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June 13, 2006

The Long Review - Labor Pains

American Favorite Ballads: Vol. 4Pete SeegerClassic Labor SongsVarious Artists(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)If I didn’t think it’d be an awful waste of postage, I’d pack a padded envelope with the latest pair of offerings from the masterful Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and send it to Gov. Ernie Fletcher in Frankfort. That guy could learn a thing or two from these storytellers. Considering his fetid attempt to neuter unions during this year’s legislative session, though, it’s likely the package would hit the bottom of the trash bin about as fast as an invitation to the Pride Festival.     Some people just lack compassion. And souls.     Which brings us back to these albums: The fourth collection of American Favorite Ballads by the iconic Pete Seeger; and Classic Labor Songs, a collection much in the tradition of Smithsonian Folkways that dips into the deep well of Culture that surrounded — and in many ways characterized — the mid-century American Labor Movement. At the epicenter of the union, in fact its very concept, is the undeniable power of the whole, the mass. A welder on a railyard gets fired and another welder comes by and takes his place the next day at the same wage, or maybe even a little under. But the whole crew strikes behind the guy and you’ve got no trains coming or going until you bring the first welder back. It’s the concept of community at its base level, which also happens to be the basis on which this country is founded. The Great Equalizer. A fresh start. A new life. None of that lofty bullshit works here anymore, which is the sad, fucked up reason why listening to these songs is somehow provoking nostalgia. The weight of struggle on this scale has been acculturated a precious few times in the United States, and remembering these parts of the past offers nothing if not information for progress. Joe Glazer’s “Too Old to Work” wonders how its protagonist(s) will afford to live stuck in the twilight after-work-but-not-dead-yet years. The ballad should be performed in the Oval Office once a year. The acerbic “Casey Jones (Union Scab)” by Pete Seeger & the Almanac Singers is a lesson to any worker fool enough to cross a picket line. Speaking of Seeger, the latest collection of his work comes at a fine time, on the heels of the octogenarian’s reemergence into popular culture through Bruce Springsteen’s throat, and the time could scarcely be more appropriate: The Great American Immigration Debate has thrust concern about low-rent labor into society’s consciousness somewhat aggressively. People are actively seeking guidance on the issue, and what better way to raise the issue of workers’ rights than through popular culture. It’s just, uh, that the current one isn’t really doing so. We all should be so ambitious as to consider this kind of history valuable and essential to the way we work now. These collections are, of course, the only rational way music of the People can be rationally presented: Altogether now.