Various Artists. The Social Power Of Music. Smithsonian Folkways

sfw40231For 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.




Dave Van Ronk. Down In Washington Square. Smithsonian Folkways.

Dave Van Ronk is perhaps a man more mentioned than listened to these days as the Greenwich Village folkies who preceded Dylan slowly fade into history. However Van Ronk’s profile has probably never been higher than in the past few months following the release of the Coen Brothers latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis which is very loosely based on Van Ronk’s early career. Tying in with the film release Smithsonian Folkways have collaborated with Van Ronk’s widow, Andrea Vuocolo to produce this very handsome triple disc selection of his Folkway recordings commencing in 1958 until 1963 along with a brace of live recordings (some from the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music reissue launch in 1997) ending with five studio recordings made in 2001 shortly before his death. Altogether there are 16 previously unreleased songs on the set.
A strapping figure of a man Van Ronk became a mentor to several notable figures on the folk scene (Dylan, Ochs, Paxton) and was a faithful proponent of old blues songs, folk ballads and ragtime tunes. The majority of the songs here are staples of the old American songbook with version of John Henry, Willie The Weeper, Please See That My Grave is Kept Clean, Hesitation Blues and Stackalee all present and correct. He might have been too authentic for the general Peter Paul and Mary audience back in the sixties but these days his rough hewn voice and singular guitar style would earn him a place alongside the likes of Charlie Parr and Otis Gibbs no problem. As it is the two discs of mainly vintage recordings here are as fine a primer to American folk, blues, shanties and spirituals as one could wish for with his rendition of Ya-Ya-Yas a particular delight. Included of course is Van Ronks’ rendition of House Of The Rising Sun which caused some friction with Dylan and eventually the Animals as to who first came up with this arrangement. Van Ronk’s version is unique however with his voice pushed up some octaves and almost sounding like Nina Simone.
Disc three continues with early recordings for the first five songs including a fine version of Hoochie Coochie Man and previously unreleased live recordings ending up with God Bless The Child which Van Ronk delivers with style, almost scatting at times. Thereafter we come up to the eighties and beyond with some Van Ronk penned tunes that stick to old themes although they’re updated for the times with Losers referencing John Wayne and cats with guitars. By now Van Ronk sounds gruffer (and somewhat similar to Shel Silverstein) but these live recordings show that he was a masterful performer with drama and pathos aplenty alongside being (yet again) a mentor for a later generation of performers. His final recordings portray him in a frailer manner, the voice, still dramatic but aging but again he retains the fire and belief he had back in 1958. Of the five songs four are covers of fairly old songs but a small treasure is unveiled with his arrangement of Dylan’s Buckets Of Rain. Fragile and venerable Van Ronk does sound in his twilight year but it’s a beautiful version of a wonderful song.
A handy compendium of Van Ronk then although it lacks his middle period where he tackled the likes of Brecht and recorded in a folk rock style. With informative liner notes on all of the selections and with the previously unreleased recordings it’s well worth seeking out as is Van Ronk’s own memoir of the period, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.

Smithsonian Folkways website