Jesse Jarnow

“down in the valley” – pete seeger

“Down in the Valley” – Pete Seeger (download here)
from American Favorite Ballads, v. 1 (1957)
released by Smithsonian Folkways (buy)

(file expires on May 12th)

Pete Seeger was my first hero, plain and simple. My parents played me a lot of his records when I was very young, most especially his American Favorite Ballads series. I have distinct memories of their tinted, block-printed covers on the big, mysterious record sleeves. He was probably the first professional musician I saw perform. I got to interview Pete two months back, and it was one of the most deeply satisfying experiences I’ve ever had. It’s been nice to see him get some attention lately, with Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions disc, and the subsequent New Yorker profile of Pete. Seeger’s music is lily white. When, on the elegiac “Down in the Valley,” he sings, “write me a letter, send it by mail, send it in care of Birmingham jail,” one wonders what the hell somebody so mild-mannered could possibly be jailed for. Seeger was jailed, though, for refusing to name names before Joseph McCarthy’s House un-American Activities Committee.

I didn’t know any of that when I was a kid, though, nor did I even question Pete’s authority about being jail. It seemed so obviously a song, a play of some kind. There is no authenticity to Pete Seeger’s performances of American folk ballads, at least in the sense that — owing to his ridiculously button-down voice, his earnest presentation — Seeger is so obviously presenting songs. That, Seeger implicitly says, is what one should be listening to anyway. There is a backwards transcendence to Pete’s version of “Down in the Valley.” It’s as corny as it comes, but there’s no mistaking the beautiful, lingering melody at the center. Seeger is not interpreting the song, he is simply singing it. And, while he may have political reasons for doing so, he’s still doing so, and that’s something still rare and wonderful.


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