Sharps and Flats: Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger

Published March 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The great thing about Pete Seeger's songs is that you -- yes, you -- can sing them. At 79, Seeger, America's greatest living folk singer, still knows better than anyone that a good song can be a wonderfully subversive thing: The line you find yourself singing along with might not be one you agree with, but in being sung, it sticks. While a virtuoso banjo player, Seeger never claimed to have a great voice himself, just a willingness and massive talent for getting his and others' songs across to others. "My main purpose as a musician," he once said, "is to put songs on people's lips, not just in their ear."

Unfortunately, as a tribute to Seeger's life and work, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" rarely recognizes that purpose. Instead of immediacy, the collected artists substitute overproduction; instead of solid interpretation, they come up with self-indulgence. The famous and not-so-famous rock and folk musicians who try their hand at the Seeger catalog are talented, talented, so talented, they mostly wind up subverting the lovely simplicity that is Seeger's trademark. Listening to the overcooked covers by the Indigo Girls ("Letter to Eve"), Bruce Springsteen ("We Shall Overcome") and Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt ("Kisses Sweeter Than Wine"), there's a sense that they've missed the point entirely.

Which only goes to show that while it's hard to be a great singer or songwriter, it's harder still to be a great storyteller. It might be churlish to say that Studs Terkel has the album's best moments in a pair of short readings of Seeger's poems, but the oral historian actually gets what Seeger was doing as a folk singer -- speaking for the people in a people's voice. And it's also not that ironic that actor Tim Robbins also shines with a brilliantly dramatic reading of the antiwar anthem "All My Children of the Sun," complete with children's choir ("Bob Roberts" proved he had a full understanding of folk's power). Singing children are a recurring theme on the record, appearing on three other songs; Robbins' success aside, they tend to drown "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "To Everyone in the World" in I'd-like-to-buy-the-world-a-Coke sentimentality. Seeger always had a soft spot for peace messages in his songs, but they never sound too soft when he sings them; here, they're mawkish mush.

The remainder of the set's rare successes understand that Seeger was attempting to create a perfect combination of memorable (read: undiluted) music and messages. Canadian folk-rocker Bruce Cockburn's strong, simple reading of "Turn, Turn, Turn" rescues that song from its hippie hell, Ani DiFranco's "My Name is Lisa Kalvelage" is as ethereal and pointed as her best work and bluesman Guy Davis' jarring "False From True" is a tremendous interpretation of Seeger's lament on Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. However, even the best of the nearly 30 performers -- Holly Near, Roger McGuinn, Richie Havens, Nanci Griffith -- wind up fumbling Seeger's music. Play "Flowers" against Seeger's finest moments ("Songs of Struggle and Protest 1930-1950" is a good place to start), and the difference between the two is immediate ... and depressing.

As if to steer the album in the right direction, Seeger himself gets the last word in. On a new song, "And Still I Am Searching," his voice now sounds disarmingly frail, but he's still conveying his words and music simply and directly. If his voice is no longer as strong as it once was, his commitment to the power of folk music still remains. It's a fitting, and cautionary, end to an album that attempts to place America's finest living folk singer on a pedestal. Except we don't need Pete Seeger on a pedestal. We just need more Pete Seegers.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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