Various ‘Classic American Ballads’ (Smithsonian Folkways) 5/5

classic-american-balladsIf one were to enquire as to which label is best suited to personify the American folk tradition from a connoisseur’s perspective, then Smithsonian Folkways would probably be the preferred first choice of the overwhelming majority of musicologists and rightly so. Created by Moses Asch, the back catalogue is jaw-droppingly impressive and this latest compilation of no less than twenty five songs, and ballads at that, continues the series of CDs that dates all the way back to 2002, and there is still so much quality to take in. Major names abound and include the late, great Pete Seeger whose family is no less than an encyclopedia of the folk tradition in the United States, bluegrass pioneers of the calibre of Bill Monroe (the originator top be precise) and Doc Watson and rootsy practitioners of integrity such as Dock Boggs. Where this series gains real plaudits, however, is in the inclusion of the lesser well known names who have their own superlative interpretations of the folk tradition to offer up. Outlaws have regularly formed the subject matter inspiration for folk songs and two stand out here. Woody Guthrie, a founding father of the folk music heritage, serves up a delicious ballad on ‘Billy the Kid’, who needless to say was a notorious outlaw in the Wild West. Just as infamous by reputation was Jesse James and that is precisely the title of a trio of singers in Sis’ Cunningham. Mike Millius and Wes Houston. Pete Seeger has two offerings with’ Blue Mountain Lake’ one of the earliest sides that Moses Asch ever recorded in the 1950s and on 78 while brother Mike Seeger was employed as recording engineer on Dock Boggs’ vocal plus banjo rendition of ‘Cole Younger’, the performance of which dates from 1964. From a 1963 recording at the Ash Grove venue in L.A. comes the genial pairing of Doc Watson and Bill Monroe on ‘Banks of the Ohio’ which was a wonderful slice of bluegrass melancholia.

To round off proceedings in deluxe style, the reader is treated to a sumptuous booklet which not only covers individual songs with expert incisive commentary, but goes one step further and provides extremely useful suggested further reading, both in printed and online formats. If only all re-issue labels took the time and care to do likewise, the world of music would be an infinitely richer and more informed on the folk tradition.

Tim Stenhouse