American Folk Anthology Volume 1

 

The People’s Music

            Midway through the last century, popular music offered some pretty diverse choices.  A brief look at the #1 records of 1950 reveals novelty songs like Phil Harris’ “The Thing”, proto-rock like the Ames Brothers “Rag Mop”, 40s holdovers like the Andrews Sisters “I Can Dream, Can’t I,” the soulful crooning of Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” and soon-to-be standard’s like one of the year’s biggest hits, Patti Page’s version of “The Tennessee Waltz.”  The only song that equaled Page’s success that year was a little ditty by a group called the Weavers called “Good Night Irene.”

 

            The anomalous appearance by the Weavers on the pop charts pointed to a growing movement in American popular music, a back-to-roots movement that had both musical and political overtones.  It had actually started a decade earlier with the formation of the Almanac Singers.  This group brought together Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. 

 

Seeger was the song of a musicologist who took up the Appalachian 5-string banjo in his teens.  Traveling with his father, he learned the popular music of many cultures – popular in the true sense of the word, the people’s music, music that passed and grew and changed through the generations.  In the late 30s and early 40s he worked with Alan Lomax, who, with his father John, started to chronicle and record the vast musics of America for the Smithsonian.

 

            Guthrie spent his early years among the wandering Americans disenfranchised by the Midwest dustbowl. Along his itinerant way, he learned the guitar and picked up, adapted and wrote hundreds of songs.  By the time Alan Lomax caught up with him, he had already learned such folk standards as “House of the Rising Sun” and composed songs like “So Long It’s Been Good To Know You” and “Petty Boy Floyd.”

 

            Seeger and Guthrie were joined by Lee Hays and Hays’ roommate Millard Lampell in a group that looked like a bunch of Okie country players, from their jeans to their string band instruments.  When they started singing songs about workers like “The Union Maid,” the crowds, often at rallies, would get the idea.

 

            While they lasted perhaps two years, recording a few dozen songs all told, their influence reaches deep into the recordings on this disc.  Among the people who worked with them during their short tenure were Josh White (represented here by his version of the ancient English song “Barbara Allen”) and Leadbelly. Lomax and his father had discovered Leadbelly – the professional name singer, guitarist, composer and human musical repository Huddy Ledbetter had taken in the early part of the century – in Angola State Penitentiary some years before. Leadbelly knew thousands of songs – many recorded by the Lomaxes for the Smithsonian.  One tune that was particularly popular with the prison audiences he spent a good quarter of his life entertaining was “The Midnight Special” (covered here by Odetta). Another was “Irene,” a song he had picked up in his youth and now called “Good Night Irene.” It became his musical calling card as he charmed mostly White folk audiences in bohemian New York City in the late 40s.

 

            Part of the Almanac’s mission was to merge their musical passions with their political passions.  However their politics backfired on them, making it difficult to find gigs and had to record as the country entered World War II.

 

            Hays and Seeger stayed in touch and in 1948, they formed the Weavers with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.  Initially, they merged the Almanac style folk with the kind of large ensemble orchestrations that marked the era’s popular music and the group’s nearly inherent harmonies.  Their version of Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene” topped the charts.  Then Seeger’s politics caught up with him as he refused to testify in the McCarthy hearings. He left the group and as a solo artist recorded hundreds of albums in a career that has survived McCarthy by close to 50 years, singing songs that celebrated the worker like his retelling of “Casey Jones” included herein.

 

            The Weaver’s Reunion concert with Seeger at Carnegie Hall effectively opened the floodgates for folk music as a semi-underground undercurrent and alternative to the more jejune sounds of pop to this day.  It sent people to the field recordings the Lomaxes did for the Smithsonian and sent a whole new generation out with tape recorders before the pristine examples of the people’s music became more “defiled” by pop culture.  One such excursion turned up 45-year-old North Carolina woman named Etta Baker, who proved to play an astounding finger picked guitar.  While she waited until her nine children were grown before she pursued a career, her version of the great work song “John Henry” shows off her prowess.

 

            The folk movement joined jazz as a place where races could mingle in relative comfort in pre-civil rights America. The broad net of folk music caught both the church imbued blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and the bluegrass of the Dillards and Eric Weissberg.  It also made room for second-generation fans and players, especially in the wake of such early 60s successes as Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary.  Roger McGuinn yanked the folk movement kicking and screaming into rock consciousness as a member of the Byrds, with a version of Pete Seeger’s setting of a portion of the book of Ecclesiastes, “Turn, Turn Turn.” 

 

            The movement continues over 60 years after the Almanac Singers began their seminal if short-lived career in the person of people like Ani DiFranco and Woody Guthrie’s posthumous collaborators Billy Bragg and Wilco.  Odetta continues to enjoy a longstanding career, and in 2000 released her first new music in a decade with guest musicians like Dr. John.  A 2000 film about Ramblin’ Jack Elliot reenergized a career that saw him already playing tunes like his signature version of “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” at 100 shows a year.  Into his ninth decade, Pete Seeger remains as much the activist as ever.  Even before there was an anthology like this, it should be obvious that this music would continue.  Much of it has survived for hundreds of years.  Only the vessels change.