Various Artists

American History in Ballad & Song, Vol. 1

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Drawing on its archive of traditional folk and ethnic recordings, as well as, apparently, recordings made for this project, Folkways Records here presents what is intended to be a musical companion to a study of American history for junior high school students. Albert Barouh and Theodore O. Cron have prepared a course of study for seventh, eighth, and ninth graders that begins in Colonial times and carries on to the end of World War II. In practice, it includes 57 musical pieces on three discs running over two-hours-and-12 minutes, plus a 24-page booklet containing song lyrics and suggested class discussion questions and homework assignments. Of course, most of the contents consists of folk songs on which a single singer accompanies himself or herself on an acoustic instrument (usually a guitar). On more than a third of the album, 20 tracks of the 57, that singer is Pete Seeger, Folkways' flagship artist, playing his banjo. Hermes Nye has 13 selections, Ed McCurdy six, and Wallace House & the Grail Singers three each; others are heard less frequently. The songs often give human voices to Americans living in various eras, although there are also accounts of historical events, sometimes quite detailed. The album generally follows a chronological pattern, but in one instance, it diverges from that pattern in a significant way. American history is followed steadily up to the Civil War, a period amply covered by Nye, who, in performing eight consecutive songs from "Abolitionist Hymn" to "Old Rebel," manages to take both sides of the conflict effectively. The next section, called "The Industrial Era," begins with Seeger's rendition of "Pittsburgh Town," a song from his days with the Almanac Singers. This section and its successor, "The American Farmer," comprise 14 songs, most of them sung by Seeger, going deeply into his support of the Labor Movement and the struggle to unionize industry. Some instructors may find that the project has veered away from objectivity into advocacy here, although it is fair to say that it's probably hard to find folk songs in support of robber barons in particular and capitalism in general. After this material, the program doubles back all the way to the War of 1812 for "The Growth of the U.S. as a World Power," and, skipping over the Civil War, treats the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II before ending with a set of multi-cultural tracks in various languages, a sort of United Nations finish. Of course, teachers have the option of using the parts of the album they choose, and even if they are selective, they will find much to enhance their students' study of history, as singers celebrate Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln, and sing stirringly (sometimes to familiar tunes like "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" with newly fitted words) of historical events. Educators of a more liberal bent may share the preparers' opinions about the importance of union organizing in the Industrial Revolution era; others may simply wish to skip over or skim that part. Either way, the album will be a tool in making American history come alive for junior high school students.

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