Our Top 10 Fred Small songs list looks at the songs of a 1980s folk music protest singer with the heart of a 1960s activist. When Fred Small decided to become a full-time minister, and then later a climate activist, the folk music scene lost a major voice. His songs are full of messages – some angry, some hopeful and some just plain inspiring. He only released seven albums from 1981-2001. Those albums are full of incredible stuff, although the messages can make for challenging listening at times. Pete Seeger was a fan, calling Fred Small, “one of America’s best songwriters.” Many of Fred Small’s songs have been covered by artists like Pete Seeger, Steve Gillette, the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, and the Flirtations.
Although his first album centers on him and his guitar, later albums have more complex arrangements. For a folk singer with a low budget, the sound, along with the messages, comes through loud and clear. If you are sick and tired of hearing love song after love song, take a listen to these top ten Fred Small songs to clear your palette and get you thinking.
#10 – Cranes Over Hiroshima
This is a bittersweet, simple song about a girl that was a baby when the bomb fell on Hiroshima. She dies at ten from leukemia. She tried to make 1,000 paper cranes, because the old tradition is that a wish can come true when the 1,000th crane is made. Her friends finish the cranes for her, then wish for peace. This appears on the 1985 album, No Limit.
#9 – If I Were a Moose
Occasionally, Fred Small writes a song that on the surface is silly, but underneath they can have layered meanings. This seems at first to be a silly love song, with horns helping to make comical. The lover asks, “If I were a moose and you were a cow, would you love me anyhow?” He goes to stretch this mental puzzle further, imagining what current and future life would be like for the cow and the moose. It’s a good look at modern relationships with lines like, “Would you tell your friends, ‘No moose jokes.’” Find this on the 1988 album, I Will Stand Fast.
#8 – At the Elbe
On April 25, 1945, American soldiers and Soviet soldiers met at the Elbe River. The American soldiers disobeyed orders to go there. And they partied. It was a signal that WWII was about to really end. This song commemorates that day, told in the words of one of those disobedient soldiers. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1988, Fred Small talked about why he wrote this song. “For my entire life, the Soviets have been the devil. To read about this moment in the sun was such a wonderful contradiction to this mistrust.” The song can be found on the 1988 album, I Will Stand Fast.
#7 – Fifty-Nine Cents
Back in the early 1980’s, it was well-known that women only made 59 cents for every dollar a man made. Fred Small points out this injustice here. Sadly, this song is still pertinent today. It has some find harmonica work and a female chorus. Although a serious topic, it has a chirpy tune. This appeared on Fred Small’s 1981 debut album Love’s Gonna Carry Us.
#6 – Annie
Not many singers, even folk singers, were willing to tackle homosexuality in a positive light. Fred Small takes up the challenge here with the story of Annie, a beloved teacher and a closet lesbian. The chorus is ironic, since it consists of people concerned about Annie not having a man “to take her home”. The song is flavored with a happy banjo. This appears on the 1983 album The Heart of the Appaloosa.
#5 – Everything Possible
This is one of Fred Small’s best-known and most covered songs. It’s a lullaby that the singer wishes his parents sung to him. The lullaby works for adults, too. It is notable in that it mentions that homosexuality is okay. It features some lovely fiddle work and a female vocalist. Even though this was first released in 1985, the lullaby and its message of tolerance is still pertinent today. It first appeared on No Limits. A live version appears on his 1993 live album, Everything Possible: Fred Small in Concert.
#4 – Peace Is
Many folk singers have songs about peace, and Fred Small is no exception. Peace is a major goal, whether it is to stop any further Hiroshimas or to bring peace into people’s relationships. Here, he looks at just what peace is, “the bread we break,” what love is “the river rolling” and what life is “a chance we take when we make this Earth our home.” It’s a catchy guitar-based tune about an important topic. The audience becomes another instrument in his live version on Everything Possible: Fred Small in Concert.
#3 – Dig a Hole in the Ground, Or How to Prosper During the Coming Nuclear War
In the Reagan era, the government put out pamphlets about how to survive a nuclear war. Unsurprisingly, they were derided. One of the funniest satires of this lack of information from the government is Fred Small’s hoedown-flavored rejoinder. Because when you think nuclear war, you think hoedown. Remember, kids – “You don’t have to be dead if you only plan ahead.” Also has a mention about the numbers on license plates, which anyone who lived through the gas shortages of the late 1970s will appreciate. This gem can be found on Fred Small’s 1983 masterpiece, The Heart of the Appaloosa.
#2 – Larry the Polar Bear
According to the liner notes of Heart of the Appaloosa, Fred Small wrote about something he read. A polar bear named Larry lived all his life at Los Angeles Zoo. Larry was hired to work on a move in Alaska. Once in Alaska, he escaped and was never seen again. This song about Larry is a powerful statement on nature, freedom – and gives a new look at polar bears. This song is piano-based and has a loose, almost free-jazz style. It gets tighter and more melodic as the song progresses, building to a triumphant climax. This also appears on Heart of the Appaloosa.
#1 – Heart of the Appaloosa
In the 1800’s, America did all it could to stamp out Native American tribes, including the Nez Perce. The tribe survives today. It also survives in the Appaloosa horse, now one of the most popular horse breeds in the world. Although a song about tragic and shameful events in American history, it also has an undercurrent of hope. A song not only for horse lovers, and lovers of folk music, but of anyone who loves a good song. This is the title track to The Heart of the Appaloosa.
Top 10 Fred Small Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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