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American Ballads

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  • The 14 "American ballads" Pete Seeger chose to sing on this album while accompanying himself on the banjo are songs sung in the U.S., but often not originating there. Annotator Norman Studer notes that "some of the ballads in this album have been enjoyed for hundreds of years," and the introduction to "Down in Carlisle (In Castyle There Lived a Lady)" acknowledges that "This story goes back to Roman days, if not earlier." Still, they have been collected from rural American singers whose ancestors brought them across the Atlantic, Seeger noting, for example, that he learned "The Golden Vanity" from a Carter Family recording. And there are songs that clearly did originate, at least in terms of lyrical content, in the U.S. in the 19th century or even the 20th, albeit in what the notes describe as "horse and buggy days." "Jay Gould's Daughter" references the famous American robber baron (1836-1892); "Jesse James" recounts the murder of the famous American outlaw (1847-1882); and "The Titanic Disaster" looks back only to 1912. Whether or not there is a traceable historical person or event, however, the songs tell stories of love, adventure, and criminality, siding with the poor and disadvantaged over the rich and privileged. Exemplary among them are John Henry, the steel driver who defeats the automated steel drill, but in so doing breaks his heart and dies, and the cabin boy in "The Golden Vanity" who sinks the rival Turkish Revelee by boring a hole in the ship's hull, but then is betrayed by his own captain and drowns. The main characters of the songs often come to bad ends, but they remain folk heroes, and Seeger sings their stories straightforwardly, preserving their memories long after their deaths. ~ William Ruhlmann
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