Saturday, September 24, 2011

September 24: Pete Seeger, "Little Boxes"

Artist: Pete Seeger
Song: "Little Boxes"
Album: Little Boxes (single)
Year: 1963

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While many may wish to believe that being subversive and writing songs that rally against "the powers that be" is some more modern invention that was birthed in the beginning of hard rock and punk rock, the reality is that such songs have been in existence since the very beginning of music itself.  Furthermore, it is within many of the earlier recordings of "culturally charged" songs that the bet examples of such an approach exist, as they are far more subtle in nature, and yet often far more powerful and cutting than their more modern counterparts.  This need to stand against "the system" was in many ways the very foundation of the folk movement, and few exemplify this idea better than the legendary Pete Seeger.  Having penned and performed a massive number of songs that are now absolute icons of the "American music" catalog, his name alone commands more respect than nearly any other figure in the entire history of recorded music.  Whether it was due to the style with which he sang, the passion within his lyrics, or the fact that he has been creating songs for more than seventy years, there is no other artist that has had as long standing an impact on the world of music than Seeger.  Due to his unmatched longevity in recording, it is impossible to cite a single song as his most important, and yet one can quickly understand everything that makes Pete Seeger such a legend within his 1963 recording of "Little Boxes."

Everything that makes "Little Boxes" such a magnificent recording lives within the juxtaposition in sound and intent, and few have mastered this balance better than Pete Seeger.  In this case, there is nothing more than his lone banjo, and yet few songs have been able to extract as much meaning or feeling from such a slim sound than one finds here.  The tone and rhythm with which he plays is as "classic" as one can find anywhere, and "Little Boxes" quickly takes on its unforgettable "child-like" persona due to the playful, light musical arrangement.  This is where the first sense of what a subtly brilliant work Seeger is constructing, as those who do not read into the songs' true meaning can easily mistake it for a child's tune.  It is the simplicity of the banjo progression that gives it such an immediate and wide-ranging appeal, and it is also this basic arrangement that makes "Little Boxes" able to be played by nearly anyone of any age.  This ability to be so universal in so many ways is one of the keys to the lasting impact of "Little Boxes," and one cannot help but assume that this was a conscious decision by Pete Seeger when he recorded the song.  The stripped down music also allows a greater focus on the vocals and overall tone of the song, as well as providing an ample space for the songs' sarcastic nature to take a firm hold.

While the banjo arrangement is one that is almost impossible to forget, there is no question that the true strength behind "Little Boxes" is the way that Pete Seeger presents the vocals and lyrics.  Much in the same way that the banjo can be taken as far less of a "threat" than it seems, Pete Seeger's perfectly pleasant, absolutely endearing voice sounds as good as any of his recordings, and the "sing-songy" way that he pushes the vocals further suggests that "Little Boxes" is a song aimed at children.  It is very easy to understand how the song would have quickly engaged audiences to sing along, and this ability of "Little Boxes" is still strong to this day.  However, once one gets past the swaying vocals, there is no question that "Little Boxes" is one of the most subversive and cutting songs ever written.  At every turn, the lyrics pass harsh judgments on the state of middle-class society, and yet much like the alluring nature of the music and singing, the words to "Little Boxes" are just as relevant today as they were more than half a century ago.  Making a number of observations on the almost tragic homogenization of culture, the lyrics, originally penned by Malvina Reynolds, seem to be a warning call against those that find comfort in bland conformity.  From choices in careers to leisure activities to the way in which children are raised, "Little Boxes" cuts at every aspect of society, and one can easily imagine those "guilty" of such actions unknowingly singing along with Pete Seeger's voice, cementing the songs' sarcastic irony.

In every aspect, Pete Seeger's recording of "Little Boxes" defines the very essence of music, as it is beyond expressive, making unapologetic criticisms of society.  This is what many claim to be the "job" of art in general, as it shows the problems and shortcomings of society as a whole.  Furthermore, the fact that so many decades later, the song is not only still relevant in content, but continues to be used in various aspects of culture is a testament to what a special moment it represents.  Perhaps moreso than any other song in history, "Little Boxes" has been covered to an extent that one cannot even fathom the number of versions that exist.  Across nearly every culture and genre of music, one can find recordings of "Little Boxes," and while the way in which they are constructed varies greatly, the intent within remains constant.  The song has also been used in a wide range of films and television shows all across the globe, and yet in the ultimate irony, many who hear it in such ways are unaware of its actual meaning, though they themselves represent what the song preaches against.  However, through the long list of covers and uses of the song, there is simply no other that carries a similar impact to that of Pete Seeger's recording, as there is a purity and power within his rendition that epitomizes the "mission" of folk music.  There may be no other song in history that is as "to the point" in every aspect whilst simultaneously standing as so sharp and subversive, and this perfectly represents everything that makes Pete Seeger such a legend, and why his 1963 recording of "Little Boxes" stands as one of the most important moments in all of music history.

1 comment:

ngcummins said...

Thank you for "Little Boxes"!! I think it was my father's favorite Pete Seeger tune.