Graham Reid | | 1 min read
This beautifully packaged 3-CD set (with explanatory booklet) is doubtless very useful as a teaching aid in American schools: it is a chronological collection from a Lakota dream song through colonial period and Civil War songs, to Depression Era laments for the parched land and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? then into the civil rights period and up through hip-hop to Bettye LaVette soulfully singing Springsteen's Aids ballad Streets of Philadelphia.
It's an ambitious collection and maybe not everyone wants to hear John Wesley Harding singing God Save the King at what seems like great length (a very long 3.45) But look at the names here -- Elizabeth Foster, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Freedy Johnson, Janis Ian, Andrew Bird, Jim Lauderdale, Old Crow Medicine Show, Devandra Banhart, the Del McCoury Band, Martha Wainwright . . . .
These are name players exercising themsleves on material as diverse as Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Trail of Tears, Go Down Moses, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Deportee, Rueben James, The Times They Are A'Changin', Apache Tears, Neil Young's Ohio . . .
The essays in the booklet and on the cover put the songs back into their social and historical context, but the earthy honesty and sometimes rubbed raw emotion carry the messages just as well.
Certainly you might rightly prefer to hear some of the more recent songs (like Dylan's Times They A-Changin' and Grandmaster Flash's The Message) by the original artists but often enough these versions are their equal, and a goodly number are just public domain so no definitive version exists.
A strong and interesting collection which also reminds just how much American songwriters have articulated the stories of that great, diverse and currently beleaguered nation.
And that, at some level, even pop music can be a kind of folk music.