Music Review: Various Artists, Song of America

‘Tis the season for sprawling three-disc surveys of American music. Hot on the heels of Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938 comes my copy of Janet Reno’s Song of America. The former Attorney General, with her nephew-in-law, Nashville pro Ed Pettersen, and two other co-producers, has put together a 50-track survey of American history in song as interpreted by an assortment of talented artists of various levels of renown.

Disc 1 (1492-1860) has the largest amount of inspiring stuff. Three a capella numbers – “Lakota Dream Song” sung by Earl Bullhead, the Blind Boys of Alabama’s gorgeously harmonized slave-era spiritual “Let Us Break Bread Together,” and the the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ steely version of “Go Down Moses” – are soul-stirring, and John Wesley Harding’s harshly off-kilter brass band arrangement of “God Save the King” vividly evokes the war pains of revolutionary times. But more often, modern stylistic choices undercut the songs’ power. Often these choices reflect the 20th century fashion for confession in art, where smallness, quirkiness, and meekness are the rule. Elizabeth Foster sings a haunting arrangement of “Young Ladies In Town” (or “Address to the Ladies”) in a chillingly beautiful, quavery voice, but she swallows so many of the lyrics that the meaning is lost. (Some of them can be found here.) A vivid splash of history, the song was a pre-Revolutionary call for women to wear only homespun clothing and not British imports.

Malcolm Holcombe lends gravitas (and gravel) to “The Old Woman Taught Wisdom,” a plea for reconciliation between Britain and the Colonies, while Harper Simon, who sounds like a more psychedelic version of his father Paul, was an inspired choice to arrange and sing “Yankee Doodle.” But producer Ed Pettersen’s soporific take on “The Liberty Song,” Steven Kowalczyk-Santoro’s goopy “Hail Columbia,” and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s languid, affectless version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” are more typical of the collection’s overall low energy. (“Jefferson and Liberty” is done as a lively bluegrass tune by The Wilders – but what’s the point without the words?) Backed by The Mavericks, Thad Cockrell sings the usually march-like “Dixie’s Land” as a slow swell, but in that case, the re-imagining of a traditional song works.

Marah’s rough-and-ready “John Brown’s Body” is a welcome blast of energy to start Disc 2, which covers 1861-1945. Jake Shimabukuro wails the “Stars and Stripes Forever” on his ukelele. The Black Crowes and their father Stan (billed as the Folk Family Robinson) deliver an honest and moving reading of Woody Guthrie’s “Reuben James,” one of the great topical songs of the 20th century. Old Crow Medicine Show, my favorite of the new crop of Americana bands, does a nice job with Woody Guthrie’s plangent lyric about illegal migrant workers, “Deportee (Plain Wreck at Los Gatos).” And Janis Ian sings the grim “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” – perhaps the saddest song ever written in the English language, at least prior to the oeuvre of Harry Chapin – a capella and with all due reverence. The song benefits from the quiet treatment. So does “Over There,” chirped with effective hollowness by – speaking of the Chapin family – Jen Chapin, over Stephan Crump’s mournful sawing on the bass. Instead of a rousing call to arms the song becomes a thoughtful consideration of the business of war.

The early Jazz Age is represented by Andy Bey’s smooth, moody version of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and a jaunty “Rosie the Riveter” from Suzy Bogguss, who isn’t a jazz singer but does a decent job. Classical soprano Karen Parks contributes a lovely, art-song version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and Danielson‘s “Happy Days Are Here Again” is refreshingly nutty. But for every well-done or interesting track, there’s a colorless, tepid one. These sleepy versions of what have always been significant, meaningful songs are disappointing.

Disc 3, 1946-present, is also a frustrating mix of the fresh and the tired. It’s great to have Elizabeth Cook and The Grascals’ new recording of the Louvin Brothers’ “Great Atomic Power,” and having Devendra Banhart take a crack at the 1960s condemnation of suburbia, “Little Boxes,” was an inspired idea. But the recasts of very familiar rock-era songs like “The Times They Are A Changin’,” “What’s Going On,” I Am Woman,” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” don’t add anything much, though they’re mostly nice enough. Kim Richey having a calmly joyous time with the 60s anthem “Get Together” is something of an exception, and the Ben Taylor Band’s sleepy take on Neil Young’s great protest song “Ohio” is curiously affecting. Bettye LaVette comes off well, taking Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” to soulful heights the Boss’s own inexplicably Oscar-winning version didn’t even approach.

But Scott Kempner, Martha Wainwright, Gary Heffern, The Wrights, Matthew Ryan, even John Mellencamp, seem just plain sleepy. Maybe the songs are still too iconic, or too current, for newer artists to want to update them in any interesting way. Pettersen and co. should take a listen to Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” (on the live Weld album) to hear an example of how a classic can be rebuilt with enough originality and power to draw even deeper waters from an already deep well. In any case, the result here is a set that seems too much like a dry history lesson, rather than the exciting rainbow of historically meaningful songs it could have been.

Education is actually one of the main purposes of the compilation, and Discs 1 and 2, at least, will be good teaching tools. But less postmodern, shoegazing gloom and more rock and roll spirit would have given the whole collection more color, both as a musical tapestry and as a way of interesting kids in American history from the standpoint of those who struggled and still struggle. And speaking of struggles: Native American and African American songs and interests are pretty well represented, but the lack of any Hispanic material is a serious omission.

Serious…that’s the right word. Too much of these tracks just feel too darned hands-off and serious.

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