“Pete-Pak” by Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger
Living Music

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

In 1996, Pete Seeger released a collection of folksongs that marked the first time in seventeen years that the master troubadour unveiled a new studio collection.

The album, simply entitled Pete, received a Grammy Award as Best Traditional Folk Album. Not my favorite Seeger recording by a long shot, the album has been largely ignored by this listener for the past decade or more; the inclusion of the various choral groups on the majority of the tracks ran counter to my appreciation of unaccompanied folk music. The flamboyant arrangement of “The Water is Wide,” for example, seemed unauthentic to me, an attempt at embellishment neither warranted or desired.

Fortunately, a new reissue of the album celebrating the album’s twentieth anniversary has recently been released, allowing reexamination of what Seeger and producers Paul Winter and Tom Bates created over a series of sessions. Inspired by Living Music Village sing-ins the previous decade, Seeger revisits songs he helped make famous (“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”), made beloved (“Sailing Down My Golden River”), and refurbished (“In The Evening”).

Seeger’s song notes provide context for the recordings, including what he felt was his best piece of guitar music (“Living in the Country”), the historical relevance of an overly familiar number such as “How Can I Keep From Singing,” and the inspiration that can be found writing to deadline (“Old Devil Time.”)

In hindsight, the choral pieces are quite enjoyable and while they will never be, for me, essential listening, I do quite appreciate what Seeger and his producers were exploring. Gaudeamus, a still-active 30-member vocal ensemble from Connecticut, have the majority of the appearances, including on the excellent ‘My Rainbow Race.” The Union Baptist Church Singers give “Huddie Ledbetter Was a Helluva Man” additional vigor, and the Cathedral Singers enrich “To My Old Brown Earth.” These choirs add an appealing, deep, and tangible sense of community to the recording.

A bit naïve, even for folk music, “All Mixed Up” is an energetic romp through differences that bind us together, and should be essential listening for the xenophobes among us, while “River of My People” may give atheists hope for something better.

Seventy-seven minutes of video footage is included in this amiable set. The bulk is of Seeger entertaining an outdoor audience at the 1982 Living Music Festival. Then a spry 63 years, Seeger holds court doing what he did the majority of his life, challenging his listeners to join him in action. Joined by the Paul Winter Consort, Susan Osborn, and the Pe de Boi Samba Band, a different flavor of folk is achieved.

A short feature includes excerpts from the1996 “Pete-nic” marking the original album’s release. A final live performance, recorded in 2005, “Take It from Dr. King” is a stark closing for a set abundant in treasures. Of great interest are the notes Winter offers documenting his experiences with Seeger over forty-plus years.

During this election cycle, we have witnessed the spewing of much hateful discourse. Serendipitous then that a collection filled with so much joy and affection—for humankind, for Earth, for music—should be again unleashed. It may be what we need.