Repeated hearings of my parents’ Weavers albums made the music of Pete Seeger part of my childhood. Songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “Goodnight Irene,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” are baked into my brain. My parents used to sing “Little Boxes” in the car.
So when Seeger played a concert at my college back in the early ’80s with his brother Mike and their band, I made sure to go. But Pete’s preachiness turned me off, and I put him mostly out of my mind for years.
At the age I was then, anything simple and straightforward seems suspect. I wasn’t ready for the message of this prophet of peace. But a couple of decades later, when I was intermittently connected to the 21st-century folk music scene of New York City and the Hudson Valley (where Seeger lived), he re-emerged into my consciousness: a towering near-deity to the Hudson Valley folkies who had the opportunity to know or at least run into the man whom I’ve come to think of as folk music’s Great Integrator.
His death in 2014 elicited great mourning, along with celebration of his long life and legacy. I was playing bass with Chicks with Dip for their “Joni Mitchell’s Blue” 40th anniversary tribute concerts, and we added “If I Had a Hammer” to the set list.
Despite his long music career, Pete Seeger had to wait to win a Grammy Award until his 1996 album pete, produced by Paul Winter and Tom Bates. Joined by several choral groups and other musicians, Seeger recorded strong versions of many of his well-known folk songs as well as a few he’d never recorded for an album before. A new Pete-Pak package bundles a remastered version of the album with a DVD of Seeger with the Paul Winter Consort at the Living Music Festival in 1982.
The liner notes to the remastered pete are one of the new release’s most valuable features. They explain in Seeger’s own words (taken from various sources) the genesis of each song, or his version thereof. It’s interesting to read about his encounters with Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly); his learning traditional folk songs from his older sister; how he wrote new words to traditional melodies; where those ancient materials came from; and simply where he was in his life – and where music was in its 20th-century evolution – as he wrote or adapted the 18 songs on the album.
The tracks include pre-existing songs (“The Water is Wide,” “How Can I Keep from Singing,” the Leroy Carr blues “In the Evening”), Seeger and Weavers creations based on older material (“Well May the World Go,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”), and Seeger songs, often set to old melodies. A choir known as Gaudeamus is prominent on many of the arrangements, and Winter appears on one.
There’s a lot more of the Paul Winter Consort on the other half of the set, the 1982 live DVD. Most of the material featuring the Consort and singer Susan Osborn is eminently forgettable New Age tedium. But the half devoted to Seeger’s solo performance is a valuable document and a good listen. Here the Great Integrator sings songs from all over the world, in a variety of languages – “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight),” “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?,” “L’Internationale,” “Shtille di Nacht,” “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” “Cristo de Palacaguina” and more.
A bonus feature called the “Pete-nic” captures a performance from 1997 at Winter’s farm, where the album pete had been recently recorded. Vocally diminished but spiritually strong as ever and with a sparkle in his eye, he sings a few of the numbers from the album backed up by many of the singers and musicians who’d appeared on it.
The other bonus is a five-minute performance by Seeger in 2005 of his “Take it from Dr. King” at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society. Eight-five years old at this point, he hasn’t much voice left, but he can still toot up a vocal “trumpet” solo. It’s no surprise he lived another nine years, or that his message – the message the full-of-himself college kid I used to be wasn’t ready for – will reverberate through the ages, thanks in part to the folks behind re-releases and box sets like this.
The “Pete-Pak” will be available at Paul Winter’s website.