In its 39 years of active life, from 1947 to 1986, Folkways Records was a crazy quilt of Americana, a general store with a deep inventory of oddity, inspiration and wonder. The records sounded as if they had been made out in a field, as indeed they sometimes were. All done up in a sturdy cardboard sleeve, they even felt different. But in the midst of all this homespun, Folkways achieved what other companies bring off by accident: it got history on record.
After Folkways Founder Moses Asch died in 1986, his company might have slipped off too. Folkways was an ideal more than a thriving business. The Smithsonian Institution wanted to keep the label going under its own aegis, but the proposition was financially daunting. So Bob Dylan and Folklorist and Smithsonian Official Ralph Rinzler came up with the idea of a commemorative album. Instead of ponying up, musicians were asked to contribute their talents -- and royalties -- to help subsidize the Smithsonian investment and keep Folkways flowing. The result is not only a square deal but also a spectacular record.
Folkways, subtitled A Vision Shared and released this week by Columbia, matches some of the best contemporary talent, Dylan to Springsteen to Willie * Nelson, with songs by Folkways' two most formidable artists: Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Combinations like that have more than just commercial validity; they have a musical vigor that goes beyond curiosity value. At their best, the reworkings of the songs manage to illuminate their authors as well as redefine the performers.
The 14 cuts on Folkways date largely from the Depression and are bracketed by tradition. The gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock opens up the set with a sweetened version of Leadbelly's Sylvie that nicely smartens up tradition, while Pete Seeger shuts things down with a tub-thumping rendition of Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land, with assistance from Sweet Honey, the revered guitarist Doc Watson and a chorus of school kids. It is Bob Dylan who builds the bridge into the present. His version of Pretty Boy Floyd, performed with acoustic guitar and harmonica, is filled with the fierce surprise of a man going in search of his past and, against all odds, finding it.
After all this time, Dylan's voice has become a rickety vehicle, but Guthrie's songs are built for long trips over rough roads, and Dylan drives Pretty Boy home, hard. You can hear the Dylan of the early '60s in this version, making peace and moving along with his current incarnation, leaving behind in the process a reminder that many of his verbal, as well as musical, skills were drawn from a master. Guthrie foxed around with being just folks, but it took a writer of superlative skill -- not to mention sophistication -- to mingle folklore, radical politics and social satire as supplely as he did in Pretty Boy's famous chorus: "Well it's through this world I ramble/ I've seen lots of funny men/ Some will rob you with a six-gun/ And some with a fountain pen."