Review: Classic American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways

When I heard that Smithsonian Folkways was releasing a collection of classic American ballads, I was intrigued, maybe a bit excited, and also assumed that I would love it. Given that I’ve just said that, I guess it’s clear that the album is, at least in some ways, a disappointment.

The Smithsonian Folkways collection is vast in ways that we likely can’t even fathom. Its collections include, for example, all of the field recordings that John Lomax made beginning in 1907. Those recordings alone are astonishing, again in more ways than we can reasonably appreciate, though the collection also includes everything—the entire archive—of Moses Asch and Folkways records. Huge. And there’s lots more, too. If there is a Mount Rushmore of American song, the Smithsonian collection is it.

What’s disappointing is that, given the width and breadth of what is a monumental collection, they continue to draw on so little of it. All of the recordings are available in some way, either via their site or, should you have the time and the inclination, through visiting the Smithsonian itself. The collections they release, such as this one, are intended to package aspects of the collection and to make them more available and accessible to a wider audience.

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“Banks Of The Ohio”

The thing is, though, that each collection—and there have been many of them over the years—seems to trod the same territory. That’s true of this one, too. It begins with a wonderful recording of “Banks of the Ohio” by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, though both the song and the recording is exceptionally familiar. It’s been collected elsewhere, again and again.

From there, and for the rest of the collection, there aren’t any real surprises. Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Bascom Lunsford, Woody Guthrie, Doc Boggs. “Tom Dooley” “Wasn’t that a Mighty Storm?” “Cowboy’s Lament” “Frankie and Johnny” “Naomi Wise” “Billy the Kid.” Sure, it’s all great stuff, and important as far as that goes, but what excites me about any new release from the Smithsonian is that it might introduce me to something new, something that isn’t already so much an indelible part of the folk canon.

The Smithsonian could dig into the collection and give us that—they could give us more recordings by women, too—so it’s puzzling why they don’t. The irony is that Jayme Stone has just released The Lomax Project celebrating the other famous Lomax, John’s son Alan. There are some songs I’ve never heard before, such as “T-I-M-O-T-H-Y.” There’s also material from the Carribbean, and indeed that song was collected in the Dutch Antilles. “Bury Boula for Me” was collected in Jamaica. While Alan’s field recordings aren’t part of the Smithsonian collection, his exceptionally peripatetic gaze matches that of his father. For both of them, it was a very big world, musically and politically, and they sought to collect it all. Through the Smithsonian releases, we’ve only really seen the tip of the iceberg, and for whatever reason, they keep showing it to us rather than diving any deeper.

In the notes Jeff Place writes that the purpose of the compilations in the Classic series is to “serve as the ‘doors’ for listeners into the Smithsonian Folkways Collection.” Fine, but if you’ve found yourself with this album in front of you—it’s not something you’re going to trip over, you’ve got to go looking for it—then you know what the doors look like, and you’re looking to get into the building already.

That said, the notes that accompany this collection are wonderful. Often the genesis and pedigree of some of these songs is less known than the songs themselves. Each song is glossed in detail, but not onerously so. Lots of nice tidbits and insight about a number of songs that, for the most part, are familiar to us.

So, my advice is, you don’t need the recording so much as you need the liner notes, and you can download the full booklet for free from the link here: Just scroll down to “Download Liner Notes” just after the credits listing.

The songs, if you don’t have them already, are all over the internet.

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