Moses Asch founded Folkways Records in 1948 with the express purpose of recording music on the margins of the music industry, where the freedom was greater and the risks were considerably less. Folkways became a sterling example of how to run an independent label, and everything Asch recorded continues to be available, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution music arm, which now handles the catalog along with the backlist of several other small labels (Monitor, Paredon, Cook, Dyer-Bennet, Fast Folk, Collector). This brings the Smithsonian album total to well over 3,000 titles, all of which are maintained in print, a truly amazing achievement. This sampler of that vast collection concentrates on the urban-based folksingers of the so-called folk revival, and as such, works as a companion volume to the more rural-centered compilation called Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian Folkways. There are easily a dozen gems here, including Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" (a song about migrant workers set to the tune of "Pretty Polly"), Doc Watson's beautifully archaic version of "John Henry" (with his brother Arnold Watson on banjo and father-in-law Gaither Carlton on fiddle), Jean Ritchie's airy dulcimer work on "Most Fair Beauty Bright," Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten's childhood composition "Freight Train," and a tender and innocent-sounding version of "Changes" by Phil Ochs. Obviously this is but the barest tip of the Smithsonian Folkways iceberg, but as a sampler, it features a diverse array of interpretations and approaches to American vernacular music.
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AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett