Roots Of Folk

Various Artists

Vanguard Records, 2002

REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert


Vanguard Records continues their sterling efforts to document and preserve the history of American music with this latest release, a 3-disc set featuring a recorded history of the genre of American folk music. Frankly, this set is a stunner. Even without the historical consideration of this music, there's just some damn fine tunes on this disc.

Originally started as a classical label by Maynard and Seymour Solomon in 1950, the first folk release on Vanguard was the Weavers' 1955 Carnegie Hall Christmas concert; an album no one else would touch because of the Weavers' McCarthy-era blacklisting in 1952. Though the Solomons made the decision based on political conscience, it paid off handsomely with massive sales -- and Vanguard's folk career was on. From that moment, Vanguard and American roots music were synonymous.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This is just a massive CD set. Divided into three discs, "Roots Of Folk", "Singers And Songwriters", and "Folk Blues". Each disc is, in many ways, a separate album; each has a different feel and tone to it. They are, however, universally beautifully produced and remastered, each song crisp and clear given the limitations of the era in which it was recorded. The liner notes are good, though I would have liked more details, perhaps.

The first disc, "Roots Of Folk," is the early days in the era preceding rock and roll. The most notable thing about it, perhaps, is hearing the original versions of later, better-known cover versions, or alternate versions of better-known songs. When you hear "The Battle Of New Orleans" on here, it's not Johnny Horton but Jimmy Driftwood. Judy Collins' version of "Turn, Turn, Turn" is a very different song than the Byrds' hit, as is Doc Watson's "Tom Dooley". This is perhaps the hardest of the three discs for the casual listener to appreciate, but a little work reveals gold.

"Singers And Songwriters", on the other hand, is easily and immediately appreciated. From the wistful, almost naïve tones of Buffy St Marie's "Universal Soldier" to the studio version of Country Joe and the Fish's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag", this is the best summary of folk music and idealism I've ever heard. There are some truly brilliant pieces on here; even if everything else on here was mediocre (which it's not) the sharp, bright defiance of Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" and the gentle brilliance of Eric Andersen's "Violets Of Dawn" would make it all worthwhile. There's a couple of quirky bits on here, too: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan on "It Ain't Me, Babe", Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr Bojangles" -- very different from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's version, and the raucous, funny "M.T.A." by the Kingston Trio.

Finally, "Folk Blues" covers the bluer end of things. There are some wonderful songs on here -- John Hammond's "Seventh Son", John Lee Hooker's "Great Fire Of Natchez", and Dave Van Ronk's "Cocaine". My only argument, and it's a minor one, is Vanguard put a great number of these songs on their recent Best Of The Newport Folk Festival Blues CD.

Overall, however, this is a magnificent compilation and not to be missed. Musicologists and folk fans alike, rejoice.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2002 Duke Egbert and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Vanguard Records, and is used for informational purposes only.