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The Great Folk Scare Continues
Smith's Anthology of
American Folk Music, Volume Four, Various Artists (Revenant)
Bright Smile Haunts Me Still, The Warner Collection Volume One, Various
Seems Better To Me, The Warner Collection Volume Two, Various
The Best of Broadside 1962-1988: Anthems of The American Underground From the Pages of Broadside Magazine, Various Artists (Smithsonian Folkways)
Just as Howard Zinn's classic People's History Of The United States provides an antidote to our nation's official history, American folk songs have given the exploited and oppressed a chance to tell their true story in their own words. Yet as an expression of regional, class, race, gender, and ethnic divisions, folk music has never been a music for everyone. Rendered through the unpretty, unprofessional voices of the country's working class, folk music is a vivid and disturbing contradiction to dominate ideology and entertainment.
Most of what passes for “folk heritage” has been edited and packaged to fit the more wholesome, establishment version of American History taught in public schools. The bedrock of American folk song, however, is largely ignored by mainstream culture. Still, as an alternative oral tradition, folk music continues to seed memory and inspiration.
First released by Folkways Records in 1952, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music served up a revelatory sampling of outsider traditions that sparked political and musical repercussions all through the 1960s. Compiling hillbilly, blues, cajun, and gospel tunes recorded in the 1930s, Smith's Anthology supplied a generation of dissidents with a body of songs and performances that became the standard of folk authenticity. In a few short years, the influence of Smith's sacred underground text could be heard in the music of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Holy Modal Rounders, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, and David Grisman.
Reissued as a six-CD box set in 1997, Anthology Of American Folk Music is once again a prime mover in a roots music revival. Although still in the margins of pop culture, over the last decade a slow building movement of tradition conscious musicians and fans has started to embrace music with links to blues and country styles of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. And Smith's Anthology is a central guidepost for credibility.
Although Smith's original 3- volume song collection stands as a monumental landmark in American music, the recently released two-CD Volume Four contains 28 tracks that should also be required listening for anyone with a passion for tracing connections between traditional and contemporary music. The inclusion of familiar selections by Robert Johnson (“Last Fair Deal Gone Down”), the Carter Family (“Hello Stranger”), Lead Belly (“Packin' Trunk”), the Monroe Brothers (“Nine Pound Hammer”), Bukka White (“Parchman Farm”), the Blue Sky Boys (“Down On The Banks Of The Ohio”), and Sleepy John Estes (“Milk Cow Blues”) makes the track listing on Volume Four read like a greatest hits package. Yet as the plaintive singing draws listeners back to harsh and desperate times, each tune takes on historical and emotional weight beyond any modern translation.
Much less celebrated and never before commercially released, the two volume Warner Collection (Appleseed Recordings) is another essential survey of traditional American music and culture. Compiled over a period of five decades by Anne and Frank Warner during their frequent visits to the Appalachian mountains, The Warner Collection gathers mountain ballads, fiddle tunes, children's songs, sea stories, and party romps from an array of singers who sang their history with no commercial aspirations. Search the more than 100 tracks on Her Bright Smile Still Haunts Me and Nothing Seems Better To Me and you'll find only unfamiliar names such as Rebecca King Jones, Frank Proffitt, Buna Hicks, Charles K. “Tink” Tillett, and Elda Blackwood. Listen to the harsh, nasal singing and you'll hear a natural, “ “artless” voice that refuses pretension and ego. Above all else, The Warner Collection is a treasure of songs.
Made between 1940 and 1966, until now the Warner recordings have not been heard except in circles of family friends and scholars. Many of the tunes, however, have become standards of the American folk canon. And beyond the ring of “Tom Dooley,” “Whiskey In The Jar,” “House Carpenter,” and “Days Of 49,” there's an abundance of neglected gems waiting discovery.
Gordon Friesen and Agnes “Sis” Cunningham were song collecters of a different stripe than Harry Smith or the Warners. Founding Broadside Magazine in 1962 as a base of operations for songwriters of topical protest, Friesen and Cunningham were partisans of the overtly left-wing folk music fostered by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. With the rise of the civil rights movement, student protests, and the escalating Viet Nam War, they made Broadside a publishing and recording center for the “finger-pointing songs” of New York based troubadours such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Malvina Reynolds, Buffy Sainte- Marie, Janis Ian, and Tom Paxton.
The Best Of Broadside 1962- 1988 (Smithsonian Folkways) is a five-CD compilation of Broadside's brightest fomenting outrage and activism against a multitude of social evils. Given the mission and mindset, this hefty 89 song, 5-hour plus box set will find its strongest appeal among the already converted. The packaging, photographs, and notes are tasteful and authoritative. Even the sympathetic, however, will suffer some hard slogging in getting through more than a little mediocre and boring material whose only virtue is good intentions. Fortunately, the collection's high points overwhelm the dull moments and sustain a steady flow of inspiration.
The best tunes here come from the vanguard of the 1960s folk boom. But beyond the many sharp-edged narratives of Dylan, Ochs, and Seeger, there's also a wealth of stirring and under-appreciated material like Peter La Farge's “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes,” Bonnie Dobson's “Morning Dew,” Nina Smone's “Mississippi Goddam,” Richard Farina's “Birmingham Sunday,” and Arlo Guthrie's “Victor Jara.”
Revealing a flexible attitude toward the style and substance of folk politics, The Best of Broadside also surprises with Friesen and Cunningham's openness to “personal” themes, as in Lucinda Williams's heartbreak ballad “Lafayette,” and raucous experimentation, on the Fugs' “Kill For Peace.”
Overall, however, Friesen and Cunningham favored straightforward message tunes delivered with the simple accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. When Bob Dylan broke with folk orthodoxy and electrified his music in 1965, Broadside launched a fierce editorial attack charging sell-out. To the magazine's credit, a defense of Dylan by Phil Ochs was also published. But electric music was not Friesen and Cunningham's thing. As rock music began to voice the rebellion of the times to a wide mass audience, the significance of Broadside began to wane. Though the magazine staggered on until 1988, its glory days were over by the mid-1970s.
Nonetheless, the legacy of Broadside has been rich and lasting. The magazine and the hundreds of tracks recorded for Folkways Records' Broadside Series document that remarkable not-too- distant moment when a small band of songwriters and two staunchly dedicated visionaries came together to create a united front for radical topical song. Promoting this homemade protest on a shoestring budget, Broadside impact rippled slowly outward through various camps of folk, rock, punk, and rap. Today, a great bulk of the Broadside material still calls our entire social order into question.
Final words of tribute from Broadside songwriter, Eric Ander- sen: “Getting our songs published in Broadside was the goal for many of us new writers. It was as important as making our first solo albums. We lived for the next issue. It lent a forum for discussions and outlet for honing our skills. After all, Broadside was publishing the very ‘first wave' of song-poet expression right after the gray Eisenhower Cold War 50s. A social, cultural, and political revolution was in the air. It was a dramatic time with no shortage of topics in the air to write and talk about: civil rights, poverty, Native Americans, the Viet Nam War, love, sex, freedom, and hopes of forging a new path to an enlightened future...Gordon and Sis will be remembered as giant souls in the songwriting scene...Broadside was a living struggle and a living legacy...And I am proud to be a part of it.” Z