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Smithsonian Folkways (SFWCD40215)

Doc Watson & Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, Hobart Smith, Bruce Buckley, Joan O’Bryant, Annie Watson, Woody Guthrie, John Jackson, Dock Boggs, Paul Clayton, Pink Anderson and more…

Once again the good folk at Smithsonian Folkways have taken another dip into the deep well of their extensive archives to come up with a 25 track compilation of songs termed ‘American Ballads’.

All written between 1836 and 1947, these songs have origins that can be traced back to Britain but the American offspring seemed to have been more popular the more sensational or scandalous the stories told were. So here the subject matter of each song tends to chronicle tragic or disastrous events - a ship sinking, a train wreck, a murder, the deeds of notorious outlaws and obvious villains and such like.

Some of the selections may well be familiar to you, such as Woody Guthrie’s Billy The Kid, Pink Anderson’s The Titanic and John Jackson’s John Henry but you would have to be a serious collector of old-timey country, folk and blues to not find plenty within this set to marvel at anew. And the fantastic 40 page booklet is a massive aid to your appreciation and enjoyment, containing a mini-essay on the origins of each song and a brief biography of the artist included here to present it.

Among my favourites here is Buck Ramsey’s version of Cowboy’s Lament (Streets Of Laredo), a gorgeous country number that the notes trace back to The Unfortunate Rake, a folk song from England first heard a few hundred years ago. To me, this has many of the same words and much of the same tune as ended up in Green Fields Of France, the famed anti-World War I folk song.

Elsewhere, Wasn’t That A Mighty Storm? By The Tex-I An Boys features great close harmony singing around a single acoustic guitar. While the individual singing style of Bascom Lamar Lunsford alongside his banjo picking is peculiarly impressive on his version of Springfield Mountain, a bizarre tale of a chap called Timothy Myrick who was fatally bitten by a rattlesnake in Massachusetts in 1761.

This is apparently the 24th release in the Smithsonian Folkways Classic Series and, while we have previously reviewed some of the most recent titles, there surely can’t be many that are as thoroughly enjoyable and informative as this. It does a great job in beautifully balancing big names and performances with plenty of rare and little known material from their extensive and unique archive.

Another winner therefore whether you want this just for the 25 delights it has to offer now or as a jumping off point to further and more detailed investigations into the Smithsonian Folkways archive.

Review Date: April 2015

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