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Sunday, September 09, 2012

Of the People, By the People

From the Vault Dept.: Three big folk (for want of a better term) music reissue projects appeared about fifteen years ago. Two of them – the “Anthology of American Folk Music” and “Songs for Political Action” – were self contained, insofar as each set was as complete as it was going to get. The Alan Lomax reissue series on Rounder Records started impressively, running to just shy of a hundred CDs before it petered out – although an eight-disc set of Lomax’s recordings of Jelly Roll Morton appeared in 2006 before the whole thing ended.


WE HAVE THE UNCOMFORTABLE feeling that a decades-long folk revival ended when Bob Dylan put on a tux to play at the White House recently, but when did it begin? Some argue that it was launched with a 1940 “Grapes of Wrath Evening” put together by Will Geer and featuring Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Bess and Alan Lomax, the Golden Gate Singers and a 20-year-old Pete Seeger, among many others. Others point to a 1955 Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall by the Weavers, rebounding from their McCarthy-era blacklisting–a concert that produced a Vanguard recording that has yet to go out of print.

The answer may lie in-between: in 1952, in fact, when Folkways released its “Anthology of American Folk Music.” Three two-LP sets presented an array of amazingly obscure material, enough so that producer Harry Smith didn’t worry much about securing re-release rights to the songs. There were two reasons why he swiped the 84 selections from commercial recordings: First, he believed that this gave the songs an approval that field recordings lacked–some A&R person already had vetted them. Second, he was an obsessive collector of 78s.

He limited his scope to but five years: from 1927, when superior sounding electrical recordings supplanted those hollered into an acoustic horn, to 1932, “when the Depression halted folk music sales.” Chronologically, it was a narrow chunk of music, but Smith selected and programmed it with a skilled DJ’s ear for effective sequencing, a feat all the more remarkable in that Smith was no DJ and this was early enough in the LP’s existence that few were thinking about putting songs on records in any point-proving order. So, this was one of the first “concept” LPs, and, in fact, Smith meant it to be regarded as a work of art. It was an artistic expression of his musical taste and his unusual record collection, and, regarded as such, it’s brilliant. Regarded with awe by some significant people when it was released, it has aced the test of time by becoming one of Smithsonian-Folkways’ hottest re-releases.

Available in a six-CD package that reproduces the playing order of the original LPs, it includes a facsimile of Smith’s terse notes along with an additional program book brings the info up to date, adds several scholarly essays and sports a parade of encomia from artists who were influenced by the LPs. Among those waxing nostalgic are John Fahey, who picks his faves and persuasively explains why; Elvis Costello, who’s fairly new to the set; Peter Stampfel, who reminds us that Bob Dylan plundered this material as much as he did, and Dave Van Ronk, who “made it a point to avoid (Smith) unless I was drunk” but nevertheless credits the Anthology as “the Bible for hundreds of us, or more.”

None of which will prepare you for this strange, strange collection. The first set, “Ballads,” kicks off with three untimely deaths, a drunkard’s misadventures and a battle with the devil–the usual stuff of old-timey ballads. Despite the fact that they’re rendered by obscure performers like West Virginian Dick Justice, Nelstone’s Hawaiians and Clarence Ashley, the songs reach out and grab you. They also take on a fascinating aural distance thanks to the sound quality, and the song-to-song sequence is every bit as compelling as is reputed. “If God were a DJ,” writes Stampfel, “he’d be Harry Smith.”

Volume two’s “Social Music” includes a bunch of fiddle tunes, jug band numbers, the most godawful version of “Home Sweet Home” you’ll ever hear and the exhilarating “Moonshiner’s Dance,” a medley straight out of vaudeville that sent Fahey swooning. Volume three, titled simply “Songs,” is the high point of the set, with blues and other laments by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Uncle Dave Macon and even a Ken Maynard cowboy song.

Song number 84 is the wonderfully evocative “Fishing Blues” with Henry Thomas accompanying himself on guitar and quills (a pan pipes cousin). This song later was covered by, among others, Doc Watson, Taj Mahal and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Check the “other recorded versions” section of the new program notes and you run into Jerry Garcia, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Jim Kweskin, Hot Tuna, Leo Kottke and the New Lost City Ramblers. It’s a pop music who’s who, testimony to the range of musicians this set inspired.

Some folk purists maintain that the truest material is found in field recordings. The Library of Congress is a huge repository of such stuff, many of them recorded by former curator John Lomax and, later, his son, Alan. Unlike his dad, Alan was a hands-on musicologist, putting together artists of his choosing and helping select and arrange repertory. When he made a swing through several southern states in 1959, he not only revisited sites he and his father had mined decades before, but he also took the opportunity to record his favorite performers singly and in groups.

The result was a collection of stereo LPs now being remastered onto compact disc with unreleased material under the title “Southern Journey,” part of Rounder Records’ proposed 100-volume Alan Lomax Collection. The soloists–notably Fred McDowell, Son House, Hobart Smith and Texas Gladden–are the subjects of Lomax’s “Portraits” series, also appearing from Rounder.

Although these recordings aren’t introducing a tremendous amount of new material, what they’re bringing back into print hasn’t been around for nearly 40 years, and we hear them with ears changed by the evolution of popular music since then. And these songs are the backbone of that music. Raw, underrehearsed, completely free of the niceties of fancy production, they’re a fascinating document of a point in time when homespun singers had been listening to a few decades’ worth of recordings and were assimilating those sounds into their songs.

The Lomaxes found a vital source of vanishing material in the southern prisons, where John and Alan discovered Leadbelly in the ’30s. Alan returned to the Mississippi State Pen at Parchman in 1947 and recorded songs and interviews issued on Rounder’s two-volume Prison Songs set, one set of which is all unreleased material.

If you wonder why white kids are so square, listen to “Brown Girl in the Ring,” a single CD of children’s play songs recorded in during a 1962 Caribbean trip. Richly syncopated, evocative stuff that puts “Ring Around the Rosie” to shame, and there’s an accompanying Pantheon book that gives more background and sheet music. “Here We Go Looby-Loo” is already a staple in my house.

Where the Harry Smith Collection was assembled to itself be a work of art, the Lomax Collection is the equivalent of running through an old house and turning on all of the faucets. You drink deeply of much of it, but don’t try to consume it all at once. It well may prove to be the most valuable record of this country’s native musical heritage.

Alan Lomax was involved with a group of Manhattan-based folksingers in the 40s who explored the use of songs to spread political ideas. Burl Ives, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were among them, and People’s Songs was the post-war organization Seeger shepherded through several years of ambitious life.

An incredible array of songs that resulted from such idealism is gathered in Bear Family’s painstakingly thorough “Songs for Political Action,” a premium-priced 10-disc set that includes the most thorough documentation you’re likely to find. Recording sources included cheap paper disks cut for soundtrucks, 78s salvaged from attics, and the only known recording of Charles Seeger (Pete’s musicologist dad), discovered, to Pete’s astonishment, in his own barn.

Pete Seeger is all over the place here, first as a member of the loose-knit Almanac Singers, a group that often included Lee Hays and sometimes included Woody Guthrie. With Bear Family thoroughness, they’ve included all the Almanac cuts they could find, including a collection of sea chanteys. Hays and Seeger were the core of The Weavers, whose first (pre-Decca) recordings are included here, showing them to be much more politically outspoken before they had their first hit.

Although opposition to the war sounded plausible in songs from the early ’40s, after Pearl Harbor even some of the more ardent peaceniks changed their tunes (which Seeger today regrets). But the “let’s-kill-Hitler” songs are here, warts and all. The tone gets more depressing as we move into the Cold War–all that effort for presidential candidate Henry Wallace, who sensibly opposed the war in Korea, and what an ignominious defeat he suffered. The set finishes as the blacklisting era moves in, bid good-bye with Joe Glazer’s hilarious “Joe McCarthy’s Band” sending up the self-important Wisconsin senator. All in all, it’s sad to realize how little seems to have changed, but we’re left with a wonderful legacy of songs. Let’s keep singing them.

Anthology of American Folk Music, Smithsonian Folkways
Alan Lomax Collection, Rounder
Songs for Political Action, Bear Family

Metroland Magazine, June 1998

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