CBS Records
Folk, Political Folk, Folk Revival, Children's Folk, Traditional Folk, Folksongs

Album Review

Pete Seeger Now is the venerable (if still under 50) folksinger's 1968 follow-up to his celebrated and controversial 1967 LP Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs, and in between, of course, Seeger was first censored from singing its title song, a metaphor for the American involvement in Vietnam, on network television in September 1967 shortly after the album's release, and then allowed to do so in February 1968. The photograph on the cover of Pete Seeger Now alludes to the song, as well as to another Seeger composition actually heard on this LP. The picture shows a hand thrust up from under water (like a drowning soldier in "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy") holding a redesigned American flag like the one Seeger describes in his song "The Torn Flag." The redesign deliberately includes new colors such as black, brown, and yellow, and similarly, Seeger shares the stage here (literally, this is a live recording) with African-American performers. The album cover also makes another point that is reflected in the performances on the album. Pete Seeger Now, which seems to have come from a recently recorded concert and to have been rushed into release (hence the title), carries with it the sense of desperation felt by left-wing political activists like Seeger as well as Americans in general in 1968, as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement seemed to be coming to a head in the crucible of a tumultuous and tragic presidential election. Seeger, who has always combined a stern ideological bent with a benevolent, inclusive approach, struggles to maintain his usual optimism here; that hand may be sticking up determinedly with its new flag on the cover, but the rest of the body is submerged. Just so, Seeger alternates some of his old singalong favorites ("Michael Row the Boat Ashore," "Water Is Wide") with new songs like "The Torn Flag" and "False from True" that reflect the difficult state of things, also performing a cover of the caustic "Talking Ben Tre," a song full of anger at what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam. Like many whites in the Civil Rights Movement in the late '60s, he acknowledges feeling a certain amount of guilt about the role of his ancestors in American history, even approvingly quoting Malcolm X at one point. He also, without any introduction on this recording, hands things over to the powerful singer of folk spirituals Bernice Johnson Reagon of the Freedom Singers, a sort of young Odetta, who begins her part of the disc with "Backlash Blues," a Langston Hughes poem set to music. Thereafter, Seeger alternates songs with Reagon until near the end of the LP, when he introduces the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick and James Collier from the Poor People's March and the Resurrection City encampment in Washington, D.C., who express righteous anger in "Everybody's Got a Right to Live" and "The Cities Are Burning." "Musicians are supposed to go around cheering up other people," Seeger had said earlier as an introduction to "False from True," "but who's gonna cheer up the musician?" After letting that sink in, he added, "Well, let me tell you, you do." But this answer is of course inadequate as well as being circular, which Seeger must realize. On Pete Seeger Now, he is as impassioned as ever, but also clearly embittered and, seemingly, inclined to let the flag be carried forward by others, at least for a while.
William Ruhlmann, Rovi