At age 93, Pete Seeger with his gentle banjo in’t ready to go gently into that good night. In the past five years, he’s released two Grammy-winning albums, At 89 (2008) and Tomorrow’s Children (2010). Now, on September 25, 2012, he has two discs coming out simultaneously. A More Perfect Union focuses on the present and future, while Pete Remembers Woody is a look back into his past with his friend, Woody Guthrie.
A More Perfect Union is a very contemporary release, a collaboration between Seeger and singer/songwriter Lorre Wyatt. Fifteen years back, the pair had begun work on some songs before Wyatt suffered a stroke that curtailed the project. When Wyatt contacted Seeger again, naturally old songs were revised and new songs composed that resonated with Seeger’s lifelong themes of community responsibility, or mutual interdependence, our reliance on the environment, and the joys of music. As he has always done, Seeger spins melodies that are simple—and often deliberately childlike—affirming, lovely, and many times laced with not too subtle metaphors.
It’s no surprise that Seeger has influenced generations of singer/songwriters, and A More Perfect Union includes some notable performers who owe a debt to the old master. The opening track, “God’s Counting on Me…God’s Counting on You,” is a case in point. Bruce Springsteen joins in for two choruses of a very topical number inspired by the Gulf oil spill, but with lines as up-to-date as this fall’s election: “It’s time to turn things around/Trickle up, not trickle down.”
Of course, not everything is so barbed. Seeger slyly notes “Old Apples” might be wrinkly, but they still “make good sauce.” Natural imagery continues in the haunting “Keep the Flame Alive” where Seeger advises us to choose wood carefully to feed winter fires. He expresses his ecological worries in the slow sermon “Somebody Else’s Eye,” wondering if we’re ready now to save our world.
As always, the natural world serves as an ideal means for metaphors. We all sail together in streams, rivers, and the sea in “Somos el Barco/We Are the Boat,” sung with Emmylou Harris. The same theme is repeated in the extended “Bountiful River” where immersion in the water fills the soul and renews the heart.
“Memories Out of Mud,” sung with Dar Williams, may remind listeners of Seeger’s 1967 “Waist Deep in the Deep Muddy,” a comment on the Vietnam War. But the new song is about a natural disaster, Katrina, and the mud is more literal.
Speaking of Vietnam, Seeger can still craft effective anti-war sing-alongs. Along with Steve Earle and Williams, “This Old Man Revisited” takes the children’s song and changes the words into a pacifist statement: “With a bing-bang boomerang, start a little war/Now we know what life is for.” In other social commentary, “These Days in Zimbabwe” is an ironic exploration of an African dictatorship, and “A More Perfect Union,” where Seeger is joined by former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, is a call for all of us to work to achieve the meaning of that old phrase.
Along the way, Seeger has fun, especially with “Howling for Our Supper,” which is told from the point of view of cats and dogs who are “patient quadrupeds waiting to be fed.” Several melodies, “Wonderful Friends” and “A Toast to the Times,” are about the joys of raising communal voices in song. Those two songs are juxtaposed against the starker, violin and cello supported “Fields of Harmony” where Seeger is flying and swimming in time, clearly feeling the end of his days and ready for rest.
The two-disc Pete Remembers Woody is a very different experience, and an important one for those unfamiliar with the life and times of Woody Guthrie. This set celebrates Guthrie’s centennial year with Seeger’s narration of stories of how the two met, how Seeger became Guthrie’s “tagalong,” and what Guthrie taught the younger journeyman singer/activist.
On disc one, Seeger recalls how Guthrie wrote songs like “This Land Is Your Land,” “Union Maid,” “New York Town,” and “Do Re Mi.” Naturally, Seeger focuses on the traveling life of musicians involved in union organizing and how times sometimes forced them to shift their themes, as when World War II became an era for Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, and himself to abandon peace songs.
The first half of disc two completes the biography with Seeger recalling the Weavers, the blacklist, and Guthrie’s succumbing to Huntington’s disease. After Seeger sums up Guthrie’s legacy, noting that the iconic performer refused to go commercial but instead chose to craft songs with messages, we get a mini-concert of his songs set in a variety of styles.
Along the way, musical selections illustrate Guthrie’s work, like “Highway Blues” as performed by his son, Arlo. Most performers throughout the aural documentary don’t get much of a billing. However, they include Fred Hellerman and Work O’ Weavers, the Almanac Singers doing “Reuben James,” Amy Fradmon singing a very Dixieland version of “Peace Pin Boogie,” and Steve Kirkman doing a rockin’, Dylanesque rendition of “I’ve Got to Know.” Guthrie himself is represented on “Union Maid” and joins with Cisco Houston on “New York Town.”
Of course, tributes and collections of Guthrie’s work by a variety of artists are not new, and Pete Remembers Woody can be considered another volume in the Appleseed Records library of such anthologies. I’m sure there are long-time fans for whom many of Seeger’s anecdotes are not new either. I’m equally certain, however, that these are the very listeners who will quickly add this set of discs to their own libraries. But I’m hopeful a wider net is cast, drawing in listeners who may know nothing or next to nothing about Guthrie, Seeger, and the times that shaped their pre-World War II work, as well as the suppressed songs they sang during the McCarthy era. Now, more than ever, we need to remember why we needed such spokespersons in the first place.
Because the releases are so different, I can’t say whether Pete Remembers Woody or A More Perfect Union should be the first package to purchase. Naturally, I’d suggest getting them together as they, in a very real sense, bookend the career of Pete Seeger. There’s a lot of wisdom learned after 93 years. Gratefully, it’s a real pleasure to hear him sing it and tell it.