Pete Seeger: Song owes more to him than anyone else.
It is fitting this Scarriet List of Greatest Folk Songs should appear in the wake of Pete Seeger’s passing (January 27, 2014). Folk music (who has done more for it than Pete Seeger?) occupies a stronger place on the other side than any other kind of art: the dead, the ignored, the forsaken, live heroically in the music of people like Joan Baez, Buffy St. Marie, and Bob Dylan.
All 100 songs listed here can be heard on the web—this is democratic, and Pete would approve, though he would encourage lovers of music to play, not just listen, and the simple playing: the singing, the strumming of chords on a simple instrument, is what allows anyone to enter simply into this heroic world of folk, and make its music, its words and feelings, its story-telling, morals, myth, poetry, and truth their own.
We should say right from the start that this list is a typical Scarriet project, stamped by our now famous anti-bullshit animus. We delight in smashing common wisdom on our way to the truth: truth naturally begins with opinion, even stupid opinion, as it makes its glorious way forward; minds held by stupid opinion are the greatest obstacle to truth, and moving them is rare, for to move them is usually to offend them, and no one wants to offend— and this is the reason truth hides. Sometimes it is wise for the truth to hide, for offending someone can be unforgivable, and may undo more than it mends. But truth starts with opinion and we start with the opinion of this List.
It is our opinion that good folk music has nothing to do with the trappings commonly associated with folk music: the horribly scratchy fiddle, the whiny hillbilly vocals, and all those “genuine” quirks that get in the way of real expressiveness and smoothness and emotion. We simply do not abide these traditional “folk” qualities, for they are not necessary, and chase modern audiences away from the true glory of the art: poignancy, an underrated sense of humor, melody, elevated dramatic feeling, the nobly human uncannily expressed in an orderly and devotional display of simplicity and sincerity.
Pete Seeger brought two important things to the art: 1. an actor’s sensibility and 2. clarity.
We cannot emphasize the latter virtue enough, for nothing has spoiled folk music—as it is popularly known, than a certain muddy and whiny quality—which Seeger demolished: listen to Pete Seeger’s recordings and hear the beautiful simplicity and clarity of the song’s forward movement, the melodic precision, the lovingly articulated coherence of story-message, the unobtrusive, never fussy, and yet dramatically insistent banjo or guitar, the never over-emoted emotional quality, the balance of all the elements, all the while respecting the intangible roughness and depth of the song itself. A child can appreciate these songs, even before knowing all the adult facts of the lyrics.
Seeger never hung around in a song too long, showing off licks or lyrics or mannerisms, trying the patience of the listener—important in a genre which features ballads of sometimes great length and the almighty guitar.
Seeger always kept two things in the foreground: the listener and the song. This paid enormous dividends; Seeger had a tremendous underground influence on the renaissance of melodic, clear-as-a-bell-chiming, sweetly emotional, 60s popular music.
One might put it crudely and simply this way: Pete played hillbilly music without trying to sound hillbilly. Pete was a self-conscious outsider: he approached Appalachian music, black people’s music, poor people’s music, gospel music, world music, whatever you want to call folk music, from a Collector’s point of view; Pete Seeger came from a wealthy, well-connected, accomplished family, approaching the work of poorer families from an archeological point of view, and his privileged position easily could have damned him had he been less naturally talented and less astute. But he “got it,” and he “owned it” (his song-writing just one of the ways he showed it) and did it with taste, kindness and élan—and the rest is history.
Pete Seeger was not precisely original. But that’s what Folk Music is about.
This is also what Folk Music is about:
Cares about history.
Great songs written by Nobody (anonymous).
Hides inside Rock/pop/ jazz.
Songs that make you hunch forward and listen (not background music).
Many voices/versions/styles of the same song.
Story and feeling over style.
1. Barb’ry Ellen –John Jacob Niles. The Ballad of Barbara Allen (Anonymous) as lo-fi Wagnerian opera.
2. When I Lay Down To Die –Josh White. Threatens to turn into a jazz or a blues standard, but plaintively refuses.
3. Danville Girl –Pete Seeger. This is what Country, Jazz, Rap, Rock, and Classical can’t quite do: poetry nonchalantly humanized.
4. The Whistling Gypsy Rover –Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Irish exuberance. Joy with almost nothing.
5. House of the Rising Sun –The Animals. Just so we know: the best of rock music comes from folk music.
6. Goodnight Irene –Leadbelly. Folk music is the poignant attempt to fix life’s wrongs with a few chords.
7. When First Unto This Country –The New Lost City Ramblers. The Beatles conquered the world with hooks like this.
8. St. John’s River — Erik Darling. Unspeakably poignant and clear in guitar and voice.
9. The Three Ravens –Alfred Deller. A counter-tenor for the ages, a slain knight, loyal beasts, an immortal tune.
10. Turn, Turn, Turn –Pete Seeger. Wisdom and song, why not?
11. Deportees –Cisco Houston. Social commentary never had a smoother voice.
12. Ananias –St. Buffy Marie. This Native American woman has one passionate and powerful voice.
13. Rags and Old Iron –Nina Simone An old man selling old scraps and she makes it immortal. How’s that?
14. 500 Miles –Joan Baez. This whole list could just be her.
15. Pretty Polly –The Byrds. Doesn’t end well for Polly, presumably because she is pretty and is dating someone named Willy.
16. Down on Penny’s Farm –Bently Boys. “Hard times in the country, down on Penny’s farm.” Very melodic hard times.
17. Pretty Peggy-O –Bob Dylan. From 1962, before he was an icon, and he’s really having fun. One of his best recordings.
18. East Virginia –Pete Seeger. Compare this version with Buell Kazee’s (a master) and you can hear why Pete Seeger is so good.
19. Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies –Pete Seeger. Such a beautiful song and sung with a melancholy swiftness.
20. She Moved Through the Fair –Anne Briggs. A slow folk masterpiece where the voice and the lyrics do it all.
21. King of the Road –Roger Miller. This might not be real folk music to some, but I think the sheep can stray a little bit.
22. T for Texas. –Jimmie Rodgers. The ‘Singing Brakeman’ was a TV star. “I shot ol’ Thelma, just to see her jump and fall.”
23. The Wind And The Rain (from Twelfth Night) — Alfred Deller. Lovely, haunting.
24. Old John Hardy –Clarence Ashley. One of the first “hillbilly” 1920s recording artists. Set the standard for Pete Seeger.
25. All the Pretty Little Horses –Odetta. The ultimate lullaby.
26. This Land Is Your Land –The Weavers. Woody Guthrie’s national anthem.
27. The Titanic –Pete Seeger. The best version of this great song. “It was sad when that great ship went down.”
28. Little Mattie Groves –John Jacob Niles. A long ballad sung by the master with the strange voice.
29. Wagoner’s Lad –Joan Baez. Mournful and melancholy, just like we like it.
30. How Can I Keep From Singing? –Pete Seeger. One of those ‘throw your head back and righteously sing’ songs that Pete does so well.
31. It Ain’t Me Babe –Bob Dylan. Dylan was a folk music sponge—as all the best are.
32. John Henry –Big Bill Broonzy. And of course Pete Seeger’s version is great, too.
33. Midnight Special –Creedence Clearwater Revival. A rock group that rocked folk.
34. Darling Corey –Pete Seeger. A perfect rendition of a perfect song.
35. Scarborough Fair –Simon and Garfunkle. Folk rock masters sing a folk classic.
36. Handsome Molly –Mick Jagger. If your heart is broke, keep movin’!
37. He Got Better Things For You –Bessie Johnson’s Memphis Sanctified Singers. A rousing gospel number. Where would folk be without gospel?
38. Bells of Rhymney –John Denver. Church bells in Welsh mining towns imitated by a 12 string guitar. Pete Seeger wrote it.
39. Go Way From My Window –John Jacob Niles. “You were the one I really did love best.” Bitter-sweet song.
40. Sitting On Top of the World. –Doc Watson. A wonderful happy-sad song.
41. True Religion –Erik Darling. From the album of the same name which is one of the best folk records ever made.
42. Abolitionist Hymn –Hermes Nye. The greatest Civil War Ballad balladeer.
43. When Johnny Comes Marching Home –Nana Mouskouri. A lovely melancholy version.
44. Blow The Man Down –Woody Guthrie. Not too many good recordings by WG.
45. Santa Anna –Hermes Nye. A pretty song about the Mexican General.
46. The Cutty Wren –Ian Campbell Group. One of the greatest British ballads.
47. Amazing Grace –Judy Collins. Classic song and singer. Her 1966 “In My Life” album is underrated masterpiece.
48. The Ballad of the Green Berets –Barry Sadler. Five weeks at no. 1 in 1966. Tune borrowed from another folk song.
49. Sixteen Tons –Tennessee Ernie Ford “And what do you get?”
50. Shenandoah –Pete Seeger. Just a timelessly great song.
51. Where Have All The Flowers Gone? –Joan Baez Pete Seeger based it on a Russian folk song.
52. Green Fields –The Brothers Four Languidly beautiful.
53. And I Love Her –The Beatles Paul’s glorious contribution to the genre.
54. O Mistress Mine Where Are You Roaming –James Griffett The great sub-genre of Shakespeare tunes.
55. Eve Of Destruction. –Barry McGuire Folk music always had something to say.
56. I Started A Joke –Bee Gees. They were folk crooners first and foremost.
57. If I Had A Hammer –Peter Paul and Mary They covered Seeger and Dylan.
58. Puff the Magic Dragon –Peter Paul and Mary Great harmonies and they wrote songs, too.
59. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue –Bob Dylan Dylan sings this to Donovan in “Don’t Look Back.”
60. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away –The Beatles John’s glorious contribution to the genre.
61. I’ll Never Find Another You –The Seekers Powerful song.
62. Tom Dooley –Kingston Trio “Hang your head, Tom Dooley, hang your head and cry. You killed poor Laura Foster, you know you’re bound to die.” Morality.
63. Man Of Constant Sorrow –Bob Dylan. Another early 1962 gem of the folk genre.
64. All My Trials –Joan Baez This lullaby originally came from the Bahamas.
65. Rock Island Line –Leadbelly “Oh the rock island line is the line to ride.”
66. Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream –Pete Seeger Composed by Ed McCurdy. Official anthem of the Peace Corps.
67. When The Saints Go Marching In –The Weavers. A rousing song by a group that could do rousing.
68. Lady Jane –Rolling Stones. A ‘fake’ old folk song? Perhaps. But a good one.
69. Going To California –Led Zeppelin Underneath it all, this was a folk group.
70. Catch The Wind –Donovan. The English Dylan has made a lot of great music.
71. Ramblin’ Boy –Tom Paxton A very sweet song.
72. Little Boxes –Malvina Reynolds. “And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”
73. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down –The Band. Poignant anti-war number.
74. Alice’s Restaurant –Arlo Guthrie. A long work by Woody’s son.
75. Suzanne –Leonard Cohen. His singing is not for everyone, but that’s folk music for you. Singing in the shower music.
76. Angeles –Elliott Smith. He said he wasn’t a folk singer. He was. His album Either/Or is a must-own.
77. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald –Gordon Lightfoot. A folk radio hit.
78. If I Were A Carpenter –Tim Hardin. Drugs. Died at 39 after getting lost in the 70s.
79. Kisses Sweeter Than Wine –The Weavers. Jimmie Rodgers version is good, too.
80. Mr. Bojangles –Jerry Jeff Walker. Many a folkie wished they had written this.
81. Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright –Bob Dylan. He could do protest. And love.
82. At Seventeen –Janis Ian. The 70s began in folk and ended in disco.
83. Hallelujah –Leonard Cohen. He produces iconic songs over decades.
84. Bridge Over Troubled Waters –Simon and Garfunkle
85. Old Man –Neil Young A great folk voice and sensibility.
86. Big Yellow Taxi –Joni Mitchell. Her sweet grumble with the world.
87. City of New Orleans –Willie Nelson. Great lyrics. True American song.
88. We Shall Overcome –Pete Seeger. Folk music as moral greatness.
89. Just Like A Woman –Bob Dylan. He had a great bedroom style, too.
90. You’re Lost Little Girl –The Doors. Had a certain William Blake folk sensibility.
91. Crossroads –Robert Johnson. Blues is folk at the crossroads.
92. To Love Somebody –The Bee Gees. Written for Otis Redding right before he died.
93. One –Johnny Cash. The ultimate unplugged voice.
94. Your Cheatin’ Heart –Hank Williams. Folk cheats with country.
95. That’s Alright Mama –Elvis Presley. He was a folkie at heart, too.
96. Hello In There –John Prine. The saddest song ever?
97. And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda –Eric Bogle. Cry in your beer, laddie.
98. When This Cruel War Is Over –Hermes Nye A gentleman singer with a gift for melody.
99. She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain –Pete Seeger. He did a lot of children’s music. Which perhaps says a lot.
100. The Golden Vanity –Pete Seeger Great song. Great story.