Smithsonian Folkways American Roots Collection
Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40062
review by Art Menius
Since Moe Asch’s Folkways label became Smithsonian Folkways in a remarkable government purchase, the record company has entered the CD age, begun operating in far less eccentric fashion, and vastly expanded the availability of its titles. Both producing new recordings and bring old material onto CD, Smithsonian Folkways has recaptured the preeminent place among independent labels it occupied forty years ago. American Roots Collection samples from the best of the Smithsonian Folkways compact discs, except for children’s, First Nations, and music from outside the USA, all of which will receive their own packages.
What we do have here to enjoy is a breathtaking sweep through the surface of the stunning sound archives which continue to grow under the leadership of ethnomusicologist Tony Seeger. At least six of the generous twenty-six cuts have seen their release since the 1987 creation of Smithsonian Folkways. By sampling the Smithsonian Folkways catalog, we sample American roots music in sweeping fashion. We hear bluegrass great Bill Monroe live with his own band and with Doc Watson, who can also be heard accompanying Clarence “Tom” Ashley on a 1962 re-recording of his classic “The Coo-Coo Bird.” Doug & Jack Wallin render authentic mountain music today while the New Lost City Ramblers bring the commercial hillbilly sounds of the 1920s to life. Libba Cotton renders “Freight Train,” while we enjoy more modern blues from Roosevelt Sykes, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dave Van Ronk, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. Pete Seeger leads a sing-along as only he can, while half-sister Peggy Seeger delivers a seminal proto-feminist track. We’re also treated to gospel, Hispanic, Cajun, and “Civil Rights” music. In addition to Watson and Monroe, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Mary Lou Williams each receive two selections.
Lucinda Williams possibly appears more for name recognition since the Cajun-style original “Lafayette” heard here at best suggests the work that made her sort of famous a dozen years later. Mary Lou Williams proved a towering figure in both jazz music and jazz education. Including not one but two cuts by her on an American Roots collection seems odd when, for example, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, or any one of dozens of gospel artists are omitted. Still, this provides an outstanding compilation and a worthy introduction to American folk music of this century.