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A Review for The Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark O'Donnell
The American Folk Roots Collection is over an hour of what amounts to a greatest hits of the folk tradition, with a few newer songs added to illlustrate the continuing vitality of the genre. Indeed, what else could one call a recording which brings together Leadbelly singing Goodnight Irene, Woody on This Land Is Your Land, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys with Blue Moon of Kentucky, Elizabeth Cotton riding Freight Train, Josh White on the Freedom Road, and the SNCC Singers with Pete Seeger doing We Shall Overcome? For many, these are the songs of our youth, songs of camaraderie, the soundtrack to a changing America--an American vision that was free and fair. These are more than memories though. The songs truly inspired and continue to inspire. Witness how the mantle is picked up by Pete Seeger who here leads a crowd in If I Had A Hammer, then passed to sixties folk revival rep Dave Van Ronk and his version of Hesitation Blues to the pure folk of today's Lucinda Williams carrying on the rural tradition of singing of her homeland on "Lafayette." Not current enough? Well, the late alt icon Kurt Cobain thought enough of Leadbelly's "In The Pines" (Leadbelly's original from the 40s is represented on this disc) to record a soulful version of it in one of his last sessions. No question, the folk tradition lives on-- in large part owing to these recordings. One cannot underestimate the debt that is owed to those too often unheralded ethnomusicologists of folk music Sam Charters, Alan and John Lomax and label owner Moses Asch. In the 30s, 40s and 50s, it was through the Smithsonian connection of Charters and the Lomaxes and through Asch's Folkways Records that some of this most uniquely American music was preserved. Loading that cumbersome recording equipment into the car and wandering the nation's byways, they unearthed musical treasures for generations to come and gave recognition to indigenous artists whose art was honed for its own sake and shared only with the local population. Those timeless performances were captured and given wider exposure, and so have influenced every successive generation in ways both profound and personal. By the recording of these artists and their songs, folk music was redefined for all time to come. The sound of these recordings, many of which go back four to five decades, is near pristine (a bit of hiss in the Leadbelly tracks, but nothing to complain about). Smithsonian Folkways has annotated each of the selections with a brief but helpful biography, as well as references to other recordings. The only somewhat odd feature is the inclusion of cuts by groundbreaking jazz pianist composer Mary Lou Williams, who is a bit of an anomaly in this context. This is not a negative reflection on her compositions or these recordings which are in themselves quite marvelous. In a way, the two Williams cuts serve to refresh before to the rousing and fitting finish of We Shall Overcome. This is a near perfect recording. Highly recommended.
Edited by Kerry Dexter