Tag Archives: Folk

Judy Collins – A Maid of Constant Sorrow

A Maid of Constant Sorrow

Judy CollinsA Maid of Constant Sorrow Elektra EKL-209 (1961)


A nice debut from the sadly neglected Judy Collins.  At this time, she sang with a slightly husky tone as if honed performing belting her vocals at a near shout, without amplification, at some Greenwich Village coffee house.  Comparisons to folk stars of the previous decade like Pete Seeger are àpropos.  As Collins evolved, she incorporated elements of Broadway theatrics, with a lighter touch and more legato phrasing.  But those techniques lay in the future back in ’61.  Yet even from the beginning she clearly had quite a voice.  Enjoy.

Jethro Tull – Aqualung

Aqualung

Jethro TullAqualung Island ILPS 9145 (1971)


Jethro Tull alternated between folk/folk-rock and prog rock.  They generally come across to these ears as at best a second-tier offering on both fronts.  For folk/folk-rock, they make me with I was listening to The Pentangle (or Bert Jansch solo), and for prog rock I’ll take Traffic.  Frankly, though, Aqualung leans more heavily on the prog side of things and the heavier electric guitar proves effective.  The band was known for the gimmick of having a flute, but the flute and the vocals are mostly a distraction.  This is still a very adequate album.

One question that jumped out when listening to this album is whether all prog rock is inherently misogynist.  As a genre, it tends to appeal — in a painfully obvious way — to sexually frustrated men.  It seems to lack any kind of feminine qualities.

Johnny Cash – I Walk the Line

I Walk the Line

Johnny CashI Walk the Line Columbia S-30397 (1970)


As a somewhat forgotten soundtrack to a somewhat forgotten movie, I Walk the Line (not to be confused with Johnny Cash’s earlier album of the same name) is actually a fairly decent album that fits perfects into Cash’s aesthetic of the early 1970s.  After big success in the late 1960s with a more “rock” sound courtesy of Carl Perkins on guitar, and getting a national television program in mid-1969, he turned back to a more “folk” sound.  This sound was established with Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970).  With Cash at the absolute peak of his popularity, choosing him to record the soundtrack to I Walk the Line made sense.  The movie was kind of a bust, as director John Frankenheimer has said that the studio insisted on Gregory Peck for the lead but that Peck was cast against type and not the right choice.

As for the soundtrack itself, it opens with the magnificent “Flesh and Blood,” which would be Cash’s last #1 country hit single — the only time he ever came close to topping the pop singles charts was with “A Boy Named Sue” at #2 in 1969.  The song is grounded in a gentle acoustic guitar part set against a very mellow walking electric guitar rhythm part, with a romantic lyric and sweet, almost saccharine, string accompaniment typical of what was regularly featured on his TV show.   Next there is a new recording of his hit “I Walk the Line.”  It’s a fine version, perhaps unnecessary, but it’s hard to argue with having another performance of one of the man’s best compositions.  The rest of the album is made up of mostly spare acoustic numbers, a few being instrumental versions of songs also presented with vocals.  “Hungry,” “‘Cause I Love You,” “The World’s Gonna Fall on You” and “Face of Despair” are just Cash with an acoustic guitar, reminiscent of the urban folk on Orange Blossom Special (1965) and looking toward the bulk of Man in Black (1971) but also re-establishing the basic format used on Cash’s American Recordings comeback in the early 1990s.  But it concludes with the medley “Standing on the Promise / Amazing Grace” sung by The Carter Family.  The closing song stands in contrast to everything else on the album (much like “Amen” on Orange Blossom Special), but it’s also quite endearing in its homespun, country church stylings.  On balance, this album doesn’t deliver much in the way of songwriting, save for “Flesh and Blood.”  Yet Cash’s performances are steady, assured and impassioned.  If you like any of Cash’s material of the early 1970s, this is one to seek out at some point.

Johnny Cash – Blood, Sweat and Tears

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Johnny CashBlood, Sweat and Tears Columbia CS 8730 (1963)


Blood, Sweat & Tears is a prime example of the great possibilities and nagging limitations of Johnny Cash’s string of concept albums of the 1960s.  First off, the album is a bit unwieldy and uneven.  That would be an almost universal characteristic of these concept albums organized around a particular theme.  Many of the songs, the opener “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” especially, mix actual singing with what amount to skits.  Cash is often doing theatrical interludes, which are woven throughout the song in a way that prevents skipping over them entirely on subsequent listens.  So as much as his singing sounds great, it always seems like that enjoyment is broken up by a switch to narration and other theatrical radio-drama segments.  It’s not that these transitions are poorly executed as much as the premise behind them gets a bit tedious quickly and doesn’t bear out repeated listening well, especially when it drags on a bit too long as with the more than eight-minute opener.  Yet, on the plus side, the thematic premise of the album makes the whole something greater than just the sum of its parts.  It would be hard to call any songs here classics of the Cash cannon on their own, but they fit together well.  Lastly, it’s pretty apparent that this collection of work songs, railroad songs and folk standards was designed to appeal less to country fans than to listeners interested in the still-burgeoning urban folk movement, whose well-known names included Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, and others.  It makes the enterprise seem a bit forced at times.  So, honestly, Cash has done better concept albums, though this one is still decent.

Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changin’ Columbia CS 8905 (1964)


Easily my favorite Dylan record.  I can respect lots of his albums, but I have to be in just the right mood to ever want to listen to Blonde on Blonde, and even Highway 61 Revisited, great though it may be, isn’t something I listen to much all the way through.  But I always come back to this one.  It’s got some of Dylan’s best songs, including some that are unfairly neglected in his catalog (I can overlook the fact that “Boots of Spanish Leather” recycles “Girl from the North Country”).  He plays and sings with a kind of dedication that you might say is lacking on other albums, and his performances are much more effective than on his sometimes sloppy other early albums.  I know some people accuse Dylan of being too serious or militant on this disc, but I have a hard time respecting anything less than that.

Buffy Sainte-Marie – I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again

I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again

Buffy Sainte-MarieI’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again Vanguard VSD-79280 (1968)


Lots of musicians “went country” in the late 1960s — think about country-rock outfits like Rising Sons and Bob Dylan going to record in Nashville.  Buffy Sainte-Marie was at the front end of that curve with her 1968 album I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again (released shortly before Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Joan Baez‘s incursions into country). While other artists sometimes created hybrid music, Sainte-Marie for the most part made an authentic Nashville album, complete with A-list Nashville session players (Grady Martin, The Jordanaires, Floyd Cramer, etc.).  This compares favorably to any late 1960s Loretta Lynn album, for example.  Sainte-Marie tried all sorts of different things on her late 1960s and early 70s albums.  She was remarkably versatile, and willing to venture outside folk music.  Other other hand, while side one of the album is great, side two suffers from having a few songs (“Tall Trees in Georgia” and a re-recording of “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”) that return to the folk sounds of her early career.  Sticking with the Nashville sound throughout would have been more effective.  Still, that is a small issue on an otherwise great album — the folk songs are fine, just out of place.  For what it’s worth, it is kind of great that Sainte-Marie’s foray into country music is immune to criticisms of cultural appropriation.  Would anyone really accuse a musician with native Cree heritage of that?

The album was a flop.  There are numerous explanations.  But among the more unusual ones was that President Lyndon Johnson sent letters to radio stations on White House stationary to convince them to blacklist her in response to her anti-war song “Universal Soldier” becoming a hit (for Donovan).  Despite its lack of success at the time, this is an album worthy of reappraisal.  For that matter, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s entire career deserves more attention.

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Illuminations

Illuminations

Buffy Sainte-MarieIlluminations Vanguard VSD-79300 (1969)


Here is a forward-thinking recording that combines three semi-disparate styles.  There is protest folk, akin to Joan Baez.  There is also psychedelic rock, like Jefferson Airplane.  Lastly, and most unusually, there are experimental electronics, comparable to The United States of America, some efforts by The Grateful Dead, or maybe even Silver Apples.  The songwriting talents are undeniable — Sainte-Marie’s versatility is demonstrated by how she later co-wrote the mega-hit “Up Where We Belong” for the film An Officer and a Gentleman.  The musicianship here is a bit raw much of the time.  But this music places more emphasis on innovation than finesse.  Buffy goes so far as to modulate her voice with electronic equipment.  Not surprisingly, this was a commercial flop upon release, but it has nonetheless held on to a doggedly devoted cult following.  It is unmistakably an album of the late-1960s, and perhaps one representative of the fundamentally new possibilities opened up in that era, even if only at the fringes.  Worthwhile for adventurers in modern music.

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green

Primrose Green

Ryley WalkerPrimrose Green Dead Oceans DOC 101CD (2015)


The influences are apparent: John Martyn, The Pentagle (Jansch and Renbourn especially), Tim Buckley, Van Morrison, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, even The Grateful Dead and The Incredible String Band.  This is definitely music made “in the tradition” (to adopt Anthony Braxton‘s restrucuralists/stylists/traditionalists taxonomy).  But this is quite impressive in that it takes so many different elements from the late 1960s/early 1970s folk-rock milieu and deploys them all so convincingly.  Really likable and surprisingly durable.

John Fahey – The Yellow Princess

The Yellow Princess

John FaheyThe Yellow Princess Vanguard VSD-79293 (1968)


There may not be any simple way to characterize all of John Fahey’s recordings, given the vast amount of territory they cover.  But even as it feels more modern than his earliest records (read: his first three albums), The Yellow Princess still falls toward the more conservative, straightforward end of the spectrum.  That fact leads to a few rather obvious characterizations.  The material is rather accessible, and focuses on technical mastery of the steel-string acoustic guitar in a relatively traditional folk song setting more than on improvised stylistic explorations.  That is to say that unlike his early attempts to play folk and blues tunes like symphonies solo on a steel stringed acoustic guitar, full of noisy artifacts, or experimental sound collages, he is now playing more conventionally pretty and technically impressive folk music.  Prime examples of this are the title track and “Lion”.  Even though he does include some sound collages, there aren’t the inevitable missteps of experimental music that characterize some other Fahey albums, giving The Yellow Princess a more even feel.  A durable and enjoyable album, but also probably not the most impressive in the Fahey catalog — for which I would probably lean toward things like the more enigmatic and mystical Volume 6: Days Have Gone By.  Nonetheless, this is a versatile album well suited for listening in mixed company.

Worth recommending is a CD reissue that adds three lengthy bonus tracks, the best of which is “The John Fahey Sampler, Themes and Variations”.

El Camarón de la Isla – Castillo de arena

Castillo de Arena

El Camarón de la Isla con la colaboración especial de Paco de LucíaCastillo de arena Philips 63 28 255 (1977)


Castillo de arena (translation: “Sandcastle”) was the culmination of years of collaboration between noted flamenco performers Camarón de la Isla (vocals) and Paco de Lucía (guitar).  Camarón is strongly associated with raising the prominence of flamenco music among international audiences.  Both performers also helped develop what is called “nuevo flamenco,” which incorporated elements of non-flamenco music.  While Camarón’s next album, the pathbreaking La leyenda del tiempo, is most strongly associated with a transition to nuevo flamenco, there are subtler gestures in that direction already present here.  And, anyway, to insist on flamenco purism is a bit ridiculous anyway, given the already syncretic nature of the music.  It shares aspects of a variety of ancient musics, including — in brief segments, especially in the vocal phrasing — some striking resemblances to Moroccan berber music (and specifically Jbala sufi trance music) from the likes of The Master Musicians of Joujouka/Jajouka, which, after all, comes from merely a few hundred kilometers away to the south across the Straight of Gibraltar.

Brook Zern has said,

“He was known for afinacion, which means the ability to be perfectly on pitch but not necessarily on the notes of a Western scale. Flamenco music uses microtonal intervals all the time, and nobody cut them closer and did them more precisely technically than this young artist.”

Camarón was Romani (gypsy) by birth.  He definitely imbues in his music the defiant character of his upbringing in a (notoriously) dominated social group, evidenced by his willingness to break from tradition and use of afinacion.  His voice is husky, almost sandpaper coarse, yet precisely pitched and expertly controlled.  Paco de Lucía complements the singing perfectly, with intricate strumming and embellished melodic lines that flow back and forth smoothly and seamlessly.  Flamenco style guitar playing really represents one of the most interesting ways of strumming a guitar, with far more rhythmic (not to mention melodic/harmonic) intricacy than the often lazy manner of strumming chords on a guitar in many Western traditions that hardly do more than establish a chord progression.

Like much flamenco music, this album has a melancholic and bitter yet emotionally fiery feeling.  “Y mira que mira y mira” and “Como castillo de arena” have the most modern “nuevo flamenco” elements, with a vocal chorus on the former and layered, almost mechanical (motorik?) handclaps on the latter.

Flamenco music, in general, has been described this way:

“A typical flamenco recital with voice and guitar accompaniment, comprises a series of pieces (not exactly “songs”) in different palos [styles]. Each song of a set of verses (called copla, tercio, or letras), which are punctuated by guitar interludes called falsetas. The guitarist also provides a short introduction which sets the tonality, compás and tempo of the cante.”

Castillo de arena definitely follows the format of such a traditional flamenco recital, lacking only a traditional dancer.

This is another excellent effort by some of flamenco’s more highly regarded performers on the 20th Century.  Although in some ways the experimentation of La leyenda del tiempo is more intriguing, those not ready or interested in synthesizers and electric instruments in flamenco often cite Castillo de arena as these performers’ best recording.  There is certainly no need to pick a favorite, as both are excellent and come from a peak period in the careers of both Camarón and Lucía.