Various Artists: Troubadours: Folk and the Roots of American Music (Bear Family, four 3-disc volumes)
Reviewed by Ed Ward
Bear Family seems intent not only on documenting every note recorded by important artists, but, now, on producing definitive surveys of genres. Their 15-volume doo-wop survey is, to this enthusiast, heavenly, and I’m waiting to sit down with the sort-of followup, a five-part series on soul. There is also a project physically similar to this one, four volumes of three-disc surveys of electric blues.
So as a longtime folkie, my curiosity was piqued by this latest collection, which covers the American folk scene from the earliest songwriters to pass themselves off as folk (or, to be fair, to be passed off that way by their record companies), through, well, through I’m not sure what. To call the overriding concept of this collection, if there is one, “eccentric” would be an understatement. I was fairly close to the ‘60s folk scene in New York as a teenaged fan, and quite frankly I don’t recognize its picture here, which makes me wonder about the rest of the project.
The first three discs take us from pioneers like the Carter Family (who actually composed most of their own songs, sometimes to traditional tunes) and Lead Belly (whose famous “Good Night Irene” turned out to have been written by a professional songwriter in Cincinnati in the late 19th century) through the political folksong movement epitomized by Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers, who included Pete Seeger. The story then continues through the early 1950s, the Weavers (who also included Pete Seeger), and the earliest pop-folk group, the Tarriers. The next trio surveys, on its first disc, the collegiate groups like the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and so on, and then moves on to two discs of the New York scene of the early ‘60s, via Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Tim Hardin, and others. So far, mostly so good, although I was kind of shocked that the infamous graffito on Minetta Lane (“Tim Hardin is a bad boy”) in front of which so many folkies were photographed, isn’t even alluded to.
The next three discs show the folk scare in full flower, and the early days of folk-rock. Disc 7 is devoted to three performers, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Buffy Ste-Marie. Then it’s on to a survey of Boston’s scene, and, on Disc 9, something labeled “The East Coast” that, well, starts to make less sense. The Lovin Spoonful, Tim Rose, and…Jim Croce? Melanie? Everything falls apart, conceptually, on the last three discs. Disc 10 is labeled “The West Coast,” and leads off with two numbers by Rod McKuen (!), followed by Mason Williams, Richard and Mimi Fariña, The Byrds (one track), and on through Harry Nilsson and John Denver. “The South” zigzags through everyone from Jimmie Driftwood to John Hartford and Kris Kristofferson, and the project finally ends in the Midwest and Canada.
The question here is not if I “like” all of this music – I don’t think anybody could – but how representative this selection of material is. And I find huge holes, individual tracks whose historic value should have been noted, and, of course inclusions and exclusions that make me wonder what compiler/annotator Dave Samuelson had in mind. For one thing, as nice as it is that a lot of these people were in it to make money, those who identified as traditionalists are, for the most part, excluded. I have always dated the third phase of the folk revival, the one that gave us Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Dave van Ronk and all, to the 1957 release of the New Lost City Ramblers’ first Folkways album. Not only are they not mentioned, but one of them, Mike Seeger, isn’t even alluded to in the story of his half-brother Pete’s contretemps with the Hootenanny TV show. (Many artists boycotted it because Pete was barred for political reasons. Pete, as always, took it with his customary good grace, baby-sitting Mike’s kids while the NLCRs did the show). For that matter, Mike’s sister Peggy is also ignored.
A nod to the older traditional performers who worked with the younger crowd and showed them their art, people like Mississippi John Hurt, Hobart Smith, Jesse Fuller, Bill Monroe (whose dying career was saved by folk-circuit exposure), and these young folkies’ near-contemporary Arthel “Doc” Watson, would have provided some context: after all, these people were inspired by something. For that matter, a mention of Harry Smith’s three-volume Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music would have been welcome, since a huge number of us had our lives transformed by it. The Holy Modal Rounders might have been psychedelic lunatics, but their approach to traditional material was very influential on the next generation of folk-influenced rockers.
Pivotal moments in popular music are rarely recorded, but Joan Baez’ debut, taking the stage with Bob Gibson at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival was, and in beautiful sound, by Vanguard Records, resulting in a moment that still spellbinds today. It’s not here. (Neither is Bob Dylan’s equally earth-shaking 1965 performance, but that’s probably understandable). Speaking of crystal soprano voices, where’s Carolyn Hester, who introduced Bob Dylan to John Hammond, who signed him? (She also wrote songs with Buddy Holly and was married to Richard Fariña).
Karen Dalton is mentioned several times in the notes, and her work is available on small labels these days, but she’s not here. If Texas is part of the south, as the single track by Townes van Zandt implies it is, where’s Butch Hancock or Jimmie Dale Gilmore, or Eric Taylor, or Guy Clark?
Sure, I’m looking for a perfect selection here, and sure, real-world issues intrude: there’s only so much room even on a 90-minute CD, and music-biz problems prevent licensing some things: it’s probably no coincidence that none of Neil Young’s early coffee-house recordings are on the Canada disc.
If there’s a point being made here – as there are on the doo-wop, soul, and electric blues collections – I’m missing it. Dave Samuelson only Googles up as the guy who wrote the liner notes to the Bear Family Kingston Trio box sets, so I don’t know if he has an agenda, or what it might be. There’s some exciting stuff here and some stupefyingly dull stuff, and some stuff that doesn’t seem to belong here at all (Nilsson??).