Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2012-05-25


Pete Seeger: The Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960 (Smithsonian/Folkways, 2012) Aesthetically and politically, Seeger has his soft and sometimes dishonest sides. But he's a titan nonetheless, and as rock criticism's longest-running anti-folkie I'm qualified to swear that such standards as "Good Night Irene," "Wimoweh," "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and the magnificent "Bells of Rhymney" are as much a part of the American songbook as "White Christmas" and "Summertime"--which latter, as it happens, Seeger anointed at Bowdoin in 1960, one of the thousands of solo shows he played during his 17-year blacklist. There are Harry Smith picks, "Old Dan Tucker," "Big Rock Candy Mountain," a just-germinating "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," a cutting soldiers-as-workers song called "D-Day Dodgers," and not much dreck at all--luckily, Malvina Reynolds hasn't written "Little Boxes" yet. Impeccable yet conversational, as avuncular singing as talking, Seeger evokes the folk far more cannily than most patricians, and his beloved banjo provides exactly as much unassuming musicality as he needs. He recorded hundreds more songs. But these two discs serve his legend well. A-

The Weavers: Best of the Vanguard Years (Vanguard, 2001) The Weavers brought Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly to the agora. They're where Jimmie Rodgers II learned "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," where the Tokens learned "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," where Peter, Paul & Mary learned "If I Had a Hammer," where the Sandpipers learned "Guantanamera," where the Beach Boys learned "Sloop John B." True, Tennessee Ernie Ford didn't need them for "Sixteen Tons" nor Lonnie Donegan for "Rock Island Line"; true, p.c. sentimentality was their stock in trade; true, female principle Ronnie Gilbert had heard too much Odetta and designated guitarist Fred Hellerman had heard too much Theodore Bikel. But Gilbert was a vital force anyway, and Arkansas bass man Lee Hays was as charismatic as Pete Seeger himself when they let him out. The Weavers' Vanguard years followed their icky pop run with Gordon Jenkins at Decca. Their radio viability kaput courtesy of Joe McCarthy, they made their living on a folk circuit they created, and their recordings from the period reflect that enforced simplicity to the songs' benefit. In deep hindsight, I find their re-recorded greatest hits no less energetic and enjoyable than the Byrds'. Starting but not ending with Seeger, they had something. B+

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