various artists,
American Folk & Blues:
The Roots of Americana

(Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

In 1956, with financial backing from Diane Hamilton, an heiress and amateur folklorist, the Clancy Brothers launched Tradition Records as a vehicle to record, first, themselves and fellow New York-based, proto-folk-revival artists such as Paul Clayton, Odetta, Ed McCurdy and Jean Ritchie. Later, the label released LPs by others, including collections of previously cut material by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, not to mention recordings of downhome blues artists and even the occasional jazz musician. Today, Empire Musicworks, current owner of Tradition's catalogue, is energetically reissuing single-artist albums as well as compilations of various Tradition acts.

Though little remembered except by musical historians and some older folk fans, Tradition was a fine label that did much to kickstart the revival that reached its peak in the early 1960s and that even now helps shape a significant part of popular music. It's gratifying to have this material available again. American Folk & Blues assembles some tasty representative selections from artists representing a range of styles and traditions.

Some of the 16 songs are revival standards, most notably Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene," but usually they're done in versions you probably haven't heard before. Barbara Dane has an impressively tough reading of Guthrie's "Ramblin'" (a.k.a. "Ramblin' Round"), and McCurdy's way with the pretty, elliptically narrated cowboy lament "Colorado Trail" serves as reminder -- a melancholy one -- of just how distinctive and accomplished this underrated interpreter of traditional ballads, hymns and bawdy songs was. Today he's recalled, if at all, as composer of revival favorite and peace anthem "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" -- a song that, come to think of it in these war-weary times, is surely overdue for its own revival.

As far as I'm concerned, Odetta's 1957 reading of the spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" defines definitive, a true marvel of vocal craft and spiritual power. Nor could I ever tire of Etta Baker's elegant guitar-instrumental arrangement of the African-American bad-man ballad "Railroad Bill." Someone needs to inform compiler and liner-notes writer Paul Klein, however, that Railroad Bill was no merely legendary concotion. While Klein asserts, "No one has ever been able to find an historical figure with whom to identify the protagonist of the song," in fact that figure has long been known to be the late 19th-century Alabama train robber and killer Morris Slater.

The blues is well represented with superior cuts by Lightnin' Hopkins, Little Sam Davis, Sunnyland Slim, Earnest Lewis and J.B. Lenoir (with his popular "Eisenhower Blues," one of the rare open protest songs in the blues genre). Elsewhere, though he is nobody's idea of an authentic folk singer, Glenn Yarbrough turns in a listenable "John Hardy." The once-prominent, long-obscure and cosmically eccentric John Jacob Niles, who sang like someone whose home is not this world, offers a near-demented arrangement of "The Cuckoo."

by Jerome Clark
9 September 2006