Demand it on Vinyl: Smithsonian Folkways’ The Social Power of Music in stores 2/22

VIA PRESS RELEASE | Music is a universal element of human life. It’s a tie that binds us together, a force that breaks down walls and carries us forward, a refuge where we turn for hope, and a channel for our despair. On February 22nd, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings will release The Social Power of Music, a new box set that examines these roles of music in our lives from many angles and through many voices. Over four CDs, 80+ tracks, and an illustrated 124-page booklet, The Social Power of Music presents some of the most powerful moments in Smithsonian Folkways’ vast and ever-expanding catalog, putting them in conversation with each other to highlight the ways song has shaped the societies we live in.

The Social Power of Music looks at this music through four different perspectives. Disc 1: Songs of Struggle channels the visceral power of the fight for civil rights, featuring household names from Folkways’ archives including Woody Guthrie, The Freedom Singers, and Pete Seeger, and songs that defined a generation. Disc 2: Sacred Sounds presents music from many religions and spiritual practices, in some cases drawing from rarely heard or known ceremonies. Disc 3: Social Songs and Gatherings shows how we use music to come together, often in celebration. Disc 4: Global Movements looks to the use of roots music in key political movements around the world, tapping into anti-fascist verses, odes to the working class, and polemics against governmental corruption and violence.

The box set, and the idea of music’s centrality to the way people connect to one another, inspired the upcoming Smithsonian Year of Music, which presents music and sound events in Washington, DC and around the country every day throughout 2019. The series will kick off with a listening party for the compilation on January 2, 2019 at Songbyrd Record Café and Music House in Washington, DC. “The Social Power of Music” will also be the animating theme of the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place annually on the National Mall.

The massive scope and virtuosic assembling of this box set may reflect the original vision of Smithsonian Folkways to record and document the entire world, but the sound of history echoes in our present. Songs that rang true in the 1960s, railing against the plight of women, minorities, and human rights, are just as poignant over fifty years later, as the world has begun to roll back much of what was gained by the global civil rights movements. There’s a visceral power, a frisson, in hearing how the lyrics in The Social Power of Music reverberate across generations and cultures. With authoritarianism on the rise globally, the Italian anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao” has new meaning. As women step forward to testify their experiences in the #metoo movement, the brutal folk song “Reclaim the Night” could have been written today. With the American border rife with conflict, Woody Guthrie’s classic protest song “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” speaks still to the plight of migrant workers. The hope for the artists making this music at the time, for us listening now, and for those writing new songs inspired by this music, is the same as it ever was: to show us the paths to make a better world.

“When you think about human life, culture, and communities – pretty much everything we do is attached to music,” says Jeff Place, the Curator and Senior Archivist at Smithsonian Folkways, who produced the collection along with the label’s Director Huib Schippers. “Every celebration has music, from birthdays to bar mitzvahs. There’s sacred music that goes along with people’s beliefs. Certainly in social justice movements, people have found the power of music. There’s even work songs, where people use music to coordinate their work. When you look at the civil rights movement, that’s what cemented people together. As they were marching, they were singing songs. This project is all about people using music as a community, together, for a purpose.”

Brought together on these four discs is music from labels that Smithsonian Folkways has acquired over the years, including Arhoolie, which documented the music of social gatherings throughout the US, and Paredon, which released activist music from around the world, as well UNESCO and Monitor, which documented folk traditions across the entire globe. With such a wide scope, it’s surprising that some of the standout moments on this four-disc collection are as subtle as they are moving. Civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman who shook the halls of power, leading a congregation in song with her mind “set on freedom.” Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife’s quavering voice singing the Palestinian poem “The Passport,” about being required to carry a passport in your native land. Country Joe McDonald’s ridiculously acerbic Vietnam anti-war song (with spoons solo!) “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die.” The sublimely eerie call to grace from the hymns of the Old Regular Baptists of Kentucky. The rhythmic call-and-response from African-American railroad worker songs. The blend of high-pitched charango and vocals from Latin American protest singer Suni Paz. These sounds weave a patchwork quilt of images, ideas, and emotions, reminding us that great moments can sometimes be loud and powerful and sometimes quiet and subtle. The Social Power of Music reminds us of the universality of these moments, showing that through music we are united by our common joy, struggle, and search for transcendence.

ARTISTS FEATURED ACROSS THE FOUR DISCS: The Freedom Singers, Woody Guthrie, Bobbie McGee, Pete Seeger, Quetzal, Fannie Lou Hamer, Country Joe McDonald, Paul Robeson, The Almanac Singers, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers, The Paschall Brothers, Rose Maddox, Clifton Chenier, Flaco Jiménez and Max Baca, Elizabeth Mitchell, Rebirth Jazz Band, Suni Paz, Yves Montand, and many more!

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