Few things ring true quality such as the Smithsonian Folkways sun tattooed across the spine of a record. The nonprofit label has made a modern tradition of charting the folk intersections of lost performers and classic material and they certainly don’t fail to deliver on their new release Classic African American Songsters. The collection of secular songs culls together ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and proto-blues stylings from artists both past and present.
The duo of previously unreleased tracks begs first mention: Bill Williams, a rail-riding six string partner in crime to Blind Blake, testifies with the baudy vaudville standard “Chicken, You Can’t Roost Too High for Me” and harmonica showman Peg Leg Sam offers up perhaps the most epic telling of “Froggy Went A-Courting” you’ll hear. But when a familiar face shows up, it’s never in their usual guise. Take Mississippi John Hurt’s six minute stretch over “Monday Morning Blues” where he twists out of his shorter blues forms, snapping and digging his strings as his honey-rusted voice ebbs and flows. Or try Reverend Gary Davis’s take on “Candy Man,” here his trademark rapturous bellow tamed by a softer guitar hand.
Smithsonian Folkways religiously digs into the historical roots of folk music from America and beyond. While their efforts could be called archeological in their exhausted depth, to do so would call their subjects long dead and gone. Far from the case here: the tracks on Classic African American Songsters prove the music still runs hot as the lifeblood through contemporary country and blues.
– Luke Dennis