MONDAY IS Labor Day. More often than not, songs supplied the morale needed for labor organizers to endure their struggles. The best labor songs in American history were recorded for Folkways Records by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Earl Robinson and others.
But when Folkways founder Moses Asch died in 1986, there was considerable anxiety that the more than 2,200 albums in his catalogue might fall out of print. The Smithsonian Institution, though, lived up to its mandate of preserving American culture and, after several years of assessing just what it has, is beginning to reissue the more popular albums on compact discs with remastered sound, updated notes and, whenever possible, additional bonus tracks. Distributed by Rounder, the Smithsonian/Folkways label is also committed to sustaining Asch's spirit by adding new titles to the catalogue.
Various artists "Don't Mourn -- Organize! Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill" (Smithsonian/ Folkways). Swedish immigrant Joe Hill was not only a leading organizer (and 1915 martyr) for the radical, turn-of-the-century labor movement, the Wobblies, but also one of the finest labor songwriters in American history. This album, which contains both songs by Hill and songs about him, is divided between old recordings collected for this anthology and new recordings made specifically for this album.
The old include Seeger's 1955 banjo version of Hill's "Casey Jones -- The Union Scab" plus two versions of "Joe Hill" -- the famous 1961 concert recording by Paul Robeson and the original 1940 version by its composer, Earl Robinson. The new include Hazel Dickens's lively bluegrass reading of Hill's "The Rebel Girl," Si Kahn's newly written account of Hill's execution and Mark Levy's comical retelling of the Post Office fiasco concerning Hill's cremated ashes. The album begins strongly with Billy Bragg singing 21 verses of Phil Ochs's "Joe Hill," a song closely modeled on Guthrie's "Tom Joad." With 15 selections and extensive, informative notes by Lori Taylor, this anthology is a treasure for anyone interested in American folk or labor music.
Woody Guthrie "Struggle" (Smithsonian/Folkways). Originally issued in 1946 on Folkways and reissued in expanded form in 1976, this album presents Guthrie at his most political. Accompanied by Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry, Guthrie takes old cowboy tunes and adjusts them to sharply sketched stories about a hangman, mining disasters, cheating employers and police massacres of strikers. The combination of Guthrie's friendly, offhand voice and sure grasp of verbal detail should win over even the apolitical listener. The album includes the original version of one of his best-known songs, "Pretty Boy Floyd."
Phil Ochs "The Broadside Tapes 1" (Smithsonian/Folkways). In the early '60s, the burgeoning movement of topical songwriters taped their songs for editors Gordon Friesen and Sis Cunningham, who would transcribe them into music and lyrics and publish them in their Broadside magazine. Ochs was the most prolific contributer; Broadside printed 69 of his songs and couldn't find room for many more. Some of those songs never made it onto Ochs's albums, and the 16 best of those have now been gathered from the Broadside demo tapes for this album. These are rough recordings, but Ochs's songs about the blacklisting of John Henry Faulk, coal mining in Kentucky and the murder of Medgar Evers are well worth preserving. More surprising are a comic song about a Colorado cannibal and "If I Knew," a lyrical meditation like Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings."
Phil Ochs "A Toast to Those Who Are Gone" (Archives Alive/ Rhino). Still more unreleased Ochs tracks were recently discovered by his brother Michael and have now been released on CD. These are 15 early demos of similar vintage and quality as the Broadside songs. They show what a good singer the young Ochs could be, but also how obvious his satire could be when he attacked racism, government corruption and doctors. By contrast, the title song and "I'll Be There" have a timeless poetry that should be sung again and again. Unfortunately, the notes are skimpy, substituting a self-serving essay by Sean Penn (who is planning a movie bio of Ochs) for information on the songs and singer.
Billy Bragg "The Internationale" (Elektra). Britain's gifted folk rocker, appearing Sept. 10 at the 9:30 club, underlines the continuity of the labor song tradition by rewriting Earl Robinson's "Joe Hill" as "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night" for this seven-song EP of leftist anthems. The working-class London singer-songwriter knows his political history and his musical history, and his anthems are not the coy, "gee, aren't I sensitive" do-gooder songs of Hollywood liberals but part of street-proven labor tradition. He accepted Seeger's invitation to write new English lyrics for the socialist anthem, "The Internationale," and came up with a rousing sing-along. He adapted "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" into a Brechtian song about U.S. policy in Central America. He also gives William Blake's poem "Jerusalem" and the 19th-century British anthem "The Red Flag" resounding contemporary echoes.
Tom Juravich "A World to Win" (Flying Fish). Bragg's "Between the Wars" and Bruce Springsteen's "Used Cars" fit comfortably among the more traditional leftist folkie songs by Utah Phillips and Eddi Holewa on this debut album. Juravich, a labor scholar from Philadelphia, has a limited, low-key voice, but his understated approach well suits these songs that rely more on their narrative detail than anthemic slogans. Juravich's own songs tend to be overly obvious but he shows good taste in picking and presenting other people's songs. The superb chamber-folk arrangements behind him are created by D.C. guitarist Pete Kennedy and producer/keyboardist Michael Aharon, formerly of Trapezoid.
Various artists "Hard Cash" (Green Linnet). This is a superb collection of songs written for a BBC television series examining exploitation and injustice in the workplace, with as many viewpoints as there are songwriters involved. The songs range from the bluesy complaint of Jo Ann Kelly's "Odd Job Man" and Dave Kelly's wryly dismissive "You're the Pits" to representations of the inherent tensions that can lead to "Force on the Workforce" and almost always underline the separation between "Master and Servant" ("I buy your hands, your time, a little piece of your mind, if I offer human kindness, you just might milk me dry" contrasted with "I sell my hands, my time, but not my peace of mind, I hope for human kindness but you just milk me dry"). Better yet are the three Richard Thompson songs, including the typically dour "Oh I Swear" and the bittersweet Brecht/Weill-ish lament of "Mrs. Rita." Thompson's bandmate, Clive Gregson, also contributes a pair of songs, the languid fatalism of "Good With My Hands" and the prideful "The Great Provider."