The Boston Phoenix November 23 - 30, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Broadside's best

Protest folk gets boxed

by Franklin Bruno

Collect enough of yesterday's newspapers and you've got a history book. Collect enough of yesterday's protest songs and you've got The Best of Broadside 1962-1988 (Smithsonian Folkways), a five-CD set that chronicles an era in American music and social change by way of recordings of 90 songs first published in the pages of the folk magazine Broadside. At 158 pages, the notes by producer and compiler Jeff Place form a history book in their own right: thorough commentary on every writer and performer is included, as well as on the events they wrote about. The recordings are drawn largely, though not exclusively, from the dozen Broadside Ballads albums released by Folkways during the magazine's existence, as well as from the unreleased tapes editors Gordon Friesen and Sis Cunningham used to transcribe new compositions. There are great performances here, as well as hollow ones, but with every word to every lyric in the accompanying text, the box's focus, like Broadside's, is on the songs themselves.

Bob Dylan America's folk-music revival was already in full swing in 1962, when Friesen (a journalist blacklisted for his "fellow traveler" tendencies) and Cunningham (a music teacher and songwriter) began publishing their mimeographed newsletter out of an Upper West Side housing project. But "revival" was the watchword: the folk movement was largely concerned with reclaiming and refurbishing the collectively composed ballads, shadowy in origin, that had filtered from the British Isles to the South and the Appalachians over the preceding centuries. When friend and folk proselytizer Pete Seeger lamented the lack of outlets for new songs, especially topical ones, Friesen and Cunningham ran with the idea.

The performers Broadside championed wrote and sang freshly minted material (often drawing from traditional melodies) that was driven by contemporary concerns: in the early days, civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and the labor movement; later on, Vietnam and women's rights. The "traditional" and "topical" camps shared some central principles: 1) Thy Melodies Shall Be Singable By The Common Man, and 2) Thou Shalt Play Them Upon The Acoustic Guitar. (There are exceptions: Nina Simone's bitter cabaret tune "Mississippi Goddam" and the Fugs' absurd rocker "Kill for Peace" leap from the steel-string monotony like copies of Hustler in a Christian Science reading room.)

A few of the famous names connected with the magazine dominate the set. Pete Seeger is the most frequently heard voice with nine songs -- several of his own, plus a hushed reading of Dylan's "It's a Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and a bizarre recasting of the Brecht/Weill "Mack the Knife" with lyrics about strontium 90. Seeger is the voice of the optimistic, humanist side of protest music, full of the calm, slightly preachy maturity one rarely hears today outside of children's records. His finest moment here is the anti-Lyndon Johnson "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" (" . . . and the big fool said to push on"), a rapier-sharp indictment of American escalation in Vietnam, and funny to boot. It's also one of the few songs in this box that one can imagine might actually change a listener's mind. Phil Ochs, possibly the most politically nuanced (and, later, pessimistic) writer of the time, is also well represented: the first song on the first disc is his "Links on the Chain," which criticizes labor leaders for their failure to support the civil-rights movement. There's also the previously unheard "Freedom Riders," which is more revealing for Ochs's attempt to throw some fancy chords into the music than for its support of desegregation.

And, of course, there's Bob Dylan. Broadside published many of his early, politically specific songs ("With God on Our Side") in the days when he was better known as a young Greenwich Villager with a serious Woody Guthrie obsession than as a performer of his own material. Besides Seeger's "Rain," this set includes the first recording of "Blowin' in the Wind" (by the interracial New World Singers), which predates both Dylan's own and Peter, Paul & Mary's. The sole Dylan performance here is of his lesser-known anti-war song "John Brown," which he recorded in 1963 (under his nom de record company Blind Boy Grunt) for the magazine's first Folkways album, and which he revived on, of all things, his 1995 MTV Unplugged session. The irony of the song's presence on this set is that, for many people, the protest movement is remembered mainly as what Dylan left behind when he plugged in at Newport. But Dylan seems present here even when he's not singing. Editor Sis Cunningham herself sings "But If I Ask Them," a 1972 slam at dressed-up pretenders and betrayers of the faith.

Cunningham's latter-day bitterness was in part justified; despite its social and musical influence, she and Friesen never made much money off Broadside. Worse, she had to watch folk music cede both popularity and progressivism to rock, which had been the mass-cultural enemy not so long before. You can hear the spark go out of the magazine (and the box) in the '70s as it turns to weak Dylan imitators (Sammy Walker) and slickly arranged compromises with pop (Arlo Guthrie's "Victor Jara"). There's more than a little self-righteousness and posturing spread throughout these five hours of music, but for every smug "Little Boxes," there's a brilliant one-shot ("A Very Close Friend of Mine," by Richard Black, who promptly disappeared after publishing this one song), a nearly forgotten figure worth rediscovering (Native American consciousness raiser Pete Le Farge), or a latter-day gem ("Gonna Be an Engineer" by Peggy Seeger, Pete's daughter). Yet a great deal of the music on The Best of Broadside is less significant for what it is than for what it changed and where it led. And that's no faint praise.

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