Review: Pete Seeger with the Rivertown Kids & Friends- “Tomorrow’s Children”
“Hi, this is Pete Seeger. Over the years, I’ve loved to sing with children. Now at age 90, I find myself singing again with the school kids here in my hometown of Beacon. A teacher by the name of Ms. Tery Udell brought a Clearwater educator named Dan Einbender into her fourth grade classroom to teach songs to the children. Before long, the kids were learning songs on their own and even writing new songs. We’ve recorded some of these songs on this CD along with some special adult guests. Let’s sing with children often and pass on the songs and stories and children will have a lot to say too. More folks should listen to the children.”
This brief monologue follows roughly a minute and a half of a banjo picking the tune “Quite Early Morning” and are the first words you hear on Tomorrow’s Children, the latest release from 91-year-old music icon Pete Seeger. The voice that speaks the words, though very weathered and tired, is the voice of truth and reason and it is still full of a hope and light we rarely see in a world as fucked up as this one.
Seeger has slowed down quite a bit in recent years with regard to his songwriting and singing and that is clearly on display here although he appears on every one of the album’s 19 tracks in some fashion and is excellent when he does take the lead on a song or verse. But mostly his role on the album is that of master of ceremonies, bandleader, and a mentor and inspiration for the young singers heard on the disc. I would have to agree with the press release that came with the CD which stated that Pete acts as “a (global) village elder, assembling his neighbors to appreciate their past and present, to celebrate their triumphs…to swap and old and new stories….and to make sure that the following generations ‘carry it on’- the unifying power and spirit of music…” (The same press release contained a biography of Seeger, as if any self-respecting roots music fan would need such a thing).
Following the opening instrumental and spoken introduction described above, the Rivertown Kids take the lead on “We Sing Out,” which is based on Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Help but Wonder (Where I’m Bound)” melodically and features lyrics by the children themselves. Pete accompanies on banjo as the children tackle various environmental issues affecting their community and their world and “sing out for justice and equality.”
“There’ll Come a Day” was written by Bob Killian who performs it here along with Pete and the kids. The song’s message is one of undying hope for a better tomorrow despite mounting obstacles and with the children singing in the background the result is beautiful. Then several verses in, Pete Seeger himself takes the lead and delivers these lines which sum up not just the message of the album, but also his entire career and approach to music: “I’ll bet you didn’t know when you came here tonight that you all could sing so well/Well, the world doesn’t know it’s within our hands to make this globe a heaven or hell/Let the light shine out upon the land/Let the love flow out of everyone/And the wave will break upon the darkness of the storm/There’ll come a day.”
The next track, “Solartopia,” is a newly-penned tune by Seeger and he performs it along with David Bernz and Dar Williams (the album’s biggest guest star), along with the children. The message is clear from the title but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. “Now we’re fighting wars over oil and gas,” Pete sings, “no matter who wins it will not last/The Earth is scarred, the planet is warming/Don’t you think that all of it’s a great big warning?.” Call this a children’s album if you want and, indeed, if children hear it and decide to get involved in their communities that is wonderful, but this tune is for everybody and personally I think a copy should be sent to the President.
The kids take the spotlight again on “Down by the River” (not the Neil Young song), an uptempo ode to life in their Hudson River community with Seeger accompanying on banjo.
“River” is performed by folk singer Sarah Underhill with Pete adding 12-string-guitar and taking the lead on a verse. The words and melody are gorgeous and makes this among the best on the album.
This is followed by “Mastinchele Wachipi Olewan (The Rabbit Song)”, a Lakota round dance performed by percussionist/flutist David Amram and vocalist Victorio Roland Mousaa. The traditional tune is performed very well and it undoubtedly represents the original folk music of America, but it still feels a little out of place here.
“The River that Flows Both Ways” is performed by its writer Rick Nestler, who wrote the tune after hearing Pete speak about his beloved Hudson River. Seeger chips in on banjo and the kids also sing on the track, which is a history of the Hudson valley and its people. The instrumentation here is impeccable.
“I See Freedom” is a spoken word piece with accompaniment by a young group of drummers. Over the music, Pete tells the story a runaway slave James F. Brown, who went on to become a prominent citizen of Beacon and one of the first black men to vote. He then relates this to Martin Luther King and even Barack Obama.
Speaking of King, the next track “Take it From Dr. King,” finds Pete paying tribute to him and his nonviolent approach to injustice. Tellingly, he wrote the song shortly after September 11th. It is performed here as a singalong ballad with the kids and Pete’s banjo picking is truly spectacular here. I would rank this among the best he has written in his legendary career.
Next up is the children’s rendition of the traditional Spanish folk song “De Colores,” which was also used by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
Dan Einbender takes the spotlight along with the kids on his composition “It Really isn’t Garbage,” which tells of the need for recycling. Some nice dobro work here really adds to the track as does Pete’s banjo.
“English is Cuh-ray-zee” is a clever and witty tune written by Josh White Jr. (son of the famed bluesman) with a new refrain by Pete. He performs the talking blues with only his banjo and the children who sing with him during the chorus.
“River Song (Back and Forth the Hudson Flows)” features lyrics by the children and borrows a melody from Seeger’s “Well May the World Go.” The tune addresses pollution on the Hudson and like all of the songs here holds on to optimism on the subject.
“It’s a Long Haul” is a work song about a river sloop featuring call-and-response vocals by Pete and Travis Jeffrey. This is the kind of thing Seeger does best and is one of the highlights of the album for me.
This is followed by “We Shall Not be Moved,” which all of you will know as a classic in the American folk canon. The children and Pete’s banjo deliver a spirited rendition of the classic and the message is, of course, timeless.
Up next is “Turn, Turn, Turn,” perhaps Pete’s best know composition. He tells the story of writing the song and the children sing additional verse’s written by his wife Toshi.
The title track follows and it is undoubtedly the album’s most poignant tune. Pete sings with no accompaniment except his guitar and a voice brimming with a lifetime of experience. The result is absolutely breathtaking and when he sings of “the dream of changing the world into something new” and that his greatest joy was “opening the way” for children, it is with complete honesty.
The album ends where it began- with “Quite Early Morning.” But this time it’s not the instrumental version. Pete and the children share the lead here and he reiterates his hope and optimism for the human race and the world we live in.
And in the end, that’s really what Pete and his music are all about. Regardless of whether you agree with his politics or not (I do, if it makes any difference), what really matters is what lies beneath the literal meanings. And what lies beneath is one man’s sense of longing for a better world, his eternal hope, and his love for people.
At this point, I have to bring up Merle Haggard, another of our greatest songwriters. On the opening track of his latest album, Merle sang with passion about America’s glory days, but in the end lamented that he’d “seen it go away.” Pete has seen all that Haggard has and more- six wars (not counting World War I, which ended shortly after his birth), most of them senseless, travesties against other countries, other races, and the earth itself, and the corporate takeover of this great country- and yet he still sings (as much as he can) of peace, hope, and the love that conquers all. And that, folks, is something special. That sense of hope is something that politicians can only dream of giving to the people but which Pete gives to us every time he sings a line or plucks a string on his banjo. It is the sort of hope that can only come from music, the music of the common people that delivers the promise of a better tomorrow, perhaps built by the very children heard on this disc. And like Pete himself, that music is truly inspirational.