Graded on a Curve: V/A, The Story of Vanguard

There was a time in popular recorded music history when certain record labels had a clear artistic vision or were a home for true artists. These labels—Blue Note, Sun Records, Atlantic Records, Motown, and Stax to name five—became the home of some of the most groundbreaking talents of the post-war era, primarily in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Later, labels like Reprise, Warner Bros., A&M and others became a place where musicians could begin their careers and slowly develop, eventually becoming the blockbuster artists of the vinyl album heyday of the 1970s. There are certainly many others worthy of mention here.

One of the keys to the success of these labels was the men and women that ran them or, in some cases, also owned them. Elektra Records, founded by Jac Holzman, must be mentioned. The label began primarily as a folk label, was significant in the development of world music through its Nonsuch imprint, and then became a defining label of ’70s popular album music. Independent Jazz, R&B, and folk labels in their heyday often released albums that transcended music and became culturally significant in the development of the rapid social and political changes of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Along with Elektra, Smithsonian Folkways was a major label releasing folk music.

A label that has been one of the most important and longest-lasting folk and roots music labels is Vanguard Records. Any record collection that includes a healthy amount of seminal folk music would include plenty of releases from Vanguard. Begun in 1950 by brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon in New York, early on the label was the home of Eric Anderson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Richard and Mimi Farina, Cisco Houston, Ian & Sylvia, Phil Ochs, Paul Robeson, and Tom Paxton, among many other artists.

Vanguard also released classical music, blues, country, and music from such undefinable artists as Sandy Bull, John Fahey, and Bert Jansch. Even as folk music waned in popularity in the mid-’60s, the label still released albums that redefined popular music from such artists as Country Joe and the Fish, Jim Kweskin, Patrick Sky, and Jerry Jeff Walker.

The label had a strong reissue program even before CDs were introduced in the early 1980s, but now it has released perhaps the best reissue in its long-storied career: The Story of Vanguard, A Vinyl Me Please Anthology. The box contains six vinyl albums that were defining releases from the label, and although all are rooted in folk, they cover a wide array of styles.

The six albums are The Weavers at Carnegie Hall (1957), My Eyes Have Seen (1958) by Odetta, the self-titled debut album from Joan Baez (1960), It’s My Way! (1964) by Buffy Sainte-Marie, the self-titled debut album from Doc Watson (1964), and Today! (1966) from Skip James. This box set is limited to 1000 copies—all the albums are pressed on six different colored 180-gram vinyl and cut from the mono masters by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound. All of the albums here through the Joan Baez LP were originally available only in mono. The album covers, period labels and sleeves are faithful and beautiful reproductions of the originals with premium jacket materials, with the entire package in a slip-case box. There is also a 36-page booklet.

The Buffy Sainte-Marie release is her debut album and lyrically touches on issues that reflect injustices that have again reared their ugly heads since 2016. It is her version of “Universal Soldier” that inspired the popular Donovan version that he recorded the year after this album was released. The Odetta album is her Vanguard debut, features all traditional songs, and is supported musically on bass by Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father. It came out after she released two albums on Tradition and her first album, a live recording of her and Larry Mohr, of performances primarily at the Tin Angel in San Francisco. Long after her heyday, Odetta would continue to have a major influence for decades on artists as diverse as Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, to name just two.

The Weavers live album was the group’s comeback album. Reflecting the wide musical net cast by the group the record is comprised of 20 performances that mix traditional songs, songs from members of the group, two popular Leadbelly compositions—“Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene”—a Woody Guthrie song and a Merle Travis composition. The group had disbanded in 1952 (it formed in 1948) after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, an example of how intertwined this music was with the political and social fabric of the times. Pete Seeger, the most well-known member of the group, had also been a part of the Almanac Singers with fellow Weaver Lee Hayes.

Joan Baez continues until today and she is the only artist here of the six who was at Woodstock. The other artist from the Vanguard label who performed at Woodstock was Country Joe and the Fish. Fred Hellerman, from the Weavers is on Baez’s album. Her album is comprised mostly of interpretations of traditional songs, such as the traditional roots workhorse songs “Silver Dagger,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Wildwood Flower.”

The Skip James album is significant as it came long at the moment when there was a major blues revival. This revival had a strong impact on the British blues scene of the time, influencing first Blues Incorporated, Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, Graham Bond, and John Mayall and then The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, Bluesology and many others. Vanguard also released blues albums by Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee and many others. The Skip James song “I’m So Glad” was covered by Cream on the group’s debut album Fresh Cream in 1966 and on the live Goodbye Cream album in 1968 and was a staple of their live shows.

Doc Watson, who would go on to perform extensively with his son Merle, was a major force in the ‘60s folk revival of authentic indigenous American roots music. His album here and the Skip James album place the emphasis more on musical proficiency and dexterity than commenting on social issues. The significance of this music cannot be overstated. Given the precarious political state the United States is in at this time, the message of some of this music is unfortunately more relevant than ever.

Hopefully, this is not a one-off box set reissue. The Vanguard tape vaults are overflowing with albums that deserve this sort of premium treatment. Here is a possible selection of six albums that might make a great volume two: ‘Bout Changes ‘n’ Things by Eric Anderson, E Pluribus Unum by Sandy Bull, Electric Music for the Mind and Body by Country Joe & the Fish, Circus Maximus, featuring Jerry Jeff Walker, John Hammond’s self-titled debut album, and Celebrations for a Grey Day Richard & Mimi Fariña.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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