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Newport Folk Festival: Best of Bluegrass 1959-1966 – various artists Newport Folk Festival: Best of Blues 1959-1968 – various artists

Vanguard Records 187/89-2 Vanguard Records 193/95-2
Once a label exclusively for classical music, Vanguard records gained
widespread notoriety during the 1950s and 1960s through its stable of acts
within the American roots scene — folk, bluegrass, and blues. By the 1970s
and
’80s jazz artists also found a home there as well. With its desire to
capture
these artists’ work by using the highest standards of recording possible,
one
can compare the Vanguard catalogue as the predecessor to the Rykodisc label
of today.

While it has survived for more than 50 years, Vanguard did lose some of its
presence simply because roots sounds were overtaken by rock and roll and R &
B.
But, with interest returning to such sounds, Vanguard has emerged as a
vibrant place for music new and old.
While attracting a slate of new artists to its roster (i.e. Peter Case,
Patty Larkin, David Wilcox), the company also began releasing high quality
compact discs from its vault. Studio and live recordings from its archives
started to make it on to record store shelves. The company worked with other
labels to produce compilation series, while a search through its own tapes
brought about the release of countless unreleased tracks on re-issues from
onetime Vanguard acts (Joan Baez, Odetta, Larry Coryell and more).
My interest in the background of music and of history itself makes these
releases of great importance. I’ve never been the type to just accept a band
covering a song as the "only" version. I’ve always enjoyed peaking behind
the
door and discovering the original source material. Hearing the first time a
song was mapped out versus how an artist molded it with his/her own
personality gives one the ability to not only appreciate the contributions
of
the past, but it offers a perspective of how a contemporary artist has
developed in a particular way.
Taking it another step, a unifying sign within the jamband scene is the
affection for and lack of pretensions when it comes to doing cover tunes.
One
looks at rock acts and see that cover tunes are either a demand from the
record company due their familiarity to listeners and easy sell to radio
stations or the need for a light moment during a concert.
It may not be very hard to guess where the two Newport Folk Festival
compilations fit into this. Being a fan of live music only made Vanguard’s
two three-CD sets from the Festival that much more special. Both chronicle
performances that occurred at the first event as well as ones throughout the
’60s.
In the case of "Best of Bluegrass" the audience is served selections from
the festival’s first
year of 1959 through the culmination of the style’s success, The Ballad
of
Jed Clampett (Theme from Beverly Hillbillies), in 1966 with 16
previously
unreleased tracks. These are 24-bit masters from the original analog tapes.
On "Best of the Blues" the recordings span from 1959 and the sound of
solo acoustic blues to 1968 and the rediscovery and revision of blues power
produced by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. There are 11 unreleased tracks;
20-bit mastered from the original analog tapes.
What’s so immediately endearing about both releases, but more so with
"Bluegrass" is the sense of innocence and intimacy that is cultivated
through
the recordings. There is a purity of sound yet it is engineered in a manner
that presents the atmosphere of Newport during those times. One can
literally hear the effect of the wind on the microphone during
some of the acoustic sets on "Bluegrass". Particularly memorable during the
"Blues" set is a moment where you briefly hear a (fire engine?) siren while
Robert Pete Williams sings Levee Camp Blues.
Both sets mix well known and lesser-known artists. The effort shines a
well-intentioned and necessary spotlight on folks who aren’t recognized
outside of each genre’s most ardent fans. Let’s face it: Bill Monroe, Lester
Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Stanley
Brothers are prominent figures within bluegrass but Don Stover, Hylo Brown,
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard are not. In the Dickens
and Gerrard’s backing band is a young mandolin player you may have heard of
— David
Grisman.
On "Bluegrass", Bruce Winkworth’s enlightening liner notes pick up the slack
for anyone who needs an instant history lesson on some of these artists. His
overall take on the inclusion of bluegrass music at Newport and artists
backgrounds is brief yet encapsulates a lot of information. We learn the
beginnings of the Folk Festival, its disappearance and reappearance and the
slow embrace of the bluegrass performers. More importantly, he offers a
glimpse of how bluegrass started a resurgence once it became aligned to the
coffeehouse and college-led folk movement.
Listening to this album, I think of a Jerry Garcia interview where he
talked about going to bluegrass festivals and recording the various acts on
the bill. Those early days obviously had an influence on the decision to
allow Grateful Dead fans access to tape and trade tapes of performances. And
when one listens to the performances here you can sense the feeling
that overwhelmed Garcia.

Familiar numbers such as Orange Blossom Special, Man of Constant
Sorrow (which has become a major hit thanks to the film "O Brother Where
Art
Thou"), Cotton-Eyed Joe, Shady Grove and When The Saints Go
Marching In
do not overwhelm material that is not so widely-known. The pace and
performances are good from start to finish.
On "Blues", right before he joins Sonny Terry in song, Brownie McGhee talk
about the
definition of the blues. The soft-spoken man’s comments describe all the
musicians’ contributions. The duo proceeds to display this by offering the
background of The Train Is Leaving and then perform it. Earlier,
Mance Lipscomb plays his account of
widespread tragedy in God Moves on the Water (The Sinking of the
Titanic).

While the liner notes in "Bluegrass" explain that, due to licensing
restrictions, a number of performances were left off, there seems to be no
such trouble on "Blues." Adding to the experience are performances by Muddy
Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend
Gary Davis and Son House.
One of the joys of a compilation release is the ability to hear artists
whose names have popped up in relation to others but I just haven’t dropped
the cash and given them a chance. Fitting that description is Paul
Butterfield. His name has been mentioned throughout chronicles of the late
1960s music scene, but for one reason or another I’ve never taken the next
step to actually search for his music; a result of procrastination and a
missed opportunity due to so much music being around. The point is the Paul
Butterfield Blues Band closes disc three with two songs. I expected a
powerhouse revision of what’s come before him but the material seems
reminiscent of Eric Clapton’s deliberate yet passionate take on the genre.
Not as thrilling as I had hoped but informative. It may eventually lead me
towards more output by the band.
Listening to Butterfield and the more obscure acts is just one example of
the discovery possible on these two releases. But, more importantly, the
material contained on the hyper-speedy and reverent bluegrass tunes and
solemn and environment-derived blues tunes are worthy of your time. It may
stem from the past but it’s just as enjoyable and significant now.

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