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ClassicsOnline Home » ALMANAC SINGERS: The Sea, The Soil And The Struggle (1941-1942)
THE ALMANAC SINGERS Vol.2
The Sea, The Soil and The Struggle
Original Recordings 1941-1942
The brief time that the Almanac Singers were together went
by like a meteor shower, only with more lasting effects. During the two years
of their existence, the ad hoc assemblage of folk singers, left-wing activists,
and writers who got their name from the rooming house that they shared recorded
five albums and a handful of singles for independent New York-based record
labels including General, Asch, and Keynote. But more than sixty years after
their short time together, their recordings continue to fascinate not only
musical but cultural and political historians. The core members of the group
included Pete Seeger (b. 1919) and Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), although
performers such as Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Tom Glazer, Josh White, Butch
Hawes, and others drifted in and out, with no set group appearing from session
On this CD we have included a variety of selections recorded
by the Almanac Singers during 1941 and 1942, both politically oriented as well
as those reflecting authentic folk traditions. The albums Deep Sea Chanteys and
Whaling Songs and Sod Buster Ballads were trailblazers in documenting
traditional American folk songs from, respectively, Pete Seeger’s seafaring New
England ancestors and frontier songs from the plains of Woody Guthrie’s
Southwest. The album Songs of the Lincoln Battalion commemorated the Spanish
Civil War (1936-39), in which German and Italian fascist forces succeeded in
overthrowing the democratically elected Republic of Spain.
SOD BUSTER BALLADS
The songs featured on Sod Buster Ballads and Deep Sea
Chanteys & Whaling Ballads were record-ed on 7 July 1941 and issued on John
Green’s General label. On Sod Buster Ballads, the group included Pete Seeger,
Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays (1914-1981), and Millard Lampell (1919-1997).
The Dodger Song, sung with sardonic glee by Lee Hays, had
its origins in the 1884 presidential election, which pitted Democrat Grover
Cleveland vs. Republican James Blaine. The populist song cynically warns
against promises made by lawyers, merchants, and other authority figures
(including politicians!). It had been collected from an Ozark balladeer and
first published by Pete Seeger’s father, Charles, a noted educator and
Ground Hog, which had its origins in the Southern
Appalachians, featured Pete Seeger and his banjo in describing the hunting down
and feasting on one of the smallest and least fierce of animals.
State of Arkansas is sung by Lee Hays from the point of view
of an Irish immigrant who comments on the backwoods ways of the state’s
Hard, Ain’t it Hard is a Woody Guthrie tune that may have
been based on the Delmore Brothers 1938 Bluebird recording, “Ain’t it Hard to
Love”. The song became one of Guthrie’s most popular compositions, and made its
way into the repertoires of many folk groups of the urban folk revival,
including the Weavers and the Limeliters.
The cowboy song I Ride an Old Paint is credited by Carl
Sandburg in The American Songbag to balladeer Margaret Larkin and playwright
Linn Riggs, who collaborated on the Broadway play Green Grown the Lilacs, the
literary basis for the hit musical Oklahoma! In 1931, Larkin was the first collector to publish a book of
cowboy songs that included musical notation.
Although House of the Rising Sun in its most familiar form
describes a New Orleans brothel, the song’s origins go back as far as 17th
century Britain, where the symbol of a rising sun often represented a house of
DEEP SEA CHANTEYS & WHALING BALLADS
For this collection, also issued on General, Lee Hays was
replaced by John “Peter” Hawes, Butch Hawes’ older brother, who sang the
baritone part on the recordings. Hawes grew up in New England, listening to the
sea chanteys sung by old-time seafarers. The songs represented on this album
were all occupational work songs, sung to the rhythm of whatever menial tasks
were required by sailors, and flexible enough to allow infinite verses to
lessen the load of the dreary labour.
Haul Away, Joe is a short-haul shanty, sung to accompany the
hoisting of sails and other chores that required synchronized labour (similar
to songs sung by railroad workers and chain gangs).
Blow Ye Winds, High-O relates the hardships and inequities
of a whaler’s life, from the meagre and unappetizing rations to the paltry pay
earned on the long journeys.
The familiar Blow the Man Down tells of the shore activity
of a naïve sailor looking for female companionship on Paradise Street, the
red-light district of Liverpool.
The Golden Vanity (Child #286) dates back as far as 1682
when a broadside was printed making reference to a ship built by Sir Walter
Raleigh called the Sweet Trinity. The song tells of a cabin boy’s bargain with
the ship’s captain to save the vessel from being captured by a galley ship,
only to be double-crossed by the captain after doing so and drowned.
Away Rio translated well to the American West, with some
performers believing it referred to Texas’ Rio Grande River. Its true meaning
is probably more obscure, possibly referring to a mythical golden river where
sailors’ dreams come true, but it could also refer to the Brazilian port of Rio
Grande do Sul, a favorite of sailors.
The Coast of High Barbary tells of a fierce battle in the
English Channel between a British clipper ship, the Prince of Luther, and a
pirate ship, the Prince of Wales.
SONGS OF THE LINCOLN BATTALION
Songs of the Lincoln Battalion was recorded by Moe Asch in
1942 at the request of veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Pete Seeger led the
group, which included his boyhood friend Tom Glazer (1914-2003), Baldwin
“Butch” Hawes (1919-1971), and Bess Lomax Hawes (b.1921), sister of folklorist
Alan Lomax, who had married Butch Hawes in 1942.
Jarama Valley (sung to the tune of “Red River Valley”) marks
a reunion of survivors of the 15th brigade of the Lincoln Battalion who were
killed in a battle at Jarama in February 1937.
Cookhouse is a brief sarcastic complaint about the food
served to the soldiers, and includes the line ‘old soldiers never die, they
just fade away’, which was most famously invoked by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in
his famous 1952 farewell speech (the quote had its origins in Britain during
World War I).
The melody used for The Young Man from Alcala comes from a
19th century song called “Yip-Ay-Addie-I-Ay” that was later adapted as the
theme song for the animated spinach-loving seafarer, Popeye, in the 1930s.
Similarly, Quartermaster Song also features griping about
food, and has its origins in another old British army song called “The
Quartermaster’s Store”. With its easy adaptability for endless verses, the song
has since been adapted as a campfire song by the Boy Scouts.
The haunting melody for the Spanish marching song Viva La
Quince Brigada (‘Long Live the 15th Brigade’) comes from an old Spanish folk
song that was later transformed by the Limeliters into a funereal lament for a
loyal burro (“The Little Burro”), first heard on their debut LP for Elektra.
Quinto Regimiento (‘The 5th Regiment’) combines two melodies
from Andalusian (“El Vito”) and Spanish tradition (“El Contrabandista”) in a
song about the 70,000-man strong 5th regiment, formed by the Spanish communists
that defended Madrid against the fascists in July 1936. It is said that the
words to the refrain (‘Venga Jaleo’) were penned by the Spanish poet Garcia
Spanish Marching Song, otherwise known as “Si Me Quieres
Escribir” (‘If You Want to Write to Me’) celebrates the battle at Gandesa in
1938. The lyrics sardonically describe a typical meal at a Moorish café where
diners are served hot grenades and shrapnel in a meal ‘you’ll all remember’.
Pete Seeger used the song in the Weavers’ repertoire, and it was later recorded
as “The Battle at Gandessa” by the Limeliters.
The rarest of all recordings made by the Almanac Singers is
this single, which was commissioned by the Oil Workers International Union to
help organize Standard Oil. The songs, Boomtown Bill (set to the tune of
“Wabash Cannonball”) and Keep That Oil A-Rollin’, were written by Woody Guthrie
and revised with the help of Butch Hawes. The record, issued on Keynote 5000,
was available only to members of the OWIO-CIO. Recorded around June 1942, this
proved to be the last record made by the Almanac Singers.
– Cary Ginell (folklorist, radio broadcaster, and
award-winning author of four books on American music. He lives in Thousand Oaks, California)
As with many folk singers prior to the 1950s, The Almanac
Singers were recorded by companies long on enthusiasm but short on technical
capability, and the quality of shellac available in the early 1940s compounded
the poor recording quality. The
General sides were made direct to disc at Reeves Sound Studios. The Asch sides were copied from
original lacquers before being issued on 78s, and the first note of “Viva La
Quince Brigada” was missing on the original issue; digital magic has restored
– David Lennick
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