Album Review: Various, ‘The Social Power of Music’

Music brings people together; when people join their voices in song, they forget their differences and celebrate the features of their lives that they share. Music transforms us because it tells stories about our fears and the threats we face, about our origins and the beginnings of our communities, and about our desire to build a better world. Music consoles us, allows us to express our anger and our hopes for reconciliation, moves us to action, and creates community.

Since 1948, Folkways has been collecting, preserving, and disseminating the songs that illustrate the social power of music. In this this new 4-CD set, The Social Power of Music, accompanied by a lavishly illustrated 124-page book, Smithsonian senior archivist, Jeff Place, director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Huib Schippers, and program manager at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Meredith Holmgren draw from the over 60,000 tracks in the label’s archives to produce a stunning and moving anthology that illustrates the transformative power of music across cultures and across social and cultural issues.

Disc 1: “Songs of Struggle” features songs often associated with movements for social justice in America: the labor movement, the women’s movement, the Civil Rights movement. The Almanac Singers’ version of “Which Side Are You On?” delivers a forceful challenge, calling individuals out to choose justice and hope. The Freedom Singers’ version of “We Shall Overcome” opens this disc with an unforgettable and searing message of hope for the black community in the 1960s. Joe Glazer’s stirring “Solidarity Forever” rouses us to unity and calls us to action, while Peggy Seegers’ “Reclaim the Night” has never been timelier with its call to condemn rape in all forms. Sammy Walker’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” resonates more deeply than ever in our current political situation and the focus on immigration.

Disc 2: “Sacred Sounds” collects spirituals and religious songs from across a wide range of traditions to illustrate the power of music to transport listeners beyond their mundane lives. Some of these songs accompany sacred rituals and rites, and others move beyond narrow sacred spaces into public life and spaces. Members of Zuni Pueblo’s “Zuni Rain Dance” mesmerizes as it moves its listeners to a unity with the natural world. Cantor Abraham Brun sings a haunting version of “Kol Nidre,” the prayer sung at the beginning of Yom Kippur services, while Raasche and Canadian folk singer Alan Mills join forces on the familiar Passover song “Dayeinu.” Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers deliver a poignant version of the African American spiritual “Come by Here” (“Kumbaya”), while the Strange Creek Singers (Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Lamar Grier) offer a compelling take on the familiar “Will the Circle be Unbroken?”

Disc 3: “Social Songs and Gatherings” includes songs that bring communities together around personal events—such as funerals, birthdays, weddings—that shape their lives. Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band launch this disc with the infectious Zydeco sounds of “Party Down at the Blue Angel”; Roberto Martínez and Los Reyes de Albuquerque deliver a jaunty mariachi take on Bob Willis’ “San Antonio Rose.” Polka enthusiasts will love the rollicking “In Heaven There is No Beer” by the Goose Island Ramblers, while the Liberty Brass Brand strolls jauntily down the boulevard to celebrate life with its “Liberty Funeral March.”

Disc 4: “Global Movements” features songs sung by social movements around the world. The Chongsun “Arirang” asserts Korea’s independence from Japan and claims its own national identity. Lebanese musician Marcel Khalifé’s “The Passport” is his musical interpretation of Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish’s poem of the same title in which the poet reflects on his experience of being required to carry a passport in his native land. Lily Tchiumba’s “Muato Mua N’Gola” (“Women of Angola”) promotes women’s rights for women of all social class in Angola, while “Bella Ciao” (“Goodbye Beautiful”), which comes out the Italian resistance movement in World War II, calls for resistance to fascism in all its forms.

Smithsonian Folkways The Social Power of Music reminds us how deeply music weaves itself into the fabric of our world and how bereft we would be without it. This is a must-have collection.


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Social Power of Music is available now via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings at iTunes, Amazon.com, and Smithsonian Folkways.

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