By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
WITH A NAME like his, it's no surprise that Moses Asch became a man with a mission. In the New York City folk music hotbed of the '40s, Asch, son of a noted Jewish novelist, was the man who recorded and spread the music of men who've become mythic today. Back then, people like Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) a twice-paroled murderer who played a wicked 12-string and sang with leather lungs; and Woody Guthrie, a hoboing, singing Okie with prolific poetic talent and a taste for rabble-rousing, were regular performers at unions meetings, hootenanny concerts, and radio shows. They frequented Asch's studios and contributed a large amount to his eventual stock of some 5,000 acetate discs, all cut before magnetic tape recording was available, many issued as 78s on the Asch & Disc labels. In 1948, he formed Folkways Records, with an eventual catalogue of some 2,200 LPs, all kept in print until his death. In 1987, the Smithsonian acquired the entire catalogue from his estate, and is in the process of remastering and reissuing those historic acetates, now deteriorating with age.
If Little Richard was the architect of rock & roll, then Lead Belly and Guthrie drew up blueprints for the '60s folk revival, and these CDs are an important part of them. The 28-song Lead Belly set reissues most of a couple of rare albums, Midnight Special and the 10-inch Easy Rider, adding several unissued and alternate takes. Lead Belly was a songster--he played a variety of music in his New York years, for mostly white audiences. His two guitar masterworks are here, the autobiographical "Fannin Street" and the English ballad "Gallis Pole," later "absorbed" by Led Zeppelin--both feature driving and rapid picking and frettin'. Blues numbers include the standards "Easy Rider," "Careless Love," and "Diggin My Potatoes" (all with blind harpist Sonny Terry, who lived at Lead's house when he and Brownie McGhee first came north), as well as Lead's own "Good Morning Blues" and "TB Blues."
In the folk category you get "Alabama Bound" (with Guthrie), the unreleased versions of "Midnight Special" and "John Hardy" (played on concertina), and the holler "Lining Track," which has become a mainstay tune for a certain local folk-blues trio. Topical numbers include the title track, "Jim Crow Blues," and "Hitler Song." The biggest new find here in the unreleased "Abraham Lincoln"--a song about the assassination that turns into a sermon then back to a song. The fact that sound quality here is vastly improved over the previous LP issues, and the extensive booklet notes that include a piece by Guthrie, make this CD, Volume Two of an ongoing series, a must-have for any serious folk/blues collector.
The 27-tune Guthrie set is equally rewarding. As well as his hits like the title tune (two takes), other gems include "Pastures of Plenty," "Hard Ain't It Hard," and "Ramblin' Round." There are several numbers only previously issued on 78s here: "New York Town," "Gypsy Davy," the mostly instrumental guitar romp "I Ain't Got Nobody," and "When That Great Ship Went Down," with Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston. Woody was a musical mentor for Bob Dylan, and these recordings were among those he learned from. Besides doing talking blues and kids' songs, Guthrie also wrote trenchant and scathing topical material as well: Check out "Lindbergh," where he scorns the flyer for his easy-on-the-Nazis stand in the pre-war years. Or the alternate take of "Jesus Christ," where the bankers and politicians are the ones who nail him to the cross. Woody wasn't a fancy picker or singer, but the words rolled from his pen like diamond shards, all sharp and sparkly, and he had charisma to spare. This set also features extensive notes, including three pages of discography listings (which, among other things, describe a session where Woody and Cisco, on a break from serving in the Merchant Marines, cut more than 55 songs in a single marathon day).
Fans of this music ought to be thankful that Asch was there with his disc recorders and open-door policy--this stuff is more than just history, it's music that's still fun and vital today.