The Boston Phoenix
December 4 - 11, 1997

[Music Reviews]

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Folk'd up

The good and the bad of Vanguard

by Norman Weinstein

"Vanguard -- Recordings for the Connoisseur" read the label on the first folk album I ever bought, a memory happily triggered by the new four-CD retrospective Vanguard Collector's Edition. "For Connoisseurs" may seem like an elitist tag line for a recording company founded by two brothers fueled by Marxist dreams, but in the '50s Seymour and Maynard Solomon had smart ears capable of transcending politically motivated agendas. They believed audiences were ripe for modernized renditions of traditional folk music, and they swiftly discovered a market niche. Whereas the Folkways label (now Smithsonian Folkways) offered field recordings of rough-hewn balladeers, ecstatically loopy gospelizers, and raw-throated bluesmen, many of whom were featured on the Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Vanguard's folk was as well-scrubbed, well-rehearsed, and well recorded as the Weavers, the fledgling label's first signing.

At the height of the McCarthy era, the Solomons went on to sign Paul Robeson, slinging a considerable stone at Goliath. Just as significantly, they crafted a folk label from sensibilities permeated with classical-music values. At Vanguard, folk song was a form of "art song." Good diction mattered, as did properly pitched trills and "tasteful" (i.e., acoustic) guitar. It may have been a constrictive formula, but the label prospered, gradually evolving to encompass more than folk music.

Which brings us to producer (and author) Samuel Charters's role in assembling Vanguard Collector's Edition. The 84 selections here represent the fruits of some eccentric cherrypicking by Charters, who seems determined to prove a very dubious assertion: that Vanguard shouldn't be immortalized as just a folk-music label. To that end he's brought together five-plus hours of music that ranges from strong showings by classic Vanguard mainstream folk artists (Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Odetta), to embarrassing examples of thin, dated jazz, rock, and disco tunes. Charters makes a fuss in the 100-page booklet about the label's importance in signing Detroit rock acts, but just try to listen for more than a minute to the nasal, flat vocals and trite, psychedelic guitars of the Third Power and the Frost without pining for the prophetically punky MC5 or the Motown-energized Mitch Ryder. The Solomons simply weren't tuned into the best of the big beat. And why would anyone expect that from a pair of label owners who cherished Paul Robeson singing Schubert?

Their most successful rock signing, Country Joe and the Fish, sounds more like a blues-flavored jug band on three tracks. The jazz selections, by the likes of Count Basie and Elvin Jones, are fine; it's just that the best work by these artists appears on jazz labels. Ditto for the blues artists, like Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.

The way to preserve Vanguard's place in history is to overlook its non-folk forays and focus on the roughly two-thirds of Collector's Edition that concentrates on the label's folk success. There are the first Joan Baez releases, her beautiful soprano recorded pristinely in an old hotel ballroom offering traditional ballad interpretations like "Silver Dagger" that have never been equaled for sheer lyrical force. There's primo Weavers and Pete Seeger; Odetta, that "Mother Superior" to Tracy Chapman; Ramblin' Jack Elliott, that most devout Woody Guthrie disciple; protest singer-songwriters like Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs. The list goes on and on, though it should be noted that two of Vanguard's most distinctive folk talents are mysteriously omitted from Vanguard Collector's Edition: country-folk banjo player Hedy West and Boston's own dulcet Jackie Washington, a pioneering African-American folk revivalist.

The seminal Vanguard folk roster continues to influence significant numbers of today's folkies. And the label, sold by the Solomons to Lawrence Welk Enterprises a decade ago, continues to sign major folkies on the order of banjo player Alison Brown. So even though Charters tries to play it down, Vanguard's legacy of gorgeously sensual vocal harmonizing, smoothly tuneful political sermons, and folk music that contributed to the spirit of musical rebellion in the '60s is just about impossible to ignore. Whether or not you consider yourself a connoisseur.

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