Carolyn Hester,
The Tradition Years
(Tradition; 1961;
Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

Tom Rush once said that during the folk boom, most recordings of folks music were "one voice, one guitar, one mic."

By choice, Tradition Records was a one-voice, one-guitar, one-mic label. Formed by the Clancy Brothers, Tradition was devoted to the folk song rather than the music business. They spurned the more commercial trio and group acts, the Kingston Trio imitators who blanketed the air at that time, choosing instead to concentrate on the people they felt were doing true folklore in song.

Carolyn Hester was one of these people. Hester lives in legend as the person who gave Bob Dylan his first shot in a recording studio and, like many legends, her reputation is better known than her music. In her early '60s heyday, though, her work was widely known and respected, her popularity large enough for the Saturday Evening Post, a leading popular magazine at the time, to label her "the face of folk music." Significantly, she achieved that popularity doing mostly public domain songs from the great body of American and Latin traditional music.

Obviously, then, she was a good fit for Tradition Records, who recorded her with only her guitar for accompaniment and adding no harmony vocals or overdubs. The result is a spare and haunting recording which makes the bold claim that, no matter how beautiful the singer's voice, it is to be used to serve the song, which is more important.

And Hester does have a beautiful voice. This album, The Tradition Years, reveals an achingly pure soprano that graces the songs she sings, a voice that never strains, never reaches but seems to soar effortlessly instead. It's intoxicating, and when she takes on simple American folk songs like "Go Way from My Window" and "If I Had a Ribbon Bow," you feel the pain of the speakers in the song. Her voice is flexible enough to take on "Malaguena Salerosa" and, since she was raised on the Texas-Mexico border and was always well-acquainted with Latin music, sounds right at home with it. The only contemporary song on the album is George and Ira Gershwin's "Summertime," which the hide-bound label justified as folk music because it came from Porgy & Bess, a folk opera.

The Tradition Years is a re-release of Hester's 1961 self-titled recording, newly issued under Empire Musicwerks' Tradition Years umbrella. It still holds up. Admirers of the American public domain songbook as well as admirers of beautiful voices will respond to it.

by Michael Scott Cain
4 November 2006

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