Southern comforts

Smithsonian Folkways are the keepers of the US ethnomusical flame - and they've enhanced their CDs to prove it. Simon Broughton meets Tony Seeger, the label's curator and a man determined to put Georgia on our minds
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There are few companies so resistant to the bland Cola-isation of US culture as Smithsonian Folkways Recordings - tireless enthusiasts for American regional music. So it seems surprising that, among all the crass Olympic hype and marketing strategies of the past few weeks, this idealistic and educational organisation should have leapt into the turkey barn and launched what they call an "Enhanced CD" to tie in with the centennial Olympiad.

Yet it's entirely typical of the organisation's curator, the banjo-playing ethnomusicologist Tony Seeger. He enthusiastically embraces the commercial and technological possibilities thrown up by the artistic ambition of producing an anthology of roots music from the American South. And, given last month's Atlanta bombing and the history of strife in the region, it seems sadly fitting that his new collection, Crossroads: Southern Routes, should open with the Brownie McGhee blues track, "Rising Sun".

"Which way? Which way does the blood-red river run? / Runs from my back window straight to the rising sun" run the lyrics. "It's a song about the anguish and aimlessness a man feels after his woman leaves him," explains Seeger. "But the river can probably be interpreted as a kind of metaphor for life, although I don't think it's a prophetic song about the Olympic Games. There was enough suffering and anguish in Brownie McGhee's times [the 1940s and 1950s] to sing about, without predicting some future event."

An "Enhanced CD", Crossroads comprises a selection of the various traditions that make up the cultural gumbo that is the American South - Appalachian, blues and bluegrass, to Native American, gospel, Cajun, Tex-Mex, country and jazz. But what exactly is an "Enhanced CD"? In short, it's the first CD-Rom that can be played on a normal CD player. And what you get is a very respectable 16-track compilation of some of the best music from the American South - including the pre-Elvis version of "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins, classic bluegrass from Bill Monroe, contemporary country from Tammy Wynette and gospel from the Mississippi Mass Choir. The music itself is instantly evocative of the Deep South, but its "enhancements" are revealed once you put it into a CD-Rom drive.

Maps show the precise location of the recorded clips, and historical pages chart the complex history of the original Native American inhabitants, the Spanish, French and English colonisers, slaves and other groups who further added to the cultural mix. There are samples of other related types of music, performer interviews and video clips (still the weak link in CD-Rom technology as the fuzzy images don't allow you to glean much about Bill Monroe's mandolin technique). All the same, it's one of the most impressive CD-Roms I've seen - not so much for its technical features, but for the fact that it seems to have been conceived by musicians and enthusiasts rather than computer boffins. It is easy and interesting to use and has its own dedicated access to the Smithsonian's World Wide Web page on the Internet. What's more, it sells for no more than the price of a conventional CD owing to the involvement of Microsoft, who are keen to push this kind of technology. What they are hoping is that when those of us with bog-standard CD- players realise what we're missing, we'll race out to invest in the new technology. And what made Smithsonian Folkways so attractive to Microsoft, Seeger admits, was that it has the rights to what must be one of the most extensive catalogues of world music and American roots traditions in the world. "Smithsonian Folkways is the heir to Folkways, one of those individual record labels started by a strong- willed person, that did things that no other record company was going to do."

Folkways was started by Moses Asch on Labour Day, 1948 - for symbolic reasons - and, says Seeger: "His vision was a record company that was going to record all the sounds in the world and be a huge public archive. He really wanted to fill the map with music. This was long before the concept of world music became popular. Moses Asch was pushing an idea. On average, he published one album a week for the next 40 years and kept every one in print." The Folkways catalogue eventually ran to over 2,000 titles and, with every one of them continually available, it was the biggest collection of its kind. The Smithsonian acquired Folkways in 1987 as the core of its ethnic music collection and appointed Seeger to curate and develop it. "The Smithsonian Institution itself is more or less the US National Museum. It was founded 150 years ago by an English scientist named Smithson, who donated all of his money to fund an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge in the US - a country he'd never visited! Since I've been curator, I've tried to keep all the back-catalogue in print and to bring out new projects that I think are significant and related to the mission of the Smithsonian."

The aim of Smithsonian Folkways, and this anthology, as it states in the sleevenotes, is to take you off the interstate highways with their uniformity and on to the smaller southern routes with their local people, culture and history: "They have warred and traded, separated and intermarried, worshipped and struggled for freedom," says Seeger. "They have also eaten each other's food, listened to each other's stories, borrowed each other's instruments and sung each other's songs in new ways. Think of each song as an 'exit' from the interstate, and an entry into an entire musical region that you can explore for yourself."

Native Americans, brutally displaced by the European settlers, still live in the South, represented on this CD by songs in the Miccosukee and Creek languages. The colonisers brought Spanish, French and English traditions, featured here by Lydia Mendoza (one of the divas of Tex-Mex), Dewey Balfa (one of the best Cajun fiddlers), and a good number of English-speaking artists - from Doc Watson's Appalachian folk and the Allman Brothers's Southern rock to the blues of Brownie McGhee, New Orleans jazz of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, R & B of the Neville Brothers and an unaccompanied spiritual from the Baptist singer Vera Hall Ward. A good many of these, of course, are Afro-American tracks and a legacy of the plantations and slavery that became so rooted in the Deep South. The end of the Civil War in 1865 brought large population movements as freed African-Americans took their culture to different parts of the country and Southern music became America's popular music. In fact, Southern music became just about everything: the nation's folk music (Appalachian and bluegrass), its popular music (country), its church music (gospel) and then, through the global influence of jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll, the whole world's music too.

I don't suppose that Smithsonian Folkways' new disc will sell anything like as many copies as John Williams's Olympic anthem Summon the Heroes, but to my ear it gives a much truer and deeper picture of the environment in which this year's games have taken place.

n 'Crossroads: Southern Routes' is released by Smithsonian Folkways (SF CD 40080) and distributed in Britain by Koch International

Comments