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Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Almanac Singers, "Their Complete General Recordings"

The Almanac Singers
"Their Complete General Recordings"
General (1941)
1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

Rarely do I second guess Tom Moon, because he’s a respected music journalist and he proves his knowledge by filling “1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die” with variety. This is one of those rare times where I call him out.

The Almanac Singers was a folk group that was as historically significant in the United States as any musical group, ever. It was what would now be referred to as a “supergroup,” consisting of established artists Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger among others. The group was one of the first to openly play politics in its music, and was blatantly communist in its leanings, a rarity among American acts during any generation. Moon knows all of these facts and he writes of them in his entry for “Their Complete General Recordings.” And the aforementioned album that he chose is possibly the least politically-inspired albums in the group’s discography.

First, realize that “Complete General” does not mean every track recorded. General was the name of a label, and this 14-track album includes every song recorded under it. These sessions produced two albums: “Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads” and “Sod Buster Ballads.” The songs are about exactly what the titles describe. Whether any were actually written by The Almanac’s members is uncertain, as the liner notes don’t attribute writers, but that suggests these are all standards. Regardless of who wrote them, none of them have a thing to do with politics.

Several of the “sod buster ballads” describe how tough it is working the plains, but such is the case. Work is tough, a truth any blue collar individual an handle. It's not a political issue. None of the tracks deal with union rights, one of the group’s favorite topics. “State of Arkansas” is a humorous bit on why the eponymous state sucks, but it doesn’t attempt to place blame for why the people are starving or why animal skins serve as currency (their words, not mine).

Looking past the disappointing lyrical content, the group is still an efficient folk band. Seeger plays the banjo well and Guthrie supplys the harmonica, and the song structure is the same as the group’s other work, with a lead vocalist (who alternated between tracks) singing the verses and the rest of the group chiming in on the refrain response.

However, the group could play Beethoven’s fifth symphony and I would still be disappointed because Moon builds you up for some uniquely radical political perspectives, and the compilation just doesn’t deliver. I’d advise looking elsewhere, such as their debut “Songs for John Doe.” It has eight less tracks than this album, but three times as much meaning.

INTERESTING FACT: The group popularized the term "hootenanny," a word ABC used as a title for its '60s folk-based music program. Ironically, Seeger was banned from the show for his leftist politics.

State Of Arkansas by The Almanac Singers on Grooveshark

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