Classic Protest Songs

Title: Classic Protest Songs from Smithsonian Folkways

Artists:  Various

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Catalog No.: SFW 40197

Release Date: 2009

War, social injustice, personal plaints, and calls for action have long fueled musical creation and performance—Liner Notes.

Folkways Records, founded by Moses Asch in 1948, emerged on the heels of the social protests of the 1930s and 1940s.  In fact, Asch created something of a haven for left-leaning musicians, both black and white, such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Josh White, who became staples of the famous folk music label.  For this compilation, Jeff Place and Mark Gustafson (Smithsonian Folkways’ staff) selected 22 tracks from the Folkways’ vault, as well as from other labels more recently acquired by Smithsonian Folkways, including Monitor and Paragon (the latter was founded in 1970 to document the music of political movements worldwide).  An effort was made to represent a broad spectrum of the struggles for economic and social justice, from anti-war protests to civil rights anthems to songs used by union organizers and the labor movement. Place and Gustafson also sought to demonstrate that protest songs did not originate with the folk music revival, thus a number of pre-1950 tracks were included.

African American artists are well represented on this compilation.  The disc opens with the “Freedom Now Chant,” sung by participants during a Civil Rights era mass-meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and collected by noted scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon. One of the most famous African American folk singers, Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, is represented by a 1930 recording of “Bourgeois Blues,” inspired by the time (presumably one of many) that he was denied a room in a Washington, D.C. hotel.

Big Bill Broonzy, perhaps equally famous as one of the seminal pre-WWII blues artists, contributes “Black, Brown, and White,” a song so controversial in the U.S. that he ended up recording it in Europe.  For those who aren’t familiar with the song, the refrain is “If you was white, you’re alright / if you’re brown, stick around / but if you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.”

An even more controversial song, “Strange Fruit,” is provided by Brother John Sellers, a blues and gospel singer who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. His 1961 arrangement with flute, guitar, and drum accompaniment offers an interesting contrast to the classic Billie Holiday version, though I find that the flute distracts from the haunting lyrics.

One of the gems on the set is a previously unreleased 1946 recording by Champion Jack Dupree, “I’m Going To Write the Governor of Georgia,” referencing the racism he continued to confront upon his return to the U.S. after WWII, and implying that he was treated little better than he had been during his two years as a Japanese P.O.W.  Obviously the song made little difference, for Dupree fled to Europe in the 1950s and didn’t return until shortly before his death in the early ‘90s.

Classic Protest Songs comes with a well-illustrated, well-annotated 29 p. booklet which includes a bibliography and discography of suggested reading/listening.  If you don’t have the original Folkways/Paredon/Monitor recordings, this compilation will make a fine addition to your collection.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Classic Piano Blues

Title: Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways
Artists: Various Artists
Label: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Catalog No.: SFW 40196
Release date: June 24, 2008

Encouraged by the warm reception received by previous releases in its classics series, Smithsonian has returned to its vaults to compile and release Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways. Intended as an introduction to both blues piano and the recording work of Folkways’ founder, Moses Asch, Jeff Place and Richard Burgess have selected twenty representative performances by legendary artists including Memphis Slim, Speckled Red, Champion Jack Dupree, Huddie Ledbetter, and Victoria Spivey.

True to the Folkways tradition, the audio content is supported by extensive liner notes. The accompanying booklet begins by presenting a history of blues piano combined with a discussion of Asch’s role in recording a number of legendary artists. Focusing on the rise of blues pianists from the rough environments of nightclubs, juke joints, and gambling houses, Jeff Place’s brief history makes for a light and interesting reading. Although the details will probably be familiar to well-established blues piano fans, the essay will function as a welcome introduction for newcomers to the genre.

In addition to an overarching historical background, the booklet also provides approximately a page worth of notes for each CD track. Although these notes primarily consist of biographical information on the artists, they occasionally include information on the recording session or supplemental photographs. For those who find themselves hooked on a particular artist or on the blues in general, the booklet provides a brief biography and a suggested listening list-although the latter is comprised entirely of Smithsonian Folkways releases.

One of the CDs biggest weaknesses, and one acknowledged by Place in the liner notes, stems from the creators’ self-imposed restriction to the work of Moses Asch. Although the selections are representative of Asch’s recordings, Asch’s recordings are not fully representative of blues piano. Asch made the bulk of his recordings in the 1960s and so pre-and early post-World War I blues are sorely underrepresented. There are, however, three tracks recorded in the 1940s by Mead “Lux” Lewis, Huddie Ledbetter, and James P. Johnson. Additionally, Asch primarily recorded northern artists so many southern artists and genres will be conspicuously absent. This is not to suggest that the value of the CD is diminished by these limitations, but that the user may need to seek out supplemental materials depending on his or her needs.

Diehard blues collectors may find this particular CD a bit redundant, particularly since it primarily consists of recordings originally released in the 60s and 90s. There are, however, a few nice surprises such as a previously unreleased recording of Big Chief Ellis, John Cephas, and Phil Wiggins performing “Dices Blues” at the 1976 Smithsonian Festival. The sound quality of the CD is also quite good. Even the reissues of the 78rpm discs originally released in the 40s have retained their warmth and clarity despite a noticeable reduction in surface noise. The main nasty audio surprise is that the end of Track 6 – “Medium Blues,” performed by Meade “Lux” Lewis – is clipped off. Given the sonic quality of the rest of the CD, however, this may represent one of Asch’s idiosyncratic recording decisions as opposed to a fault of the current producers.

If you teach a course in American music, manage the audio collection for your library, or just want to learn about the blues, Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways will make a valuable addition to your collection. The selected artists and pieces are truly classics and Place’s writing style should be easily accessible to high school students without feeling overly simplistic to older readers. Even the blues collector who has everything might want to take a look. Whether vinyl sounds better than dye and plastic may remain controversial, but your favorite blues LPs will never fit in your car’s CD player.

Posted by Ronda L. Sewald