Sunday, August 2, 2009

Songs For Political Action....

Songs For Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs And The American Left 1926-1953 is a 1996 10 CD box set by the German-based Bear Family label.

Anyone unfamiliar with the Bear Family might want to take a tour of the web site and see some of the most excessive CD box sets anyone has ever imagined. It’s one thing to imagine a collection of early 60’s British skiffle performer, Lonnie Donegan. It’s another thing entirely to imagine it as an 8-CD box set with 60-page book (“More Than Pye in the Sky”).

Or, consider this: Currently in print are four different CD box sets for Dean Martin; an 8-CD & 84-page book set, another 8-CD & 84-page book set, and two different 6-CD plus DVD plus book sets (that’s 28 CDs, 2 DVDs and 4 books of Dino). You’ll also find three 4-CD Tex Ritter box sets, and page after page of multiple multi-CD boxes by Marty Robbins, Petula Clark and countless other artists from every genre and era.

When you look at a Bear Family box set of an artist you’re not particularly interested in there is a tendency to think, “How bizarre.” But, when you find that 12 CD box for one of your favorites that contains every alternate version, demo version, foreign language version, outtake, and a glossy hard cover book with full color photos of every LP, single, E.P., Indonesian flexi-disc, etc., there is a tendency to think, “It’s about time.” The Bear Family is the music collector’s dream label.

Songs For Political Action is a perfect case in point. 296 songs on 10 CDs with a 215-page hard cover coffee-table book makes for a box set that can’t be lifted with just one hand. It also makes for a stunning listening experience.

When compared to most of the developed world, America is still a very young country. It is a characteristic of youth to be disinterested in history, and that historical ambivalence is a defining aspect of the American character. The history of the American Left of the 1930s and 1940s is the history of average Americans struggling to gain the rights and rewards that most of us in 2009 pretty much take for granted.

This description from the Bear Family catalog places the collection in a concise context:

“Maybe it didn’t bring about the social and economic equality that it strove for, but the American Left of the 1930s and 1940s did leave one lasting legacy: the urban folk song revival. The energetic, politically daring music of the Almanac Singers and its predecessors, contemporaries and successors continue to resonate through today’s singer-songwriters. Spanning the years 1926 to 1953, the discs offer a comprehensive overview of this enduring music, from the labor choruses and New York’s socially conscious theatrical scene of the 1930s, to the Almanac Singers´ influential, the postwar idealism of People’s Songs and ends with the disturbing anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era that silenced many of these talented, dedicated performers.”

The discs are organized historically and thematically: #1 - The Leftist Roots of the Folk Revival. #2 – Theatre and Cabaret Performers: 1936-1941. #3 – The Almanac Singers: March 1941-July 1941. #4 – Fighting the Fascists: 1942-1944. #5 – World War II and the Folk Revival. #6 – The People’s Songs Era: 1945-1949. #7 – Pete Seeger: 1946-1948. #8 – Charter Records: 1946-1949. #9 – Campaign Songs: 1944-1949. #10 – An Era Closes: 1949-1953.

Listen to songs like “I’m Going To Organize, Baby Mine” “There Is Mean Things Happening In This Land” “Farmer’s Letter To The President” “Write Me Out My Union Card” “We Shall Not Be Moved” “Bad Housing Blues” “Which Side Are You On?” “Oh, What Congress Done To Me” “Commonwealth of Toil” “Unemployment Compensation Blues” “The U.A.W. Train” “Susan’s in the Union” “Swingin’ On A Scab” “Song Of My Hands” “In Contempt” “Put My Name Down” “Talking Un-American Blues” “Joe McCarthy’s Band” and you’re listening to the history of America; the history of the individual men women who fought and died for simple things like a living wage, voting rights, the right to organize, and the dignity of the average American.

Throughout the collection there is an underlying passion for America, for the ideals and principles that America should extend to every citizen. It is fitting that the last song on the last disc is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” This passion for America, and a stubborn refusal to accept nothing less than America’s promise of a fundamental fairness, rests right on the surface of lyrics like:

“Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn't say nothing --
This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people --
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.”

Guthrie was a true phenomenon in his time, extraordinarily popular. I’ve always like Grapes of Wrath author, John Steinbeck’s description:

“Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

I think I paid about $250 or so for this box a few years back and it’s been worth that to me. When I was a kid I had an Uncle Joe who always bought me books, every birthday, Christmas, and often whenever he’d come to visit. If I had money, I’d buy a copy for every kid I know as I’m pretty sure this isn’t the history they're getting in schools today, and if anyone ever said a truer thing than “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” I’d sure like to hear it.

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