Various Artists

Song of America [31 Tigers]

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Any reasonable music fan would be forgiven for being wary of a collection of American folk music whose executive producer was former attorney general Janet Reno, but as it happens Reno knows more about such things than one might expect. At the very least Reno had the good judgment to suggest singer, songwriter and activist Ed Pettersen coordinate an album of songs that reflected different aspects of American history, from the colonial period to the present day. Pettersen's long gestating project, Song of America, has finally surfaced as a hefty three-CD set, featuring 50 songs from as many artists, and the final product is frequently fascinating and ambitious stuff, music that demonstrates how art mirrors our history and how that art can carry its message in a broad range of interpretations. Pettersen, co-producers David Macias and Bob Olhsson, and their cast of singers and musicians are clearly mindful of the message and context of these songs, but they don't insist on treating them with kid gloves; the discordant horns on John Wesley Harding's "God Save the King" boldly reflects the chaos of the Revolution, Danielson's interpretation of "Happy Days Are Here Again" is at once playful and aware of the dark shadows of the Depression, the Mavericks transform "Dixie's Land" into a spectral anthem to a cause that would soon be lost, and "The Times They Are A Changin'" seems to speak to both past and present through the Del McCoury Band. Pettersen and company are also smart enough to realize that while the folk process has changed, it's hardly stopped, and that the work of James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Grandmaster Flash, and Marvin Gaye are all a part of the broad banner of our history, with their works interpreted with the same intelligence and thoughtfulness as the traditional numbers. The set closes with John Mellencamp singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," and in this context, Guthrie's simple but eloquent song has rarely displayed a greater resonance, revealing how these tunes don't merely reflect our lives and history, but are a living part of it. Song of America is hardly the first album that seeks to chart this nation's progress through song, but few have done it with this degree of intelligence and imagination, and everyone involved deserved to be congratulated for creating something very special indeed.

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