For all its shortcomings, the USA administration has one definite shining point, the mighty archives of The Smithsonian Institution. Irrespective of governments of whatever hue the Smithsonian has endured and within its Center For Folklife And Cultural Heritage it curates a massive collection of roots music from across the world. Smithsonian Folkways, set up following the donation of Moe Asch’s Folkways recordings to the Smithsonian, have an enviable reputation, releasing current recordings (such as the Rhiannon Giddings’ project, Songs Of Our Native Daughters), and important collections such as this one, The Social Power Of Music. It’s a four-disc set with extensive liner notes documenting what they choose to describe as, “the vivid, impassioned, and myriad ways in which music binds, incites, memorializes, and moves groups of people” or, more succinctly, “The song can be mightier than the sword.” Has any song ever changed the world you might ask? Probably not but again one of the essays states, “Has a song ever changed something for the better? Probably not, but groups of people do. A good song can change people’s understandings of something and motivate them to take political action.” Taking the long view, there’s no doubt that many of the issues addressed in songs here either have been overcome or are now socially unacceptable so perhaps if we all continue to sing together we can eventually affect change. If nothing else, the set is a reminder of the indefatigable spirit of humankind, even when mortally threatened there’s a song to be sung.
The publicity blurb describes the thematic set up of the collection perfectly well so rather than rehash it, here’s what it says…
Disc 1: Songs of Struggle channels the visceral power of the fight for civil rights, featuring household names from Folkways’ archives including Woody Guthrie, The Freedom Singers, and Pete Seeger, and songs that defined a generation. Disc 2: Sacred Sounds presents music from many religions and spiritual practices, in some cases drawing from rarely heard or known ceremonies. Disc 3: Social Songs and Gatherings shows how we use music to come together, often in celebration. Disc 4: Global Movements looks to the use of roots music in key political movements around the world, tapping into anti-fascist verses, odes to the working class, and polemics against governmental corruption and violence.
Disc one will be the most familiar to those with a passing interest in folk and protest music with some very familiar songs included such as We Shall Overcome, This Land Is Your Land and Deportee. It’s not just a collection of well kent folk songs however as it roams much wider. De Colores is the theme song of The United Farm Workers, led for many years by the charismatic Cesar Chavez while Peggy Seeger’s Reclaim The Night is a powerful feminist anthem. Kristin Lem’s Ballad Of The ERA is a tremendous song in support of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US constitution with Lem coming across as a feisty performer. The rights of Asian Americans, Chicanos and union workers are addressed within the 22 songs here and even the UK gets a look in with Ewan MaColl and Peggy Seeger’s Legal/Illegal unfortunately still relevant.
Sacred Sounds on the second disc is the most “anthropological” set here consisting as it does primarily of field recordings of chants, hymns and ceremonies. It kicks off with a spine tingling Amazing Grace, recorded in an east Kentucky Baptist Church, and this, along with several others in a similar vein (including the following Come By Here by Barbara Dane and The Chamber Bothers) resonate today in light of the memory of Barack Obama singing this in the wake of the Charleston shootings. Will The Circle Be Unbroken is broken out as is Peace In The Valley but we also get chants and rain dances from Native Americans, Sufi calls to prayer and contributions from Buddhism and Jewish tradition. While this might be the disc which sits in the box for much of the time it is a fascinating listen particularly when combined with perusal of the essay and song notes.
Meanwhile, Social Songs And Gatherings could be the one disc here you could take along to a party and expect folk to dance to it as from the start it jumps and jives as Clifton Chenier gets down into a mighty fine groove. OK, it’s not all jump jive but again the sweep of the songs collected here is impressive with the likes of Tony DeMarco’s Irish jigs and Janie Hunter’s kiddie rhymes on Johnny Cuckoo sitting alongside some blistering stuff. The Golden Gate Gypsy Orchestra, basically a wedding band serving the California Jewish community, sound as if they would be joy to see and hear while a fine selection of New Orleans based numbers including a Mardi Gras medley from the Rebirth Jazz Band which hooks in Professor Longhair tunes is infectious. Throw in some western swing, polka, zydeco and good old-fashioned Chicago blues, and the set list for your party is all there.
The first three discs are indeed eclectic but the net is cast further awide for the fourth in the set which might be considered as a worldwide companion to the first disc, the difference being that many of the songs here were written and sung in times of mortal danger and actual combat. Pete Seeger kicks off the set with his arrangement of a Spanish republican song and it’s followed by an anti fascist Italian song originally popular amongst the resistance in the second world war. Crossing continents, the disc visits Africa, Latin America, Turkey, Greece, Indonesia and the Middle East. Some of the songs revisit the past as in Cantor Abraham Brun’s delivery of a ghetto song retrieved from Nazi occupation times while others remind us of ongoing struggles as in Marcel Khalifé’s astounding epic The Passport, a song about the tribulations of the Palestinian people.
On first sight, a collection such as this might be considered as a dry and dusty excavation of the past but it’s not. Indeed, it’s a vibrant collection of powerful messages gathered across time and continents which deserves investigation and for those who investigate it is truly rewarding.
There’s more info on the set here.