One of my earliest memories, musical or otherwise, is of sitting on my bedroom floor listening to records on my own little portable record player. Among my favorites was a set of albums that collected well-known songs of various styles and genres, from Gilbert and Sullivan to classical and my favorite, American folk songs. Of course you even heard folk music on the radio in those days, too; the late 1950s were the heyday of the great folk revival, and those times and those records ignited in me a lifelong love of folk song.
That’s why I’m so excited about this sprawling set from Smithsonian Folkways. It has four CDs containing more than 80 tracks, and comes with an illustrated and smartly designed 124-page booklet.
The theme of the set is revealed by its title The Social Power of Music as it looks at the way music affects the lives of individuals and social groups all over the world. It’s primarily drawn from American music but includes a generous sampling of music from other traditions worldwide.
That music is drawn from Smithsonian Folkways’ huge archives of folk music, spoken word and other types of performance from all over the world. Its core is formed by the recordings collected by Moses Asch, who founded Folkways in 1948 and released more than 2,100 recordings in the next 40 years. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage acquired Asch’s archives in 1987, on the condition that it keep them available for purchase, which it has done. Smithsonian over the years has also acquired recordings and archives of other folk record labels including Arhoolie and others.
This box set highlights and celebrates this vast cultural treasure. The four discs look at global folk music from four different perspectives. Disc 1, Songs of Struggle presents songs of the movement for civil and human rights around the world, with a special focus on the U.S. It features many household names including Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Freedom Singers, Peggy Seeger, Country Joe McDonald and others. Disc 2 Sacred Sounds draws on religious and spiritual traditions around the globe, including African American spirituals, bluegrass gospel and shape note singing as well as American Indian chants and dances, Jewish folksong and cantorial song, and more. Disc 3 Social Songs and Gatherings shows how we use music to come together. This is a really fun disc, with a huge variety of social music including Cajun, Zydeco and Western swing, polkas and drinking songs, square dances, Irish ceiledhs, Indian pow wows, New Orleans funeral and Mardi Gras parades, Christmas carols, even the “Star Spangled Banner.” And Disc 4 Global Movements gets into political movements and the songs they inspired around the world, from Italian and Spanish anti-fascist anthems to protest songs and political ballads from Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America – pretty much all over the world, wherever people use song to protest injustice, corruption and oppression.
There’s obviously way too much here to review or even mention every song, so I’ll just touch on some of my favorites and the most remarkable. On Disc 1 there’s “De Colores,” the United Farm Workers anthem, here in a rougher version than the one by Joan Baez I’m more familiar with; and “Deportees (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)” written by Woody Guthrie but performed here beautifully by Sammy Walker from a 1979 Folkways album; Peggy Seeger’s “Reclaim The Night,” which takes on rape and other violence against women; and the charming “We Are The Children” from what’s considered the first Asian American civil rights album.
On Disc 2 I absolutely love the Paramount Singers’ a capella rendition of “Peace In The Valley” and Rose Maddux’s knockout version of “I’ll Fly Away.” The Jewish folk song “Dayeinu” is a great catchy sing-along. And the track of Buddhist chants and prayers from Vietnam is really striking.
Disc 3 has many sonic riches as well, and is probably the most fun of the four since it’s dedicated to social music which includes dances of all kinds. These include a New Mexico-style mariachi version of the Western Swing standard “San Antonio Rose,” the “Cajun national anthem” “Jolie Blonde,” some Chicago-style electric blues, a couple of polkas, one Tex-Mex and the other from the upper Midwest, a New York Irish set of jigs and reels, Indian pow wow dances, New Orleans street music and more. John Littlejohn’s robust take on Elmore James’s “Shake Your Moneymaker” is guaranteed to get you moving.
Disc 4 is moving in another way, with its slate of songs of resistance from all over the world. Highlights? Pete Seeger leading a crowd in the Spanish Civil War ballad “Viva La Quince Brigada!” is one, and and Lilly Tchiumba’s “Women Of Angola” is another. Suni Paz’s “We Are All Prisoners” is a rousing call for solidarity against injustice throughout the Americas. The most “pop” song in this box set is probably Yves Montand’s beautiful “Cherry Blossom Time.” At the other end of the spectrum is the very next track, “Chongsun Arirang,” a Korean song originally sung to protest the Japanese occupation during WWII; this version from a 1972 Unesco disc is credited to an unknown central Korean singer who is backed by a small folk orchestra that includes a flute and a single-string fiddle plus percussion. Perhaps the oddest of all is “Hidup di Bui (Life in Jail),” which sounds to me like a mashup of Cape Verdean morna, Mexican village marching band and Indonesian gamelan, fronted by a lounge singer. I was close with the gamelan guess, for this one is from Indonesia, a song that originally was written to protest the terrible conditions in one particular prison.
This collection is the inspiration for the Smithsonian Year of Music, which presents music and sound events in Washington, D.C., and around the country every day throughout 2019. And The Social Power of Music has also become the theme of the 2019 installment of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place annually around the 4th of July on the National Mall.
If you love folk music as much as I do, I encourage you to visit the above website and the Smithsonian Folkways site, where you can find links to the online archives. And you can listen to a sampler from the box set on Soundcloud.
(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2019)