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Monday, January 14, 2013

Best of Broadside

From the Vault Dept.: On 12 May 2013, a scant few days after he turns 94, Pete Seeger will perform at Proctors in Schenectady with his half-sister Peggy, in what’s not only a rare joint appearance, but a rare appearance for Pete at all. It’s part of the venerable Eighth Step series, founded in 1967 and going strong in its sixth year at Proctors. Here’s a look at a CD set featuring Seeger and many other artists who stopped by the Eighth Step over the years.


FOLLOWING THEIR HUGELY SUCCESSFUL reissue of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Smithsonian’s archivists have come out with what is, in effect, a sequel: A five-CD set of songs (“Anthems of the American Underground,” as the set itself proclaims) drawn from (and recorded for) the magazine that sparked the great protest songs of the ’60s and kept the flame alive through the succeeding two decades.

It’s an amazing array of artists, many of them clearly influenced by the Smith collection. Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Janis Ian and Nina Simone are among the featured youngsters, with contributions from older hands like Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds. And the force behind it all was the little magazine founded by Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, themselves longtime activists, that debuted in 1962 with the purpose of getting “songs about our times” into as many hands as possible.

Recordings soon followed, issued through the Folkways label, some recorded in that label’s studio, others captured by a low-fi Revere recorder in the Broadside office – which was nothing more than the apartment of Cunningham and Friesen. The sound quality of the 89 selections in this set is therefore very inconsistent, but nothing is downright poor. Whatever the source, they all carry a poignant sense of immediacy in the performance and the lyrics.

The discs are bound in a box that also reproduces the look of the old Broadside magazine, with generous samplings of vintage articles. Bob Dylan’s material appeared in the very first issue of Broadside magazine, and he’s represented in this set singing “John Brown” and “The Ballad of Donald White” (he was billed as “Blind Boy Grunt” on those early Broadside releases). Covers of his songs abound, including the first recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (by the New World Singers, a group that included Gil Turner and Happy Traum), Pete Seeger singing “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the Broadside Singers with “Paths of Victory” (listen for Tom Paxton’s voice among the group) and more.

Paxton is here as a singer and songwriter, and alongside the familiar “What Did You Learn in School Today?” is the wrenching, otherwise unreleased “Train for Auschwitz.” He duets with Pete Seeger in a funny Matt McGinn song about England’s Profumo scandal of the early ‘60s, and Seeger, of course, is all over this collection as a writer and singer.

But nobody is more represented in this set than Phil Ochs, who seemed tireless in his anger-edged wit during this period. At his most incisive in “The Ballad of William Worthy,” criticizing the U.S. travel ban to Cuba, he’s also heard singing his own “Links in the Chain,” “Freedom Riders” and satiric “We Seek No Wider War,” among others.

There’s such a grab bag of talent here that it’s easy to concentrate on the familiar names to the exclusion of the compelling others. Sure, you’ve got the teenaged Janis Ian, as well as Eric Andersen, Nina Simone, Malvina Reynolds, Arlo Guthrie and the like. But listen to Peter La Farge’s “Ballad of Ira Hayes” for a reminder of that short-lived singer-songwriter’s skills, and check out the songs by Bonnie Dobson, Thom Parrott, Sammy Walker and many more. Every track has a compelling message – so much so that the cumulative effect of this set can be quite depressing if you listen to too much at one time.

The Vietnam War, Civil Rights struggles, labor issues and the beginnings of the Women’s Rights movement are documented here, in pieces of history that paint more effective pictures than any TV documentary. This collection is a worthy successor to the massive (10-CD) Bear Family set “Songs for Political Action,” which gathered material recorded between 1926 and 1953. And it just might serve as an inspiration to add music to the many worthy causes that need attention in these far-too-song-less times.

With a Presidential election stolen thanks to voter fraud and illegal Supreme Court activity, you’d think the time would be right for some demonstrations of in-your-face anger. But it’s not like the ’sixties. Maybe we lack the songs.

Various Artists: The Best of Broadside 1962-1988
Smithsonian Folkways

Metroland Magazine, 29 March 2001

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