October 4th, 2006
At first glance of the title of the recording, one might ask, “What is a Classic African-American ballad?” The black ballad tradition is an important, historic, and engaging aspect of America’s black music heritage but because of the popularity of the blues over the past thirty years, this tradition has been overshadowed. Not only is this a recording a monument to African-American life from 1885-1925, it provides foreshadows the protest and social commentary of the hip hop movement we are witnessing one-hundred years later.
Moving from an agrarian lifestyle to an urban one, black southerners moved northward and wrote ballads which provided glimpses of African-American city life at the turn of the century. Ballads in their purest form, will tell you a story, while the blues is more of a ritual where people think of ways of healing a situation. In traditional ballads, someone has to die. Stackolee shoots Billy, Frankie shoots Johnny, Duncan shoots Brady, or 1500 passengers go down on the Titanic. These are stories about death, murder, prison, protest, and work ranging from songs created from the heritage of the English ballad, to social commentary vilifying abusive white authority figures, to “blues ballads.” Simply put, this is urban music which combines storytelling and improvisation focusing on street culture protest, and violence. In this we find similarities to the hip-hop music of today. These are fascinating stories about life during the turn of the last century, and the music set to these stories is equally as intriguing and timeless.
This album features a variety of stirring performances and recordings by white and black musicians. Some highlights include Leadbelly doing the traditional “John Hardy” on his rarely heard accordion, a field recording called “Lost John” recorded at a Texas prison by Pete Seeger himself, and a chilling rendition of “St. James Infirmary” by New Orleans legend, Snooks Eaglin.
There is not a record label around that is better equipped to bring us up to speed on this tradition than the fine people at Smithsonian Folkways. They have been keeping the tradition of distributing records with integrity alive for decades now. This package is no exception. The CD includes over 67 minutes and 22 tracks of music, and a beautiful 36-page booklet that is chock full of information written by blues scholar and writer, Barry Lee Pearson. After being immersed in this recording and its material you will be able to answer the question posed at the top of this review. It might even beg the question, what is hip hop?
Posted by Christopher Mulé
Review Genre(s): Folk and Country