By Jeff Burger
Appleseed ranks among a handful of small record companies that put at least two things before profits: human values and musical quality. Those priorities come through loud and clear on Appleseed’s 21st Anniversary: Roots and Branches, a three-CD label sampler that contains 57 tracks.
Forty-eight of those selections have been culled from the company’s 165 prior album releases while the rest are exclusive to this set. The material is organized into three overlapping groups, corresponding to label founder Jim Musselman’s three goals for Appleseed: “to provide an outlet for songs of social justice” (disc one), “to release newly written songs of personal experience and emotion” (disc two), and “to keep alive the centuries of still-vital traditional songs from our country’s and our world’s history” (disc three).
The last place I saw so many great folk artists assembled was in my dreams.
A merely partial list of the participants: Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Tom Paxton, Al Stewart, John Wesley Harding, Jesse Winchester, Jackson Browne, Jonathan Edwards, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, Jimmy LaFave, Arlo Guthrie, John Gorka, Levon Helm, John Stewart, Donovan, Tom Russell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, and David Bromberg.
The vast majority of the program is as impressive as this roster. Among the tracks that are exclusive to this set: an inventive reading by Springsteen, a longtime Appleseed supporter, of “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song),” the Lee Hays/Pete Seeger standard; a searing new version by John Wesley Harding of his song “Scared of Guns” that is dedicated to Parkland High School students; Jesse Winchester’s “Get It Right One Day,” which will remind you of how much we lost when he passed on; a wonderful rendition of the traditional “Wild Mountain Thyme” by Donovan; and an emotive version of Springsteen’s powerful “Across the Border,” by Tom Russell, an artist I’ve long maintained is a national treasure.
Other highlights include Pete Seeger’s “Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam),” where he trades verses with Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, and Anne Hills; the Kennedys’ “Give Me Back My Country”; John Stewart’s “Bay of Mexico”; a Jackson Browne/Bonnie Raitt duet on the Weavers’ “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”; a version of the traditional “John Riley” by Roger McGuinn with Judy Collins; and Jesse Winchester’s “Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding,” one of the sweetest love songs you’ll ever hear. (When Winchester sang this number on Elvis Costello’s TV show, you could see a tear dripping down the face of fellow guest Neko Case.)
Even if you already own many of the earlier releases from which this material was drawn, you may want Appleseed’s 21st Anniversary for the tracks you’ve missed and the nine previously unavailable ones. And if you’re a folk fan who somehow doesn’t own any of the label’s material, you should definitely pick this up. Chances are, it won’t be the only Appleseed release on your shelf for long. https://appleseedmusic.com/
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.