Subtitled "An African American Aural History," the scope of this two-CD set is impressive, encompassing poetry, writings, speeches, and music by many major Black musicians, writers, and activists of the 20th century. The focus of the disc, however, wavers enough to make it an uneven, jumpy listening experience, although it's a valuable source for educators and radio programmers that might want to draw upon specific tracks to make specific points. All but five of the 59 selections come from within the Smithsonian Folkways collection itself, ranging in length from 20-second soundbites to six-minute musical performances. Whether read by others or by the authors themselves, this contains excerpts of notable literary works or speeches by significant African-Americans such as Langston Hughes, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Martin Luther King, Jr., Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, and Ishmael Reed (sometimes read by notable actors like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee). The music is a real mixed bag of styles, but again commendably diverse, with performances by Reverend Gary Davis, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Paul Robeson, Hamiet Bluiett, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, James P. Johnson, and Arrested Development -- everything from country-blues and jazz to gospel and rap. Occasionally some of the pieces transcend their considerable historical/educational interest as incendiary performances in their own right, such as Amiri Baraka's remarkably lively, visceral performance of his poem "Dope" and the Golden Eagles' infectious Mardi Gras percussive chants. There are extensive liner notes, but these don't always indicate the date of performance/recording, which even in case of the spoken word tracks would be useful information for many of the people apt to listen to such a disc.
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AllMusic Review by Richie Unterberger
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2