Pete Seeger is an extremely difficult artist to quantify. He is beyond doubt a notable musician and a still more notable music historian; he is the author of such memorable pieces as "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and introduced the song "We Shall Overcome" to the civil rights movement; he possesses an attractive voice of solid range and scope. Even so, one does not really think of Seeger as any of these things, much less as a recording artist or a concert artist. He's the guy that shows up to play guitar at your kid's birthday, where he leads everybody in "Michael Row The Boat Ashore."
The trick, of course, is that if you know the song "Michael Row The Boat Ashore," you know it because Pete Seeger popularized it. Born in 1919, Seeger became interested in folk music in the 1930s--and from then to now he simply keeps rolling forth with it, pulling song after song into public view, making them a visible part of our musical landscape and combining them with politics, social movements, education, and all the rest. Indeed, the scope of his musical accomplishments is so vast and so incredibly influential that you'd need a fifty CD box set to encompass them.
A LINK IN THE CHAIN, which consists of two CDs, is therefore rather hard pressed to keep up--particularly since the recordings involved are pretty much exclusive to the 1960s, long after the fame of The Weavers, long before the popularity of such songs as "Little Boxes." Even so, it does manage to give a very good overview of what the fuss was all about. Each CD is divided into two general parts. Disk One offers "Tall Tales and Stories" and "Songs of Freedom;" Disk Two offers "Saints, Sinners, and Just Plain Folks" and "For The Children."
"Tall Tales and Stories" offers a few amusing, lightweight songs, with the charming "Get Up and Go" and "Never Marry an Old Man" cases in point--but it really isn't as whimsical as you might expect. "My Oklahoma Home" is indeed witty, but the dust-bowl humor is rueful indeed; "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy," of course, is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) as a musical protest of the Vietnam War. The pieces under "Songs of Freedom," however, are what you might expect, ranging from the classic "This Land is Your Land" to such civil rights-era anthems as "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize" and "Oh Freedom."
It is really on the second disk that we find Seeger's whimsical edge. "Saints, Sinners, and Just Plain Folks" are primarily narrative songs, songs that tell stories about individuals. Some are dark indeed, such as "The Cowboy's Lament," but others are wickedly clever, with "Aimee Semple McPherson"--a somewhat true story of a famous woman preacher who went astray--a case in point. And then we have "For The Children," songs that are really as much for grown ups as for kids. And yes, it does include "Michael Row The Boat Ashore."
Seeger was famous for encouraging his audiences to sing along, and while many of these songs are studio recordings, quite a few of them show him in action before a live audience, calling to the audience to join in on the parts they know in classic folk song "hootenanny" style. It's all good stuff, but I must confess to a favorite: "My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage," a first person narration that describes the growing sense of honesty and integrity in a woman who was a child in Germany during World War II. Truly knock out stuff. Seeger's live performance of "Guantanamera" is also equally fine, as is "Hobo's Lullaby."
There are so many Seeger recordings available today that it is hard to know where to begin, and in truth if you're unfamilar with his work you'd probably do best to make your first purchase a more obvious title--a single disk "best of" collection would probably do the trick. But if you want to go a bit further, A LINK IN THE CHAIN is an excellent choice.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer