Review: Paul Robeson – On My Journey: Paul Robeson’s Independent Recordings / Pete Seeger – American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 5

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Released: August 28, 2007 (Paul Robeson) & October 9, 2007 (Pete Seeger)

On the surface, these two albums have little in common. But I happened to put them both on my iPod, and by hearing each artist’s songs randomly mixed with Primal Scream and Pedro the Lion and Picastro (it was a “p” kind of week), I heard similarities that were wonderful and surprising.

Before I get to the review, I’m going to try to encapsulate two amazing lives in one paragraph. In addition to having a voice that’s as full and rich as any in history, Robeson played pro football, earned a law degree, spoke multiple languages, acted in movies, and tirelessly fought for human rights. Seeger’s reedy voice may be the antithesis of Robeson’s, but Seeger has the same kind of powerful mind and personality that enabled him to accomplish things that are impossible for most of us to even imagine: he attended Harvard, served in the Army, protected the environment, and tirelessly fought for human rights. (Ironically, both men lost their own rights when they were blacklisted by the U.S. government during McCarthy’s Red scare.)

They traveled in some of the same circles, so similarities in their music aren’t that surprising. What’s really interesting is the biggest difference between the two albums. Paul Robeson sounds like he’s singing about the people he loves, while Pete Seeger sounds as if he’s singing for them.

The spirit behind Robeson’s work on these recordings is incredible and inspirational. Every song was recorded while he was blacklisted and unable to either work or leave the country. Each recording testifies to the strength of Robeson’s conviction and character. But there’s a problem. On nearly every performance, Robeson is accompanied by a talented, classically trained pianist. That would be fine if these were songs for concert halls and parlors, but most of these songs are about desperate and faithful people who struggled in the fields and fought in the streets. While Robeson’s life at this time surely contained amazing amounts of both desperation and faith, the music here reflects very little of that.

The single exception is “Hammer Song,” which was recorded in 1957 with Sonny Terry on harmonica and Brownie McGhee on guitar. Like all musicians who played with Robeson while he was blacklisted, Terry and McGhee ran the risk of losing their right to work in the music industry, but they wanted to make music with Robeson. And on this song, the only one that belongs in the bright daylight of the outdoors rather than the twilight glow of an Upper East Side mansion, Robeson made music whose passion shines.

Compared to Robeson, Seeger’s voice is… well, it’s awful. (That’s not fair, of course, because pretty much everyone’s voice is awful when compared to Robeson.) But the man has passion. Every song on the disc — most of which are just Seeger and his banjo — could’ve been recorded under a tree with a bunch of kids, outside a California farm with a crew of laborers, at a peace march in the South, or even in the twilight glow of an Upper East Side mansion. Seeger’s performances exclude no one. He reaches out to every single person within singing range, and invites them to come hear some music.

American Favorite Ballads Vol. 5 is the last in a series of expanded CD re-issues of some of the most popular albums that Seeger recorded for Folkways between 1957 and 1962. Most of these songs focus on the American frontier, and they embrace everything from class war anger to drunken desperation. No matter how dreary the subject matter, though, Seeger is a masterful storyteller whose lighthearted touch provides balance to the often dark music.

Both On My Journey: Paul Robeson’s Independent Recordings and American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 5 have an enormous amount of heart, but Robeson — intentionally or not — erected a barrier of intellectualism and refinement around his music. Seeger is the one who reaches his hand out and invites you to come in for a listen, no matter who you are or what you know.

Paul Robeson, On My Journey: Paul Robeson’s Independent Recordings: 6/10
Pete Seeger, American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 5: 10/10

Website (Paul Robeson)
Website (Pete Seeger)

About bobvinyl

bobvinyl, writer and co-editor of No Song is an Island, founded its predecessor, Rock and Roll and Meandering Nonsense (whose archives are found here), in 2005 and served as editor and principal contributor until it went on hiatus in 2010. He has also been published in AMP and Loud Fast Rules! (in print) as well as Glide and FensePost on the web. He has been an avid record collector since he was seven years old and enjoys sharing his love of music from the common to the esoteric.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.