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The Little Red Box Of Protest Songs is a truly outstanding release. A three CD box-set full of the finest protest folk music from the USA of the early 20th century. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first American protest song book, ‘The Little Red Song Book’ this collection traces the roots of protest song in the US from the first half of the last century up to the Fifties illustrating how the stage was set for the folk protest giants of the Sixties such as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Featuring classic performances by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Leadbelly, The Almanac Singers, The Weavers and many many more.
The usual suspects – Woody, Pete, Leadbelly, Josh White – are all present and politically correct (or not, depending on your ideological viewpoint!). The 60 tracks are mostly circa the Second World War – more than 60 years old, but all worth preserving and hearing. The best songs here – Leadbelly’s The Bourgeois Blues, Josh White’s Jim Crow Train, Brownie McGhee’s Black, Brown and White – are superb, but even the ones with less artistic value are historically significant.
Paying tribute to the Industrial Workers Of The World (or the Wobblie’s as they affectionately became known) publication, The Little Red Song Book. The book was a source of inspiration to many of the artists in this box set. In the folk tradition, the box set borrows the subtitle – To Fan the Flames of Discontent but this is where the similarity ends and the legacy is picked up. There’s no Internationale, no Red Flag and no Solidarity Forever. Compiler Russell Beecher acknowledges the path beaten by Joe Hill but instead turns his focus to both the blues men of Chicago and the New York folk scene of the 1940’s and those who gravitated there, most notably, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. People who were amongst folk singers and left wing intellectuals and who recognised the subversive power of the song and were themselves personally inspired by the IWW’s Little Red Book.
Whereas the latter concentrated on union and labour songs, The New York scene broadened the catalogue of protest songs to reflect the changing times and politics. Bank crashes, miscarriages of justices, the rise of fascism, threat of atomic bombs, strikes, destitute farmers and hungry workers are all here against a backdrop of blues, country, hillbilly yodelling, banjo picking and hootenannies.
The sixty songs are divided into three cd’s, The House I Live In, Patriotic Diggers and We Shall Be Free. If not rarities, they are all treasures that paint a picture of this time in American history. Highlights of the first collection of songs include the Alfred Hayes poem set to music by Earl Robinson recounting the work of Joe Hill and the miscarriage of justice that resulted in his execution by firing squad.
Then there’s Bob Miller’s ‘Bank Failures’, written in the 1930’s and sadly still relevant now.
“By skipping we saved a few dollarsPut ‘em in a big bank vaultSomething is wrongCause the money is goneAnd it certainly isn’t our faultWe gotta break our backs and continue paying taxGood people we’re a bloat upsetJust why our money went bye bye no one seems to explain”
Play this back to back with Brownie McGhee’s, piano driven boogie, ‘High Price Blues’ from the second CD and it could easily be 2015.
Releases such as this set make the modern day listener feel uneasy, such is the convenience of purchasing a collection that encompasses such a breadth of human experience. Each of these songs stands tall and strong, could be, and have been, lived in and lived by. Though this is nominally referred to as folk music, it also covers jazz, blues and soul, with soul in particular permeating. It’s in the ghostly harmonies of The Union Boys, the humour of Carl Sandburg’s The Boll Weevil and the stand-up dignity of Woody Guthrie songs that pepper the set. This is an intense listen and perhaps best absorbed in short bursts given the amount of material collected. Such is the nature of the protest song…
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Part of the ‘Classic Album Reviews’ series (here) where we bring you something a little bit different to what you’re use to. Lost gems that have inspired and provoked folk music and musicians right up to modern celtic-punk music. Usually out of print so we can provide a free download link for you.