Ani Difranco: Which Side Are You On?

Ani Difranco‘s new album, Which Side Are You On?, will be released on January 17th and I have extremely mixed feelings about it…

The first two tracks on the album are so lifeless that I almost stopped listening, but the gritty, thunderous, magnificent title track is a whole other world.

Folk legend Pete Seeger joins Ani and her band for the revamped cover of “Which Side Are You On?.” I couldn’t imagine anyone doing as much justice to the song as Natalie Merchant did on The House Carpenter’s Daughter, but Ani’s version is astounding. She wrapped the original chorus of the union protest song in new verses with her pen aimed squarely at Washington.

“J” floats righteously angry political and social lyrics over a mellow, rhythmic melody that can only be described as swamp Reggae.

Unfortunately, the brilliance of those two songs emphasize how lackluster the other arrangements are. Of course, Ani’s lyrics are always strong even when the music fails to lift her voice up. If you’ve liked Ani’s quieter recent releases, you’ll probably like this one. But those of us that miss the harder sound of her earlier works will only find satisfaction in the two aforementioned tracks.

Ani Difranco – Which Side Are You On? (mp3) *

*mp3 hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist’s PR rep

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Pete Seeger: 2 Mp3s

Smithsonian Folkways is kindly offering the following two free, legal downloads of “Buffalo Gals” and “Oh Mary Don’t you Weep” by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, from the new American Favorite Ballads Vol. 1-5 box set.

Pete Seeger – Buffalo Gals (mp3) *
Pete Seeger – Oh Mary Don’t You Weep (mp3) *

*mp3s hosted by & posted w/ permission of Smithsonian Folkways

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Worlds Of Sounds: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways

Is it possible to fall in love with a record label? Because I think I have, at least a little. The book Worlds Of Sounds: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways by Richard Carlin chronicles the origins and evolution of Smithsonian Folkways. The nonprofit music organization was born in 1940 from a conversation between original Folkways label founder Moses “Moe” Asch and Albert Einstein. Asch was an immigrant who dreamed of breaking ethnic stereotypes and Einstein encouraged him to capture “all the sounds of the world”. And he did just that.

From the very beginning, Moe Asch endeavored to explore obscure and exotic genres of music, spoken word, and other sounds that had been abandoned or entirely neglected by major labels, working closely with any artist who walked through his door with the desire to record. Some of the artists he welcomed, nurtured, and befriended were Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and more recently, Lucinda Williams.

Asch issued the very first live jazz recordings, and it’s not a big leap to say that concert series like Mountain Stage owe him a credit. He was also the originator of the fully documented liner note booklets that are one of my personal favorite features of Smithsonian Folkways albums.

Asch shared my view that “jazz is folk music”. Though one of the more interesting anecdotes tells of Asch’s ill-fated sole foray into commercial jazz. There aren’t many who could claim Nat King Cole drove them into bankruptcy. Also of note are the vivid descriptions in the book of the field recording process, culled from correspondence between Asch and his collaborators. I especially enjoyed reading about the perils one folk guitarist faced when playing with three hundred turkeys.

Though it is of course difficult to differentiate fact from legend in such a biography, the perception I get of Asch is one of a kindred music enthusiast. He valued albums over individual hits and sincerity over popularity. This principle resulted in a young Bob Dylan being turned away from his studio due to what Asch deemed a false twang in Dylan’s singing voice that Asch felt was designed to appeal to more fans.

Unlike major labels, Asch was determined to keep his recordings in print even if there was little or no demand. In his words, “Just because the letter J is less popular than the letter S, you don’t take it out of the dictionary.”

One of the more controversial aspects of Asch’s business was his practice of reissuing recordings made and owned by other labels without obtaining permission. This resulted in Asch being labeled “a musical pirate”. Sound familiar? Asch’s response was: “cultural property belongs to all”.

Asch’s reasoning was that he was “creating new audiences for the music, which actually benefited the labels”. He felt that the major labels were “destroying the culture” by suppressing less popular recordings simply because they owned them, and he was determined to make the recordings available to the public. I think any music blogger would be inspired by Asch’s battle with major labels in the early days of copyright litigation.

However, Asch was no saint to his artists. Though he granted them total creative freedom, he gave them little compensation for their work and many later accused him of not paying royalties to them at all. Asch had no qualms about putting the survival of his oft struggling label ahead of the interests of the artists. While historically we may appreciate the huge part Asch played in preserving these recordings, one can’t help but sympathize with singers who felt betrayed by the man they placed so much trust in.

All of this and much more is detailed on Carlin’s book. The reader’s absorption in the material may vary with the genre or era discussed in each chapter. I was personally drawn more to the sections on blues and folk music than the albums for children. The contents of the book are just as diverse as the Folkways catalogue.

The latter portion of the book deals with the transfer of the Folkways archives to The Smithsonian, the creation of the new Smithsonian Folkways label, and the organization’s efforts to continue Asch’s vision of bringing sounds of the world to everyone – including the institution’s embrace of the digital age, which led to their work with music websites like Muruch.

Woody Guthrie – Buffalo Gals (mp3 expired) *

*mp3 posted w/ permission of Smithsonian Folkways

Muruch Smithsonian Folkways Reviews

Smithsonian Folkways Official Site

Buy the Book

Buy Smithsonian Folkways Albums

Smithsonian Folkways: Seeger To Springsteen

Last year, Bruce Springsteen released The Seeger Sessions, a tribute to folk legend Pete Seeger. This year, Smithsonian Folkways put together a promotional sampler called Can’t Start A Fire Without A Spark: Seeger To Springsteen. The sampler assembles the original recordings by Seeger that were covered by Springsteen. The fourteen tracks on the promo disc were mostly gleaned from Seeger’s American Favorite Ballads series.

Among the highlights are the jaunty banjo of “Old Dan Tucker” and “Buffalo Gals” American Favorite Ballads Volume 5, the outlaw ode “Jesse James”, an almost A Cappella version of “Shenandoah” from American Favorite Ballads Volume 1, and a heartfelt rendition of “We Shall Overcome”. The disc also includes a haunting narrative from WNEW’s Story of Selma of “(Keep Your) Eyes On The Prize”, a song that was recently featured on the amazing We’ll Never Turn Back by Mavis Staples.

This collection clearly shows why Pete Seeger was and still is such a respected performer. There’s a subtle yet captivating quality to his singing and playing style.

Smithsonian Folkways Official Site
Buy Pete Seeger CDs