“Any darn fool can make something complex,” the late folksinger Pete Seeger once said. “It takes a genius to make something simple.” This is an interesting quote to consider when taking in the excellent new album, Long Time Passing, from progressive stringband Kronos Quartet.
Seeger was no stranger to an array of American music styles. He was, after all, the son of a musicologist and a classical violinist, and his stepmother, Ruth Crawford, was a composer. Yet Seeger—like his siblings Mike and Peggy—wound up dedicating his life to the simplest form of music: folk. The genius of folk music, Seeger understood, was that it was so accessible and plain, it offered a foundation from which the common folk could build.
One could build a social a movement atop a song like “Which Side Are You On?” (by Florence Reece) or “We Shall Overcome” (parts of which possibly originated via Louise Shropshire, though Seeger took out a copyright and credited it to himself, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, and the woman from whom he learned the song, Zilphia Horton).
One could build a romantic moment atop a song like “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” or a broad view of the way life works out, via a song like “Turn Turn Turn” (both Seeger originals), or simply wail into the ether with “Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (originally “Mbube” by Solomon Linde).
But, as Kronos Quartet displays on this Freshgrass Foundation-commissioned collection, one can also build complex musicality atop the foundation of all these songs, without sacrificing their genius.
Here, the Grammy-winning stringband brings in collaborators like Sam Amidon and Aoife O’Donovan to interpret a wide array of songs from Seeger’s expansive catalog. Though the arrangements often verge on complexity, there are no fools here. After all, what sets Kronos Quartet apart is the amount of restraint they exercise within the context of their multi-layered arrangements.
The group walks a fine line between virtuosic musicality—something decidedly inaccessible, compared to Seeger’s approach—and centering the simple, everyday melodies that drew Seeger to these songs in the first place. Throughout, they breathe new life into old songs: rather than morphing them into something more progressive, they deliver each as though Pete Seeger resurrected and joined the band.
This is most successful on “Garbage,” with its sawing, dissonant violin, and O’Donovan’s exquisite delivery of “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” She sings atop Kronos’s less-is-more accompaniment, her voice sounding, as usual, like another perfectly tuned, stringed instrument. The album’s title track, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is also a major highlight, with its rotating roster of vocalists making it feel like a community effort.
Meanwhile “Turn Turn Turn” and “We Shall Overcome” go a little too far with the arrangements. The former has an intro that feels almost unnecessarily cinematic and incongruous. The latter features a hymnodic intro before the quartet suddenly fades into the far-background to let a crowd of people sing the lyrics. “We Shall Overcome” takes up so much space on its own, naturally. It doesn’t need a string quartet building musical tension behind its vocalists.
That said, a tribute to Seeger would feel unfinished without either of these songs, and neither lends itself to anything other than the simplest accompaniment. The fact that those two tracks don’t perfectly connect only highlights how delightfully seamless the rest of the recording is. It’s also a testament to the genius legacy of folksingers like Pete Seeger that neither of these songs could be broken by even the most complex arrangements, and Kronos Quartet stops far, far short of that.