Seeger's latest ventures reveal the dirty secret of Popular Front folk: Their tunes weren't that great.
Most of the musical performances on Appleseed's two-CD release Pete Remembers Woody are merely mediocre. A few, though, take wing and ascend to an impressively heady awfulness. Perhaps the worst is "Woody's Trilogy," in which the band The Work O' The Weavers desecrates three folk favorites in less than a minute and a half. The singers are not merely soulless, but sound partially lobotomized by their own perfect diction. The male lead declaims, "I've been doing some hard travellin'," with a calculated stop-time schtick—it's like a rough-road anthem sung from the back of a Prius on the way to the Starbucks. For fans of Rosetta Tharpe, the take on "This Train" is even more painful, while the vocalist on "There's a Better World a Comin'" is so feeble that you suddenly understand why the other participants think they can sing. Then it's all wrapped up with a chorus where the three tunes are performed simultaneously in a rousing big finish that could have come right out of A Mighty Wind. The vacant good cheer couldn't be much more cloying.
On one hand, it seems unfair to judge Pete Remembers Woody by this dreadful effort. The heart of the album, after all, isn't the tossed-in songs by indifferent contemporary folk-revival revivalists, but rather the spoken word reminiscences of Woody Guthrie by his old friend, the 93-year-old Pete Seeger. But there's something sadly fitting in the way that The Work O' The Weavers cluelessly and bloodlessly gut that series of inoffensive tunes. After all, one of the not-so-secret truths of the old Popular Front folkies was that however pure their politics, their music wasn't all that great.