Folk rock without contexts
“I said, TIME, TIME mag, mag
You got me on the rag, rag
Take your insults about the queen
And shove them up your royal Timese machine”
—Joan Baez, “Time Rag”
The Time Life media machine has never really understood popular culture. From Time magazine’s early incarnation under Henry Luce during the jazz age, to its merger with AOL and Warner in the 21st century, Time has always been considered one step behind in its comprehension of what was going on in contemporary civilization. The Time Life series of records and discs served as just more proof of the company’s irrelevance. The music was organized according to the year it was released or in terms of general trends as fads that revealed nothing about the world from which the products originally emerged and were consumed. A particular disc or set conveyed an implicit message that its contents served merely as the soundtrack for fun. The truth is actually much deeper and complex. For example, the very nature of escapist music suggests one needs to find refuge from the harsh realities of the real world. It’s not surprising that the feel good/good time music of Motown during the ‘60s was extremely popular during the greatest Civil Rights conflicts of the modern era.
Therefore, one should not be surprised that Time Life has turned the musical history of folk rock into a greatest hits type package that doesn’t reveal much about folk or rock, or the times from which the music emerged. While Time Life can put together enjoyable compilations of doo wop ditties and teen idol tunes because these compositions are meant to be pleasantly distracting and romantic, folk rock is by definition more concerned with topical events. This musical genre is the most self-consciously bound to the issues of the eras from which the songs come from. There’s little of that here in this collection.
The compilation is chronologically divided into four discs by decades: the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s and Beyond. Each disc contains about a dozen and a half songs. There are no overwhelming themes present, or patterns, or criteria for inclusion other than the songs were popular, or were underground hits. There’s just track after track of some undefined thing called folk rock, a term one would be hard pressed to identify after hearing this anthology.
There’s less here than meets the ear because of the nature of licensing. The compilers may want to include folk rock’s greatest hits, but the owners of the songs might not let them. So there’s no Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Jethro Tull, etc., that may be here if popularity were the main reason for inclusion. (That said, all of the musicians do hail from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom—this is exclusively English language folk rock.) That’s understandable, as is the fact that some of the chosen tracks aren’t the artist’s best folk rock compositions. How else to explain the choice of James Taylor’s country-style obscurity, “Anywhere Like Heaven” or the pure psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane’s “Today” that bears not a trace of folk elements? These acts may belong on an anthology of folk rock, but these songs do not. One gives the compilers the benefit of the doubt—they may have wanted to include different cuts, but were not able to for legal and financial reasons.
More unfortunate are the other elements missing that remove the music from any social or historical contexts. For example, one wouldn’t know that the 1960s were a time of generational conflict and war from the included tracks. The closest thing to a topical tune from the ’60s disc is Barry McGuire’s non-controversial protest song, “Eve of Destruction”, or perhaps Buffalo Springfield’s atmospheric ode to obsession and mistrust, “For What It’s Worth”. That said, this disc is the most successful of the four because the overwhelming number of selections do have one thing in common: the songs are recognizable artifacts from the era. Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic”, as well as staples of FM radio by Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, and Tim Buckley were all well-known by listeners at the time. The same criticism could be made of all the discs. One wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of what was happening in the post-Woodstock era of the 1970s, but one would at least hear familiar sounds like Traffic’s “John Barleycorn”, the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain”, and Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”.
The collection really falls apart during the ’80s, though. Not only would the listener be bereft at understanding this was the age of Republican conservatism and its social policies, one would be lost at trying to remember many of these songs. It might be different if the songs and artists were of excellent quality—and there are some, such as Lucinda Williams, Richard and Linda Thompson, R.E.M., and X—but the material begins to sag. By the time we get to the set’s finale, the choices are even more suspect. The last two discs rely heavily on Alt-Country, which really isn’t folk rock despite its similar instrumentation, and banal pop novelties like Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” and Sixpence None the Richer’s, “We Have Forgotten”. The box’s final two songs are two of the lamest ones on the discs, Anne McCue’s “Stupid” and eastmountainsouth’s “Rain”. If this is the current state of folk rock, the musical genre is in trouble. Some of us know better. Why artists like Beth Orton, Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves, Mary Gauthier, Loudon Wainwright III (and others who have something to say about the contemporary world in a folk rock way) are absent is not clear. The included 71 tracks do offer some fine musical moments, but folk rock audiences deserve a better compilation.