I think that I've probably always been a closet folkie. It's just that it took me a pretty fair chunk of my adult life to finally realize it, and then to come to terms with it once I did. But going back as far as I can remember, some of my favorite rock records — stuff from the sixties by people like Dylan, the Buffalo Springfield, and the Mamas and The Papas — were really little more than folk songs with a beat.
I've also always been attracted by songs that tell a good story. As an admitted bleeding heart liberal myself, all the better if the story has a pointed social or political message.
The problem I've found however, is that when I try to sit down and listen to acoustic based music in large doses, I'll be the first to admit that I sometimes grow a little restless or bored with it. It took me the longest time for example, to really "get" Bruce Springsteen's quieter records – since when it comes to the Boss, I've always preferred the big noise of the E Street Band.
Then something strange happened when I first listened to Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions last year. The sheer redemptive power of the song "O' Mary Don't You Weep," with it's lyrics about how "pharoah's army got drownded," completely washed over me, and disarmed all of my preconceived notions about Springsteen's "vanity project." They simply were swept aside.
I had embraced my inner folkie.
A similiar thing happened when I went to a Michael Moore rally during the 2004 presidential campaign. Before Moore spoke, a pre-recorded mix tape played several songs rock concert style. And I found myself quietly grooving to the folk songs of people like Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs, as they were sandwiched inbetween rock songs by Springsteen, Dylan, The Clash, and John Fogerty. You didn't even notice the stylistic difference because the common message so unified the disparite sounds.
Springsteen, and especially Seeger, are both quite prominent on Sowing The Seeds, the first ever music sampler from Appleseed Recordings. Appleseed is an independent folk and world music label that is equally devoted to spreading a message of social justice and equality through music. In addition to talking the talk, the folks at Appleseed also walk the walk by donating a percentage of every dollar they make to various human rights, environmental, and other progressive organizations.
On this two-disc, 37-track set the various highlights of the label's ten-year history are recapped, along with nine brand new exclusive tracks which appear for the very first time here.
The CD is divided into two unique discs. The first of these, subtitled "And Justice For All," focuses on the songs with the most overtly political messages — many of them dealing with current issues like the Iraq War, and meditations on life in the post 9/11 world. As I said, Pete Seeger is quite prominent here. Among the highlights featuring Seeger are a performance of "Bring Em' Home," that also features Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, and Anne Hills.
Seeger also contributes several of the brand new recordings here, including a starkly intoned "Walking Down Death Row." But even lefty folk icons have a sense of humor, as Seeger shows on "The Ross Perot (George Bush) Guide to Answering Embarrasing Questions" (which could be sub-titled "I Lied").
Most notable however, is the inclusion of Seeger's first actual duet with Bruce Springsteen on the latter's "The Ghost Of Tom Joad." On this version of the title track from Springsteen's mid-nineties acoustic album, Seeger intones the words as more of a stark poem, while Springsteen sings them in a version that is just a notch more upbeat than the one found on the original Joad album.
Other highlights here include a new version of Donovan's "Universal Soldier"; a duet between Jackson Browne and Joan Baez on "Guantanamera"; and even actor Tim Robbins reprising his Bob Roberts role on Seeger's "All My Children Of The Sun."
Where Sowing The Seeds first disc shoots straight for the politically charged songs, the second disc here, subtitled "Love, Hope, and Appleseed" goes for the more common themes of simpler things like love, hope, and faith. Some of the melodies here are quite beautiful, and the stories told in the words of songs like Tommy Sands duet with — you guessed it — Pete Seeger on "Music Of Healing," are rich in lyrical imagery.
Iconoclastic Canadian folkie Bruce Cockburn offers up a slightly darker take on The Byrds classic "Turn, Turn, Turn." Speaking of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn has a nice duet with Seeger and Josh White Jr. here on "Dink's Song." British folkie Al Stewart, himself a master storyteller, gives one of the more surprisingly rocking performances here with his own "Gina In The Kings Road." Donovan makes his second appearance on this compilation with a modern uptake on his trippy sixties flower power anthems on "Yin My Yang." Lou Reed joins Eric Andersen for Andersen's "You Can't Relive The Past."
Elsewhere on the second disc, several of your usual folkie suspects like Ramblin Jack Elliott and Judy Collins (who still sings clear as a bell) turn in fine performances of their own.
But as you can see by the broad range of artists represented, disc two offers up a much more diverse mix of musical styles than on the more protest based songs of disc one. Throughout both discs however, things never stray too far from the roots of American folk music, nor from the overwhelming influence here of Pete Seeger.
But despite the way Seeger's towering presense looms over this project, Sowing The Seeds offers an excellent introduction to folk music for someone looking to discover this most original American artform for the first time. There is also enough essential new stuff here, that it is an equal must for the diehard. As I consider myself to be a little of both, for me it represents the perfect happy medium.
The packaging it should be noted, is also some of the best I've ever seen on a compilation like this. It includes an extensive introduction and history of Appleseed Records, detailed liner notes on every track, and tons of great photos.
Sowing The Seeds will be released on the rather appropriate date of September 11, 2007. It will be followed by another compilation, Give US Your Poor later that same month.