various artists,
Classic Folk Music
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2004)

It wasn't all that long ago that many rock critics were trying to bury the folk (excuse me, "folkie") revival of the 1950s and '60s as some kind of embarrassing temporary diversion from the only valid genres: pop and rock. Such numbskullery has largely (though not quite entirely) passed. Besides the flood of recordings by authentic roots artists, past and present, in recent years, we have been treated to retrospectives from such influential revival labels as Vanguard, Elektra and Prestige Folklore. But the label that started the revival, Folkways (Smithsonian Folkways these days), is only now documenting its role in that influential cultural movement and moment.

Put together by Smithsonian Folkways' Jeff Place, a front-rank authority on recorded American roots sounds, Classic Folk Music features the inevitable Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lead Belly -- who, of course, should be here -- as well as others who may not be familiar to the more casual listener. But the quality of song and performance is mostly high. Though they went on to become revival stars, some artists had authentic traditional roots (among them Doc Watson, Hobart Smith, Elizabeth Cotten and Brownie McGhee; McGhee's version of the 1920s murder ballad "Betty & Dupree" is arguably the most perfectly accomplished cut on the album). Others are unmistakably smoother and city-bred, perhaps none more so than Paul Clayton, in his lifetime more influential than gifted, now only dimly remembered as the guy from whom Dylan stole the melody to "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Another Dylan melody, for "Blowin' in the Wind," was inspired by Paul Robeson's moving rendition of the anti-slavery anthem "No More Auction Block."

On the other hand, Barbara Dane's reading of Guthrie's "Deportees" strikes me as a trifle overwrought, and though not bad certainly not her most assured performance. Pete Seeger, featured twice, is, well, Pete Seeger, but half-brother Mike Seeger's "John Hardy" is at that very high standard one associates with any performance he sets his mind to. I've heard Dave Van Ronk's "Duncan & Brady" many times over the four decades that have passed since my first listening, and it still sounds fresh, among the most spectacularly convincing -- and darkly funny -- performances to come out of the revival. Jean Ritchie weighs in with the undeservedly obscure, beautiful and deeply sad "Most Fair Beauty Bright." Phil Ochs wrote some memorable songs, but none in my opinion equals the uncharacteristically apolitical, melancholy reflection "Changes."

This disc shows how good the revival's major talents were, and how little the sometimes profound music they produced has aged. This recording comes out of the world that Dylan affectingly recalls in the memoir he published last year. If you don't know already and want to learn, here's the place to start finding out for yourself what he meant. And let's hope that Smithsonian Folkways is laying plans for more of the same.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 November 2014

Review first published in 2004;
reprinted by permission.

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