By Jeff Burger
Music certainly provides pleasure, but it can do much more than that, as a new four-CD box set reminds us. Called The Social Power of Music, it aims to explore how this art form “brings together communities in the United States and beyond in protest, worship, and celebration.”
The compilers had a lot to work with: the remarkable 60,000-track collection of Smithsonian Folkways, which includes recordings from such labels as Folkways, Monitor, Arhoolie, and series compiled by UNESCO. The 83 songs they selected embrace many creative and fascinating choices.
The first disc, labeled “Songs of Struggle,” mingles well-known and obscure antiwar songs and tunes of protest for civil, women’s, and workers rights. It opens with a powerful one-two punch: the Freedom Singers’ early 1960s recording of “We Shall Overcome” followed by Woody Guthrie’s reading of his own “This Land Is Your Land” (a version that incorporates the controversial, often-omitted “private property” verse). Other highlights include Country Joe McDonald’s original jug-band rendition of his anti–Vietnam War classic, “I-Feel-Like-I’m Fixin’-to-Die Rag” and a reading of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”—not by Dylan or Peter, Paul, and Mary but by the New World Singers, who had the distinction of performing its first-recorded version. Also here: Paul Robeson’s haunting take on “Joe Hill,” the union organizing standard; “Which Side Are You On?,” by the Almanac Singers, with Pete Seeger on banjo; and Guthrie’s “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” performed by Sammy Walker, who regrettably has not been heard from since he recorded four fine albums in the 1970s.
Disc two, called “Sacred Sounds,” features a wide variety of religious music from Native Americans, African Americans, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Latinos, and Asians. As on the first disc, some obvious song choices are included, albeit in performances by little-known artists, such as “Amazing Grace” by Members of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, a group from eastern Kentucky; and “Peace in the Valley” by the Paramount Singers, an a cappella African American gospel group that originally formed in 1936. Among other highlights are “Buddhist Chants and Prayers,” which was culled from an anthology of Vietnamese music; “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by the Strange Creek Singers, a short-lived group that is much less known than its members, who included folk and bluegrass artists Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, and Hazel Dickens; and “I’ll Fly Away,” featuring country singer/songwriter Rose Maddox.
The third disc, “Social Songs and Gatherings,” puts a spotlight on music from social celebrations—everything from children’s parties to Mardi Gras. The great zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier leads off, accompanied by his Red Hot Louisiana Band, on a live, horn-spiced reading of the infectious “Party Down at the Blue Angel Club.” Other standouts include an instrumental south-of-the-border-flavored rendition of Bob Wills’s “San Antonio Rose” by Los Reyes de Albuquerque with Roberto Martinez; and “Jolie Blonde,” the Cajun classic, by the late accordionist Austin Pitrie. There’s also a segue from “Beer Drinking Polka” by Max Baca and the always-amazing Flaco Jimenez to “In Heaven There Is No Beer” by a group called the Goose Island Ramblers.
While the first three CDs focus mostly on North America, the fourth, “Global Movements,” taps music that inspired and reflected social change from around the world. Pete Seeger’s reading of “Viva la Quince Brigada” (“Long Live the Brigade”), the Spanish Civil War song, is here, as are such tracks as “Muato Mua N’Gola” (“Women of Angola”) by Lilly Tchiumba, “Hasret” (“Longing”) by Melike Demirag, from Songs of Freedom from Turkey; and “The Boy with the Sunlit Smile,” the theme song from the Academy Award–winning Z, which was released in 1969, during the reign of Greece’s military junta.
All told, the box delivers more than four and a half hours of illuminating and uplifting music. And while you’re enjoying it, you can read the accompanying 116-page book, which includes an insightful essay about how music connects people and engages communities plus essays about each disk, notes about every song, and suggested additional resources.
A Career-Spanning Paul Young Anthology
If you’re not already wondering why blue-eyed soul singer Paul Young has never made as big a mark in the U.S. as he has in the U.K., you will be after listening to the recently reissued Wherever I Lay My Hat: The Best of Paul Young. The two-disc set, which focuses on his 1980s and 1990s heyday, includes both of his biggest American hits, “Everytime You Go Away,” a Hall & Oates cover that made a well-deserved appearance at the top of the charts in 1985; and “Oh Girl,” a version of the Chi-Lites hit that made it to No. 8 in 1990. Also here are such British smashes as Jack Lee’s “Come Back and Stay” and “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home),” Young’s U.K.-chart-topping breakthrough rendition of an obscure Marvin Gaye song.
There are other passionately performed and imaginatively produced covers on the program as well, including of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and Tom Waits’s “Soldier’s Things.” But many of the numbers composed by Young and songwriting partner Ian Kewley—including “Why Does a Man Have to Be Strong?” and “Everything Must Change”—are also monumental.
This 32-song set, which concludes with extended mixes of three of Young’s best early numbers, features the vast majority of his essential material but alas, not quite all of it: I’m holding onto the earlier single-disc From Time to Time: The Singles Collection for two gems that have been inexplicably omitted here: a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” a collaboration with the Irish band Clannad; and “Senza una Donna,” a duet with Italian singer Zucchero that made it to No. 4 in the U.K.
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.