Various Classic African-American Ballads / Classic Labor S

The cultural institution that is Smithsonian Folkways continues its tireless efforts to archive and distribute some of the most significant recordings in American history. Their compilations are always endlessly fascinating and these two are no different. Among the African-American songs and black blues ballads selected here are some of the most essential songs in popular music. Take Lead Belly’s surreal accordion-led take on "John Hardy” or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s spirited "John Henry.” Snooks Eaglin’s "St. James Infirmary” is as poignant as Big Bill Broonzy’s "Frankie and Johnny” is teasing. Drawing upon ballads written between 1890 and 1920, these artists attempted to lift spirits sunken by racial oppression by calling upon a tradition African-Americans could call their own. Fighting a vastly different battle, workers’ rights advocates could sure come up with some galvanising songs about their plight. These songs call for no less than justice in an unjust world, a demand for fair wages and dignified labour practices. The message is blunt on "Casey Jones (Union Scab)” by Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers and "We Shall Not Be Moved/Roll the Union On” by Joe Glazer. Somehow the tone is even more direct on Woody Guthrie’s "1913 Massacre” and Annie Feeney’s contemporary rocker "We Just Come to Work Here, We Don’t Come to Die.” Whereas African-American Ballads relies on more narrative-based songs to convey joy and pain, the heavy-handed messages of Labor Songs are impossible to miss and are effective in different ways. (Smithsonian Folkways)