Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pete Seeger – Pete Remembers Woody; Pete Seeger & Lorre Wyatt – A More Perfect Union

Pete Remembers Woody

There have been many worthy recording projects released in 2012 to mark the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth on July 14, 1912. Among the most interesting is certainly Pete Remembers Woody, a 2-CD collection mostly made up of stories told by Pete Seeger about the friend he met in New York City in 1940 and their times together. The stories are punctuated by songs, most of them written by Woody Guthrie, most of them previously released, sung by a variety of artists, both contemporary and historical.

The album was assembled by David Bernz, a member of Work O’ the Weavers, a group dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Weavers, the folk music group Pete was a part of in the late-1940s and ‘50s. Over a period of years dating back to the 1990s, David made living room recordings of Pete talking about his history and these reminiscences of Woody are drawn from those recordings.

Although I’ve heard Pete tell some of these stories before – on stage and in various interviews, including several interviews with me – it’s still fascinating to hear all of these stories collected into this aural history. From his first meeting Woody, through their travels together, to stories of how some of the classic songs came to be written, to his last visit with Woody, it is an essential collection for any student of Woody and/or Pete. And, frankly, anyone who wants to understand the development of folk music in the 20th century should be a student of both Woody and Pete. There is much for any lover of folk music to appreciate in Pete’s stories.

Some of Pete’s stories are told on top of music beds variously played by Pete himself, Cathy Fink, Ralph Storm and producer David Bernz.

And, as noted, there are songs spread throughout the two CDs punctuating Pete’s stories. A couple of the tracks, Woody and Cisco Houston singing “New York Town” and the Almanac Singers – a group that included both Pete and Woody – singing “The Sinking of the Reuben James, are from the 1940s. The rest date from recent years and include several each by the Work O’ the Weavers, the Vanaver Caravan, and Steve Kirkman (one of them with Fred Gillen, Jr.). There are also recordings by Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Pete & Arlo Guthrie and David Bernz.

As well as the Woody Guthrie songs, there is also a version of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ “If I Had a Hammer,” performed by Work O’ the Weavers, and David Bernz also sings an original song, “Woody’s Ghost,” inspired by Woody. “Woody’s Ghost” is heard in three parts at the beginning, middle and end of the project.

A More Perfect Union
Singer and songwriter Lorre Wyatt is best known for such songs as the anthemic “Somos El Barco/We are the Boat,” which has been recorded by such artists as Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary, and for a number of songwriting collaborations with Pete dating back to the early efforts to clean up the Hudson River. In 1996, Lorre suffered a debilitating stroke that kept him on the sidelines for about 15 years. He has recently begun making music again and is again writing songs with Pete, who, at the age of 93, remains a remarkably vital musical artist.

The 16 songs on A More Perfect Union include 15 co-written by Pete and Lorre, as well as a new version of Lorre’s “Somos El Barco/We are the Boat.” Ten are performed by Pete and Lorre together, some with contributions from significant guest artists, and there are three songs performed by Pete without Lorre and three more by Lorre without Pete.

The tone of the album is established on the first song, “God’s Counting On Me…God’s Counting On You,” a new anthem for these times about communal responsibility for fixing what’s wrong with our contemporary world. The verses are variously sung by Pete, Lorre, Bruce Springsteen and the Rivertown Kids, the group of Beacon, NY school kids who sang with Pete a couple of years ago on Tomorrows Children, while a choir of singers harmonizes on the chorus. It’s an inspiring song destined to join the long list of Pete’s essential classics.

The communal spirit of “God’s Counting On Me” continues to be felt on such songs as “A More Perfect Union,” sung by Lorre, Pete and Tom Morello, “Wonderful Friends” and “A Toast to the Times.”

Other highlights include the gorgeous version of “Somos El Barco/We are the Boat” sung by Pete, Lorre and Emmylou Harris, again with a choir of singers on the chorus, and quietly compelling “Bountiful River,” the 10-minute opus which ends the album.

That Lorre was able, 15 years after his stroke, to return to making vital music again, and that Pete has continued to be such a force of nature, music making and songwriting well into his 90s, is nothing less than inspiring.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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