Dive just far enough into the history of progressive folk music in this country and hopefully you’ll come across The Almanac Singers. This group of Communists and “fellow travelers” operated only for a short time and were inextricably tied to the politics of World War II, being active only from 1940 to 1942. In those three years, this band (actually, more like a collective) of folk musicians that included Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, and many more made six records. Crafting mostly cohesive concept albums at a time when singles were the norm, The Almanac Singers and the folk genre at the time pioneered the album format as we know it. While their records were shorter than the LPs to come, being literally manifold album collections of 78 rpm singles, the group was able to pack a lot of punch across, for the most part, just six songs on each release. Where that punch was aimed depended on the shifting relations America had to the raging European war and Soviet Russia, in addition to American Communists’ perception of the Moscow party line. In this exploration and ranking of The Almanac Singers’ discography, I hope to provide a bit of real-world context in addition to the collective’s outstanding musical ability.
#6 — DEEP SEA CHANTEYS AND WHALING BALLADS (1941)
Favorite track: “Blow Ye Winds, Heigh Ho”
In the middle of their short yet prolific run, The Almanac Singers produced a couple of less overtly political albums. DEEP SEA CHANTEYS AND WHALING BALLADS is one of those two albums, but also one of four records the Almanacs released in 1941 alone. Its contents are intimated by the title, but DEEP SEA CHANTEYS still has the earthier, folksier sound the Almanacs practiced rather than an aping of seafaring style. Guthrie, who would end up being the most famous of the Singers, didn’t appear on every one of the group’s albums, but he did here. Seeger joins him, as do Lampell and Hays, and together they make an admirable bit of traditional work and narrative songs. But DEEP SEA CHANTEYS simply isn’t as impactful as the Almanacs’ more political work, nor as musically stimulating. Their folk music was simple, sure, but the rounding nature of shanties, for all their sudden yet brief popularity on TikTok a while ago, doesn’t really appeal to me.
#5 — SOD BUSTER BALLADS (1941)
Favorite track: “Hard, Ain’t It Hard”
Guthrie’s “Hard, Ain’t It Hard” anchors The Almanac Singers’ SOD BUSTER BALLADS, their other less political album. This group of songs dedicated to farm work and laborers also contains a rendition of “House of the Rising Sun,” but Guthrie’s composition proves the power of his voice and songwriting. DUST BOWL BALLADS had been released just the year before (I’ve written about it before both as the best of Guthrie’s discography and the best of all 1940s albums) and getting shades of that elevates the album. The Almanacs seemed to have been more of a Seeger and Co. project than one really defined by Guthrie, so he’s appreciated here. Otherwise, SOD BUSTER BALLADS features Seeger’s admittedly superior voice and a nice collection of traditional folk songs, stronger ones than on DEEP SEA CHANTEYS that nevertheless don’t stir the soul like the Singers’ best work.
#4 — DEAR MR. PRESIDENT (1942)
Favorite track: “Belt Line Girl”
I often like to note the biggest gap between artists’ releases, for whatever reason and whatever that reveals about their process. With The Almanac Singers, that’s a difficult prospect since reliable release dates from the era are hard to come by and it may be futile since they just churned out six albums in three years. But it may be worthwhile to point out the regrouping that happened for the group’s final album, DEAR MR. PRESIDENT, a political pivot that was too little too late for the pressures put on the musicians who now belonged to an even more “out” outgroup in World War II America. Earlier releases from The Almanac Singers professed pacifist messages and criticized warlike overtures by FDR’s administration, especially seeing these moves as pro-big business and anti-Communist since the party line was for non-aggression between Germany and Russia at the time. But by 1942, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s on Russia fresh, The Almanacs shifted their position and recorded DEAR MR. PRESIDENT as a show of patriotic support. They sought to support the anti-strike policies employed by the American unions during wartime and Moscow’s obvious reversal of the non-aggression pact. But the ever-shifting political situations on which the Singers stood, as an overtly political act, led to their downfall shortly after this album’s release, as a war-fueled press took them to task for their stances just a couple years earlier and their roster of ever more unpopular Communists. Seeger and Hays, plus others, would go on to found The Weavers in 1948, a folk group with its own share of influential history. This is much of the context that surrounds DEAR MR. PRESIDENT, which is otherwise a strong piece of activist folk music. Agnes “Sis” Cunningham’s solo vocals on “Belt Line Girl” are refreshing, while Guthrie’s composition “The Sinking of the Reuben James” is simultaneously lively and somber. I don’t think it’s a disservice to The Almanac Singers to term some of their songs “propaganda,” and tracks like “Dear Mr. President” and “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave” fit into that definition, however hilarious the latter is. So with only six tracks, DEAR MR. PRESIDENT feels a little scattered with emotionally pure sentiments and a sudden, if not disingenuous, shift in tone for the Almanacs.
#3 — SONGS FOR JOHN DOE (1941)
Favorite track: “The Strange Death of John Doe”
The first album properly credited to The Almanac Singers (I’ll get to that soon), SONGS FOR JOHN DOE was full of that antiwar sentiment I described. Released just before Germany invaded Russia, the group (without Guthrie at this time) followed the Communist Party line. I’m a pacifist, so some of the broader commentary on the album resonates with me, but if you can somehow extricate yourself from the specifics of the world’s politics at the time, SONGS FOR JOHN DOE is also full of great tunes. It’s not even all activism, with traditional songs like “Billy Boy” and “Liza Jane” appearing on the record. Whether they went back in time or stayed very much topical, however, The Almanac Singers crafted an impassioned folk experience with SONGS FOR JOHN DOE.
#2 — SONGS OF THE LINCOLN BRIGADE (1940)
Favorite track: “Jarama Valley”
One of The Almanac Singers’ best albums wasn’t even credited to the group. The large number of bylines on SONGS OF THE LINCOLN BRIGADE included future Almanac members Seeger, Bess Lomax Hawes, and Butch Hawes, making it kind of the Singers’ debut in hindsight. However you slice it, THE LINCOLN BRIGADE carries the musical and lyrical spirit of the records to come from the Almanacs. Dedicated to the corps of American Communist volunteers who fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War (actually called the Lincoln Battalion), which had ended just one year earlier, the songs deal with the violence and sacrifices of the fight. Perhaps more so than the Almanac albums to come, THE LINCOLN BRIGADE has a more enveloping and full sound. It’s not like every song on every future record was just vocals and guitar, but there are warbling backings on a song like “Jarama Valley” that distinguishes this release from those to come. And the subject matter of THE LINCOLN BRIGADE is powerful and cogent, representing the power of folk music in conjuring strong emotions with straightforward lyrics and sentiments.
#1 — TALKING UNION (1941)
Favorite track: “All I Want”
TALKING UNION, entered into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry for its “cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance,” represents The Almanac Singers’ enduring legacy. I think the record also lasts as one of the best albums of the entire 1940s decade, as I’ve written before .The fights the Almanacs detail on this collection of songs dedicated to labor organizing still rage today. The subject of unions remains controversial, but from the perspective of this unrepentant lefty, the Almanacs’ TALKING UNION, while an overt work of political activism, transforms the issue into something humanistic. The plaintive tone in Seeger’s voice on a track like “All I Want,” for example, reveals the desire of an entire class of people, indeed the majority of people. That being said, the title track lists specific motivations and actions to take, as does a song like “Union Maid.” But all told, TALKING UNION’s emotional thrust is as powerful as its status as a historical work of folk music activism, marking it as the most moving piece of music The Almanac Singers put out in their short life.