Graded on a Curve:
The Social Power
of Music

On February 22, Smithsonian Folkways is releasing The Social Power of Music, a box set offering four compact discs totaling 83 songs augmented with a 124-page book. It’s safe to say there hasn’t been an enterprise (as one branch of an indispensable cultural institution) more dedicated to documenting the theme of this collection, but it’s not a self-congratulatory thing. The purpose here is to underline commonalities in past and present struggles, to illuminate the perseverance of the human spirit in resistance to injustice, and to simply highlight music’s potential for unity (and individuality, and diversity) through protest, systems of belief, and celebration.

There is simply too much worthiness included in The Social Power of Music to mention every entry or even half, but I’ll do my best to communicate the magnitude of this set’s ambitions; it spotlights music’s ability to encourage positive change politically and culturally, to unite individuals for a variety of purposes, and to inspire a sense of being grounded while navigating the vastness of the world.

The collection’s four discs are grouped into subthemes. the first is Songs of Struggle, with Sacred Sounds, Social Songs and Gatherings, and Global Movements following respectively. The selections present stylistic and topical variety, both as a whole and from inside these designated categories (of which there is some expected overlap) to foster a sense of the exhaustive without ever being exhausting. To the contrary, this is one of the easiest and most pleasurable uninterrupted four-disc dives I can remember making. As I’ve taken the full plunge a few more times, so it has remained.

I said exhaustive, but the sizable accompanying text here makes no such claims. In fact, more than once it’s pointed out that the scope is limited to the holdings of Smithsonian-Folkways, though this does include work from acquired labels like Arhoolie, Collector, the Mickey Hart Collection, Monitor, M.O.R.E., Paredon, and UNESCO. Entries from these discographies manage to widen the breadth of what has been a North American-centric undertaking going back to the Folkways core in the 1940s.

And so, if only part of the titular picture, this overview is still a rich and deep one, in part because the Smithsonian-Folkways mission has been an inclusionary one fueled in part by ethnomusicological impulses that understand that music and how it’s listened to changes over time; disc three’s entry by the Sam Brothers 5, a zydeco club band who cut an LP for Arhoolie in the late 1970s, makes this abundantly clear.

“SAM (Get Down)” is nabbed from that Sam Brothers 5 record, and it’s an undisguised and pretty terrific takeoff from Le Chic’s 1978 disco smash “The Freak.” While traditions are obviously valued and their preservation of high importance in the Smithsonian-Folkways scheme, there’s never a sense of disconnect with the culture at large, mainly because they’ve tapped into so many eras and still-relevant areas of experience.

As said, the root is Moses Asch’s Folkways label, and as the theme of the first CD is struggle and protest, that Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are represented should be no surprise. Seeger gets three tracks, two alone (“If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”) and one as part of the Almanac Singers (“Which Side Are You On?”), but even combined with Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” Songs of Struggle is never really a “greatest hits” of the protest-folk movement.

Although Country Joe McDonald’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” and the booming voice of Paul Robeson with “Joe Hill” are on disc one alongside “We Shall Overcome” by The Freedom Singers and “Blowing in the Wind” by The New World Singers, the flow is loaded with surprises; just for starters, there’s the bluegrass-tinged “Union Maid” By Bobbie McGee (now known as Bobbie Wren) and the crisp folk beauty of “Deportees (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)” by Sammy Walker.

Versions of Guthrie songs both, they provide fresh wrinkles to the disc’s concept via less high-profile but wholly worthy performers, a scenario that’s deepened by “De Colores” (Made of Colors, known as the theme of the United Farm Workers) by Baldemar Velásquez with Aguila Negra, “¡Quihubo, Raza!” (What’s Happening, People) by Agustín Lira and Alma, and “Solidarity Forever” by Joe Glazer.

But the most striking threads in disc one’s fabric are the contributions by women, including the robust a cappella of Fannie Lou Hamer’s “I Woke Up This Morning,” the fun and catchy blend of humor and seriousness in Kristen Lem’s “Ballad of the ERA” and the searing commentary of Peggy Seeger’s “Reclaim the Night” (railing against rape and violence against women) and “Legal/Illegal” (performed with her husband Ewan MacColl and their family, a scathing and yet pretty commentary on political manipulation and hypocrisy).

“Legal/Illegal” is the penultimate track on disc one, it’s unfiltered viewpoint a fitting lead-in to the knockout of Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers’ “It Isn’t Nice,” which derides as utter malarkey the idea that civil disobedience be polite, while the elevated harmonies simultaneously put the kibosh on the notion of musicality taking a backseat to message in the protest sphere.

Regarding the rich intermingling of voices, Dane and the Chambers Brothers pull off this feat a second time on Sacred Songs, retroactively reclaiming “Kumbaya” (sang as titled, “Come By Here”) from its status as a stereotype of peaceful togetherness. But it’s ultimately just one distinct component in a wide-ranging dive into the musical waters of belief and faith.

At a glance, the second disc might look like a circular trip through the spiritual, opening with the gospel cornerstone “Amazing Grace,” delivered here a cappella by the Old Regular Baptists, and gradually exploring less-familiar regions before wrapping back around to its finale with another staple of religious song in “I’ll Fly Away,” sang here by Rose Maddox with backing by Vern Williams’ bluegrass band.

But no, Sacred Songs is instead a magnificent weave of shape-note singing from the US Southeast, Buddhist chants and prayers from Vietnam, rituals Native American and Islamic, an orthodox Jewish cantor, a Hispanic hymn, Christian carolers, a call-and-response salve from Dominicans in New York City, and yes, some fine readings of well-known gospel tunes, with my favorites, at least as of this writing, being the consecutively-sequenced nuggets of African-American a cappella tradition, The Princely Players’ “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and The Paschall Brothers’ sublime “The Old Rugged Cross.”

By comparison, Social Songs and Gatherings might look like a multifaceted party, and it sorta is, kicking off with a raucous live “Party Down at the Blue Angel Club” by Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band, but it’s also more nuanced than that. By plunging deep into assorted musical-cultural flavors (and it’s here where the acquisition of the Arhoolie catalog really shines) disc three amplifies the diversity already on display in the first two volumes and foreshadows the contents of Global Movements.

Social Songs and Gatherings offers the Western swing of Los Reyes de Albuquerque with Roberto Martínez, the “Cajun National Anthem” “Jolie blonde” by Austin Pitre and his Evangeline Playboys, the wicked juke joint blues of Johnny Littlejohn, Flaco Jiménez and Max Baca’s Tex-Mex polka, and the straight-up Northern Plains polka of The Goose Island Ramblers. That’s just tracks two through six. In its celebration of regional, often ethnically-based sounds, the contents manage to illuminate a sense of connectivity that leads us right back to the box set’s plainly stated title.

There are other ties that bind and thematic overlap. Elizabeth Mitchell’s gorgeous reading of “Joy to the World” might seem a better fit for Sacred Songs, but as the notes point out, the Christmas Season has become a yearly ritual that far transcends its religious basis; it’s just as much about gathering socially, which gets right to disc three’s subtheme.

Additionally, there’s the savvy trick of including “The Star-Spangled Banner” (easily the most-heard song at gatherings in the history of the USA) as played by an unknown orchestra (from a 1956 Folkways LP of national anthems), and sandwiching it between the fascinatingly rhythmic “Junkanoos #1” by the Key West Junkanoo Band, which provides a taste of the Floridian extension of Caribbean Carnival circa 1964, and an excerpt of the Professor Longhair-derived New Orleans brass band funk that is “Mardi Gras Medley” by the Rebirth Brass Band.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” isn’t necessarily redeemed as kick-ass listening in the process, but it at least provides a reminder that it’s potentially something more than just a cue for patriotic ritual (hey, its roots are in a drinking song); this usually only happens when Jimi Hendrix or Marvin Gaye (for two examples) do something special with it. Still, the US anthem contrasts pretty sharply with the contents of Global Movements, with one reason basic familiarity.

Although disc four begins with Pete Seeger’s “Viva la Quince Brigada” (derived from a Spanish folk song and illuminating the experiences of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War), much of this disc will likely be new to most North American listeners, even for those who have explored Smithsonian-Folkways’ trove of folk, blues, bluegrass and Americana.

A large portion of Global Movements’ contents derive from the Paredon and Monitor labels, with the former offering “A desalambrar” (Tear down the fences, which is concerned with poverty, wealth disparity, and access to land) by Expresión Joven (Voice of Youth) with Los Macetongos, and the latter adding the empowering “Muato Mua N’gola” (Women Of Angola) from Lilly Tchiumba.

In standing up for the poor and the rights of women, both are quite relevant to our current moment, and in terms of timeliness they reach back and connect with disc one’s “El Pobre Sigue Sufriendo” (The Poor Keep On Suffering) by Andrés Jiménez and to the aforementioned selections by Peggy Seeger, Lems, and McGee. Disc four also has a few examples that divert from the folk-traditional root, particularly the Turkish pop-flavored “Hasrat” (Longing) by Melike Demirağ, made by the artist while living in exile in early ’80s Germany.

But disc four also contains the beautiful unison singing of South African Refugees in Tanganyika with “Izakunyatheli Afrika Verwoerd” (Africa Is Going to Trample on You, Verwoerd), the horn and mallet percussion-laden Indonesian topical pop of Gambang Kromong Slendang Betawi’s “Hidup Di Bui” (Life in Jail). There’s even a couple high-profile entries from Mikis Theodorakis (who composed the score to the ’69 Costa-Gravas film Z) and actor-singer Yves Montand (who was part of the cast for Z).

In The Social Power of Music’s overall objective, Global Movements does a fine job of minimizing the distancing effect of borders while stressing historical interconnectivity. In highlighting what we share and celebrating uniqueness, the set’s emergence is extremely valuable at present, and it’s an enlightening and thoroughly engaging listen from start to finish.


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