The Complete General Recordings

The Almanac Singers

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Folk Activism Begins Here

Modern folk music might have started before this—musicologist Alan Lomax once fixed the date at March 3, 1940, when Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie met at a migrant worker benefit concert. But these 1941 recordings, which feature Seeger (initially identified as "Pete Bowers") and Guthrie, mark a beginning in terms of temperament: Here, typical folk fare (songs of the sea) is offset by early activist screeds on the rights of workers and American involvement in World War II.

The Almanac Singers, an avowedly leftist group that included Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell, flip-flopped on the war. Its first album, Songs for John Doe, which collected singles issued in 1941, was loudly against it, but within a year, the group, recognizing that pacifism was no longer a plausible platform after Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, was writing pro-war tales of bravery. One of its most celebrated later songs was "Round and Round Hitler's Grave."

The group was branded for its leftist leanings; although the Almanac Singers were responsible for the term "hootenanny" (which it defined as an informal gathering of folk singers and listeners), when ABC-TV put together a folk show of that name in the early '60s, Seeger was banned. But the Almanac approach—simple declarations answered by hardscrabble vocal harmonies—spread widely. The group's sound was seized by many folk performers, and became the basic blueprint for the folk boom of the 1950s. Among the borrowers were the Weavers, the subsequent group formed by Seeger and Hays, which rerecorded "Hard, Ain't It Hard" and other Almanac songs, and carried the group's spirit into the next iteration of folk, which began in the late '50s.

Genre: Folk
Released: 1941, General (Reissued 1996, MCA)
Key Tracks: "Hard, Ain't It Hard," "The Dodger Song"
Catalog Choice: Pete Seeger: If I Had a Hammer (Songs of Hope and Struggle)
Next Stop: The Weavers: At Carnegie Hall
After That: The Kingston Trio: College Concert
Book Pages: 17–18

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