy Scouts.


The haunting melody for the Spanish marching song Viva La Quince Brigada (‘Long Live the 15th Brigade’) comes from an old Spanish folk song that was later transformed by the Limeliters into a funereal lament for a loyal burro (“The Little Burro”), first heard on their debut LP for Elektra.


Quinto Regimiento (‘The 5th Regiment’) combines two melodies from Andalusian (“El Vito”) and Spanish tradition (“El Contrabandista”) in a song about the 70,000-man strong 5th regiment, formed by the Spanish communists that defended Madrid against the fascists in July 1936. It is said that the words to the refrain (‘Venga Jaleo’) were penned by the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca.


Spanish Marching Song, otherwise known as “Si Me Quieres Escribir” (‘If You Want to Write to Me’) celebrates the battle at Gandesa in 1938. The lyrics sardonically describe a typical meal at a Moorish café where diners are served hot grenades and shrapnel in a meal ‘you’ll all remember’. Pete Seeger used the song in the Weavers’ repertoire, and it was later recorded as “The Battle at Gandessa” by the Limeliters.




The rarest of all recordings made by the Almanac Singers is this single, which was commissioned by the Oil Workers International Union to help organize Standard Oil. The songs, Boomtown Bill (set to the tune of “Wabash Cannonball”) and Keep That Oil A-Rollin’, were written by Woody Guthrie and revised with the help of Butch Hawes. The record, issued on Keynote 5000, was available only to members of the OWIO-CIO. Recorded around June 1942, this proved to be the last record made by the Almanac Singers.


– Cary Ginell (folklorist, radio broadcaster, and

award-winning author of four books on American music.  He lives in Thousand Oaks, California)


Producer’s Note

As with many folk singers prior to the 1950s, The Almanac Singers were recorded by companies long on enthusiasm but short on technical capability, and the quality of shellac available in the early 1940s compounded the poor recording quality.  The General sides were made direct to disc at Reeves Sound Studios.  The Asch sides were copied from original lacquers before being issued on 78s, and the first note of “Viva La Quince Brigada” was missing on the original issue; digital magic has restored it.

– David Lennick

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