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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
Seeger keeps making his way back into the public consciousness, though – and for good reason: no other performer of the last 50 years has done more to preserve and promote American folk music. Admittedly, the list of Seeger’s peers is rather short, especially at this point, but that just underscores his importance; whether or not you agree with his staunch left-wing politics, or the causes he supports, it’s hard to minimize his worth as a musical statesman.
If he were content to be nothing more than a curator of relics, Seeger would be an important cultural figure, but his wheels have never stopped turning. To listeners too young to remember his commercial heyday, Seeger probably seems like a relic himself – the product of a distant, simpler era when cardigan-sporting squares tried to change the world with maudlin folk songs earnestly sung on black & white talk shows. There’s a grain of truth to that, but even if those old performances sound a bit corny on the surface, the songs themselves remain as vibrantly relevant as they ever were – a point brilliantly proven by Springsteen’s wonderful Seeger Sessions album (and the live document of the tour that followed it).
Now, just a hair shy of 90 years old, Seeger adds a batch of new performances – 26 of the 32 tracks collected on At 89, to be precise – to his canon, and the results are both firmly rooted in the past and defiantly forward-looking. The album is basically a series of brief vignettes that run the gamut from spoken-word introductions to brief instrumentals to full choir sing-alongs, shot through with Seeger’s observations from a life lived in the trenches. (Should you think he stopped championing causes in the post-Vietnam era, be advised that Seeger continues to work to preserve the Hudson River and other New York area causes; one of his between-song bits here looks back on a demonstration he led against then-mayor Rudy Giuliani.)
It probably goes without saying that Seeger’s vocals aren’t what they used to be, but that’s fine; part of the point of folk music is that anyone can sing it (and everyone used to). He carries the songs where they need to be carried, and remains a fine guitarist and banjo player; if it weren’t for the title, you could listen to the whole record without getting a sense of his age at all. The songs – particularly the chorus-assisted “If It Can’t Be Reduced,” which finds Seeger leading the crowd in repeated chants of “Hooray for the city of Berkeley” – can sound quaint or corny in spots, which is part of their charm. This is a man who has been married to the same woman for over six decades, and lives in a house he built using instructions he found in library books – a man, in other words, who understands the value of tending to his roots. The album’s title is a reminder of its maker’s latest birthday, but the music? That’s timeless.