Various Artists: Freedom: Songs from the Heart of America

Various Artists
Freedom: Songs from the Heart of America

For a small yet impassioned group of audiophiles, Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music represents the Rosetta Stone of any music claiming the title “American”. A collection of cylinders recorded throughout the nation in the half-decade immediately preceding the Great Depression, Smith’s anthology was released in 1952 to map and trace the life-lines “that have been so characteristic of American music”. Half a century later arrives a new anthology, compiled not by a near-mad eccentric but by a team of well-educated archivists. Freedom: Songs from the Heart of America attempts to paint a “musical portrait” of Harry Smith’s now older nation. Despite the cries of blasphemy this might elicit from the likes of Greil Marcus, comparisons between these two collections should be invited simply because both of these “American” anthologies are so inviting. Each of these now three-disc boxed sets succeeds, on its own terms, in defining the historic America for which it searches.

Harry Smith’s America is old and weird, as the aforementioned Greil Marcus noted, and his anthology sought to bring to the forefront of a McCarthy-ist nation “a confrontation with another culture, or another view of the world, that might include [the] arcane or unknown”. Smith sought to bring to national consciousness an intentionally different perspective on America’s true culture; it is hard to imagine Smith unaware that his musical version of his country might provide a meaningful option for a culture counter to the prevailing and hateful jingoism of his time. In a society that was seeking to eliminate difference, Smith was a devoted obscurantist; the distinct and novel sounds of his Anthology are still insurmountable obstacles for many listeners. While shunning the “popular” records of the pre-Depression era, Smith was nonetheless a populist who sought to include musical representations of every overlooked society in America, from Appalachia to Native America to Zydeco.

Freedom: Songs from the Heart of America is old yet predictable, like apple pie, meatloaf, and the flag. This new anthology’s creation was influenced by two equally defining factors: the eponymous eight-hour PBS documentary for which it serves as soundtrack, and the cultural wallpaper of the events of 9/11. Freedom‘s songs were compiled by Columbia/Legacy’s Grammy-tested quartet of Berkowitz, Brooks, Olds-Neal and Quaglieri, whose mission was clearly articulated and defined by Joy Hakim, creator of the documentary. As attested by the inexcusable pun in the anthology’s title, the goal of this project is to paint a picture of American freedom that can serve to unite a country despite the constantly growing threats of fractionalism of every variety: religious, regional and racial. Seeing the United States through the great lens of the unifying third person “US”, the entire goal of Freedom is to be popular: the defining track of Freedom is the anthem of American populism, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. Serving the goal of presenting a populist America that is by, for and of the people leads Freedom to feature selections that few who have passed through our nation’s public schooling system who will not immediately recognize. What American doesn’t know “Yankee Doodle”, “Home on the Range”, or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?

Freedom grants the listener the sense that he’s gliding down into an easy chair. Ultimately, that is this collection’s greatest strength, and the reason it is highly recommended. Freed from corporate requirements and others’ opinions, Harry Smith was able to compile a collection of music that defined his America. And while Smith’s vision was breathtaking and inspiring to an influential group of artists, it is the more focused, team-oriented approach of Freedom that will appeal to a wider audience. Ironically, being restricted to the archives of one record company, being limited to one theme, one defining notion of America — such as the multi-valent word “freedom” — makes for a rather unified collection. While Harry Smith should be praised for challenging a given notion of American culture, Freedom should not be faulted for playing into stereotypes that are not only comfortable, but socially constructive as well.

Freedom contains gems that are both musical and historical. The artistry on the theme song, Nina Simone’s version of “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free”, is simply sublime, and alone worth the price of the collection. James P. Johnson’s “Keep off the Grass” from 1921 showcases one musician’s transmogrification of popular ragtime music into a very early jazz. Swinging jump blues fans will be delighted by the lighthearted doom of “Atom and Evil”, whose sly sensibilities almost mask its incredible timing, rhythm and artistry. Richie Havens’ signature guitar is present on [shockingly] “Freedom”; David Grisman’s haunting mandolin turns “Shenandoah Lullaby” from a folk tune to a haunting melody. And Mahalia Jackson is featured twice.

Even when the music isn’t so sophisticated or superb, the tracks on Freedom have a historic quality that is mostly difficult to deny. Witness the presence of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, a song of immense historic significance if not overpowering musical acuity. Such historic tracks, more than the purely musical selections, are what will likely make this boxed set attractive to consumers: there is an appeal to knowing that certain songs are in you record collection. With one purchase, a lucky consumer can come to own perennial standards “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)”, “Amazing Grace”, “Dixie”, “Stars and Stripes Forever!”, “Over There”, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”, “Joe Hill”, and “We Shall Overcome”. Freedom is like a civics class in a convenient little package that combines equal parts history and music. “America the Beautiful” might have been an obvious choice for such a collection, but the performance here by Keb’ Mo’ [along with the selection of it by the set’s producers] is inspired. Similarly, to choose from amongst all the known performances of “The Star Spangled Banner” Duke Ellington’s live version from Newport is to admit, gracefully, that at least one band, for two approximately two minutes, understood what freedom was all about.

One of the great obstacles for any large compilation — and Freedom contains 67 songs — is the perplexing challenge arranging such material. Harry Smith attempted to showcase his 84 selections in a fashion appropriate to their style: the genres of “Ballads”, “Social Music” and “Songs” were further separated into record sides that were purely instrumental, purely criminal or purely church. Although he decries the term “race” records — and the musical segregation of the audience it implies — as unfortunate record company verbiage, Smith nonetheless segregates his anthology: not along the lines of black and white, but according to debatable categorizations and musical stylizations. Accordingly, one can drop the needle over and over again on those songs and ballads that were at the heart of the ’60s folk revival without ever having to encounter instrumental fiddle music or “highly rhythmic” religious music.

The producers of Freedomthankfully pursued a different approach to song ordering. Although it smacks a wee bit of segregation — Martha and the Vandellas, The Impressions, Sly and the Family Stone and Living Colour all appear on the second half of disc three — Freedompursues an integration of musical styles and historical periods that is refreshing. The high church of The Mormon Tabernacle choir segues into the minstrelsy of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers; Gene Autry is followed by Louis Armstrong, on whose heels comes Bing Crosby. Folk guitar comes after orchestra comes after Native American hymn precedes country/western. Now, that’s America.

Perhaps the most interesting song sequencing on Freedom comes between Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie. The latter wrote his anthem “This Land Is Your Land” in spiteful response to the former’s famed “God Bless America”. It is difficult to imagine two views of America [or theology, for that matter] that differ more than the visions captured in these songs, two of the most well-known tunes in the nation they seek to define. At first it seems surprising that these tracks were not placed back-to-back on this collection; if not here, where? Yet there is more than a little genius in separating these two anthems by a lengthy excerpt from Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite”: it as if the versions of America seen by these two poets will sit eternally on opposing sides of a great divide that they will never be able to bridge.

Well before the advent of Napster, Harry Smith was able to raid the vaults of over 125 [listed] record companies to create his Anthology. It is the obvious limitation of Freedom that its creators had access only to the music currently under legal ownership of one corporation. That being said, if you had to pick one corporation whose vaults could best be mined for historic records of the past century, it would have to be Columbia/Legacy, whose mission is to preserve and present music of compelling meaning. Still, Sony has yet to own everything, which leaves Freedom with some omissions, glaring and otherwise. Contractual restrictions and copyrights obviate the obvious questions like, “Where’s Elvis?” and “Does any line more represent American freedom than, ‘Go, Go/Go, Johnny, Go, Go, Go'”? Nonetheless, the Columbia/Legacy team has made some interesting choices: despite leading off the entire liner notes with a quote from [Columbia Records recording artist] Leonard Cohen, not a single one of his pieces is present. Is that because he’s Canadian? And if so, are Canadians good enough to talk about freedom [“I have tried in my way to be free”], but not worth listening to in the context of America?

Conversely, there are more than a few tracks whose presence on Freedom are not only specious, but distracting. Without understanding how it is used in its soundtrack setting, I simply wonder why James Taylor’s saccharine “Hard Times” [which is his own song, not a version of the classic blues tune] is included: it seems worthwhile neither musically nor historically. Similarly, one could argue that Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon” is only present because his name will boost record sales. [This theory comes into even more obnoxious relief when one sees that both his track and Taylor’s make the cut from 67 to 18, and are present on the single-disc version of the Freedom collection.] Similarly, while Springsteen’s live version of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” is of certain historic value, it has far less to do with the themes of this collection than does “Thunder Road”, which is by far a better listen. Furthermore, one could question if Columbia’s vaults are so small that this boxed set needed two tracks sung by the Washington Men’s Camarata.

These questions are small and piddling compared to the greatest weakness of Freedom as a collection of American music. With the exception of Taj Mahal’s version of the spiritual “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, only Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues” can purely be called a blues song. [Remember, they have blues artist Keb’ Mo’ doing a version of “America the Beautiful”, not “Hard Times”.] Even worse represented are the only forms of popular music that are entirely indigenous to the United States: rap and hip-hop. [A Sony Records spokesperson noted that a long list of rap and hip-hop selections were brought to the producers of the television series, who rejected their presence because they “didn’t fit the editorial content of the series”.] The notable absence of these entirely American genres forces one to ask: is it is the sense of time and distance that allows us to look with comfortable disdain on the Jim Crow horrors of “Strange Fruit”, the desegregationalist celebration “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit that Ball?”, or the forced underground march to freedom of “Follow the Drinking Gourd”?

Freedom purports to be a history of us. But just how large is that third person, just how many are allowed to fit under that umbrella? The answer to that question is found in Freedom‘s penultimate selection: a protest from Living Colour, an “Open Letter (to a Landlord)” that speaks out against the slum-lord. That track from 1998’s Vivid was selected in place of that album’s closing piece, in which a black man pleaded, “I just want to know / How to get to your America”. Freedom excluded that track, avoided Corey Glover’s burning question. In that one move, the producers of this boxed set define precisely who the “US” of its title are: Americans willing to appreciate the hardships and divisiveness of the past only because they are passed. There is no room in the present for discontent or divisiveness not only because two planes crashed into two towers: the freedom that Freedom celebrates is the uncanny ability of music to accomplish something historic. Through this lens, there is only room for music whose aims have been realized to be feted by inclusion. We no longer see strange fruit hanging from a poplar tree; gone are the days when a successful black athlete was a rarity. Abolished is slavery, done is the Depression, over is the Vietnam war. Two things, Freedom tells us, two things outlived them all: music and America.