It Takes a Village
Most people associate the happy go lucky folk revival days of Greenwich Village in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with Bob Dylan. That goes for the plethora of musicians on this anthology celebrating the music of that place and that era. Five of the thirteen songs on this disc are Dylan tracks, including: Rickie Lee Jones’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, the Duhks’ “It’s Alright Ma”, Lucinda Williams’s “Positively 4th Street”, Shelby Lynne’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, and Rocca DeLuca’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”. These are great songs and an interesting mix of artists, but taken as a whole these songs reveal what’s both good and bad about the disc as a whole.
The performers take the songs seriously, but their very sincerity weighs down their efforts. What was so great about the music associated with that scene was that much of it was created by fresh young artists like Dylan who were trying new things. These musicians are trying to remake the classics with an earnest intensity and the effect is similar to that of watching a student recreate a masterpiece at the Museum of Modern Art. No matter how much the copy resembles the original, it will never have the effect that the first one had.
That’s kind of odd, as this is folk music, songs meant to be reinterpreted by different singers. If nothing else, this record shows the difference between the old folk singers—like Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk—who lived in the Village and sang the old songs, and the younger talents who wrote their own material in the folk style. Two of the breeziest tunes here are more traditional numbers like John Oates’s version of “He Was a Friend of Mine”, Los Lobos’s “Guantanamera”, and Sixpence None the Richer’s “Wayfaring Stranger”. These sound cleaner and brighter than the Dylan interpretations, or that of songs by Joni Mitchell (Rachel Yamagata’s “Both Sides Now”), John Sebastian (Bruce Hornsby’s “Darlin’ Be Home Soon”), Tim Buckley (Cowboy Junkies’ “Once I Was”), and such.
While it would be impossible to honor all the famous residents of Greenwich Village during its heyday, there are some serious omissions. Where’s the Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Laura Nyro, and other geniuses who are slowly being forgotten or unheard by today’s youth? I mean, I can understand not including notables like Simon and Garfunkel or Leonard Cohen, as they still sell records and attract large audiences, but do we really need another version of “Both Sides Now” or five Dylan covers?
While the answer is clearly “no,” it should be noted that Williams’s rendition of “Positively 4th Street” is deliciously nasty and Shelby Lynne’s country take of “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” offers the snide dignity only a broken heart can offer. While the disc may contain an overabundance of earnestness, there is still much merit in what’s here. The whole purpose of folk music is to pass the music on. The rich renaissance of what happened in Greenwich Village almost half a century ago should not be forgotten.