Various Artists: Classic American Ballads

Moral evil, natural evil -- hard times. That's the purview of Classic American Ballads.
Various Artists
Classic American Ballads
Smithsonian Folkways

At first glance, it’s hard to know exactly where Classic American Ballads fits into Folkways’ Classics series. The more specialized entries — Classic African American Ballads, for instance, or Classic Labor Songs — did an exemplary job of uncovering the ballad form’s breadth; this generically titled release relies on a cover photograph — a flood-strewn house, dislodged and aslant — to reveal its through line: disaster. Moral evil, natural evil — hard times. These selections, mostly drawn from Folkways’ archives of the 1950s and ’60s, don’t always have the front-row sensibilities of their desperate predecessors on the label’s ur-text, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music; they are more meditative, motivated by memory and a weary resolve. But when the highlights are as striking as Dock Boggs’s dusty take on “Cole Younger” or Doug Wallin’s harrowing “Naomi Wise”, that’s no kind of complaint.

RATING 7 / 10


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