Freedom: Songs from the Hearts of America

Various Artists

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Freedom: Songs from the Hearts of America Review

by Richie Unterberger

National pride, patriotism, and ruminations on the spirit of freedom were in vogue in America in the early '00s in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center. This three-CD, 67-song set is the companion musical release to the eight-hour PBS television series Freedom: A History of US. American freedom is a big concept to cover even given eight hours, and the same challenge, with its rewards and problems, applies to a box set based around the theme, even given three discs and 67 songs. To be sure, there is an enormous amount of variety within this package, spanning World War I to 2001 and stylistically covering most forms of American music from folk, country, blues, pop, jazz, and classical to rock, gospel, soul, Broadway, and cowboy music. There's a lot of good stuff here, from recognized classics (and even some chart hits) to some imaginatively off the beaten track selections. The set's chief drawback is inextricably linked to its chief asset, though. With so much variety, it's not too certain that a whole lot of listeners will be in the mood to hear so many styles and sentiments side by side, particularly once the memory of the TV series has faded, if only for those inspired to purchase the music by the program. There does seem to be some rough categorization to the sequencing, though, with much of the more traditional material on disc one, recordings and popular styles from the early and mid-20th century on disc two, and disc three devoted largely to more popular rock, soul, and folk songs from the rock era.

There is, as expected, a surfeit of flag-waving tunes: "Yankee Doodle" (a 1917 recording by the Broadway Quartet featuring Charles Harrison that's the oldest track on the set), "The Star Spangled Banner" (Duke Ellington), "Dixie" (Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers), "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "America the Beautiful" (by Keb' Mo', and with a 2001 recording date, one of the most recent offerings), "Stars and Stripes Forever!" (by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting), and "God Bless America" (Kate Smith). Others focus on the beauty of the land itself, like "This Land Is Your Land" (a "duet" between Woody Guthrie and son Arlo Guthrie) and Gene Autry's "Home on the Range." To its credit, though, this isn't just jingoism, also giving time to songs that strive for freedom against oppression and express dissent, or at least ambivalence. Foremost among those are Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free" (not exactly a well-known standard and a particularly imaginative selection), Louis Armstrong's "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?," Bing Crosby's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Paul Robeson's "Joe Hill," Mahalia Jackson's "We Shall Overcome," Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Pete Seeger doing "If I Had a Hammer," Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions' "People Get Ready," Simon & Garfunkel's "America," the famous "America" song from the Broadway show West Side Story, Richie Havens' Woodstock performance of "Freedom," and the Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power."

There are also songs that don't particularly take a stand on freedom, but are more reflections of the American spirit, or of Americana. There are also songs that are more spiritual in general than specifically oriented toward American liberty, like "Amazing Grace" (Willie Nelson's version) and the Carter Family's "Can the Circle Be Unbroken." And there are songs that are more a celebration of freedom than anything else, like Sly & the Family Stone's "Stand!," Martha & the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," and Bruce Springsteen's live cover of "Chimes of Freedom." Some of the more interesting cuts are ones in which the compilers obviously used their noggins and dug up cool items that weren't expected clichéd classics, like Count Basie's "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?," the Golden Gate Quartet's goofy post-nuclear ode "Atom and Evil," the Almanac Singers' version of Woody Guthrie's "Union Maid" (with both Seeger and Guthrie), Kay Kyser's "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," and Gene Autry's "The Death of Mother Jones" (yes, he really did sing a song with that title). There's still, in the end, too high a quotient of the earnest feel-good breast beating imbued in much American patriotic music. There's nonetheless, to be sure, also much classic and seminal American popular music, though it might be better heard by sampling individual favorites than getting through the whole melting pot at once.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 Nina Simone 03:10 Amazon
2 Washington Men's Camerata 02:25 Amazon
3 Charles Harrison 03:07 Amazon
4 Dave Brubeck / Peter, Paul and Mary 03:19 Amazon
5 New York Philharmonic 03:05 Amazon
6 New York Philharmonic 01:13 Amazon
7 Willie Nelson 05:42 Amazon
8 Suzanne Vega / Dan Zanes 02:41 Amazon
9 02:36 Amazon
10 Mormon Tabernacle Choir 02:53 Amazon
11 Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers 03:14 Amazon
12 Taj Mahal 02:40 Amazon
13 The Boys Choir of Harlem 04:17 Amazon
14 Washington Men's Camerata 04:25 Amazon
15 Pamela Warrick-Smith 02:49 Amazon
16 Jerry Garcia / David Grisman 07:52 Amazon
Johnny Mike / Verdell Primeaux 02:05 Amazon
18 Gene Autry 02:40 Amazon
19 Keb' Mo' 03:37 Amazon
20 The Carter Family 03:09 Amazon
21 Goldman Band 02:58 Amazon
22 New York Philharmonic 03:10 Amazon

Track Listing - Disc 2

Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 Mahalia Jackson 02:40 Amazon
2 Les Brown & His Orchestra 03:01 Amazon
3 James P. Johnson & His Orchestra 03:14 Amazon
4 Arthur Fields 02:45 Amazon
Bert Williams 02:59 Amazon
6 Gene Autry 02:41 Amazon
7 Louis Armstrong 03:10 Amazon
Smith Ballew 03:01 Amazon
9 Bing Crosby / Lennie Hayton & His Orchestra 03:14 Amazon
10 Ben Selvin 03:06 Amazon
Dorsey Brothers Orchestra / The Boswell Sisters 02:34 Amazon
12 Kate Smith 01:59 Amazon
13 Lorin Maazel / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra 08:26 Amazon
14 Woody Guthrie 02:32 Amazon
15 Woody Guthrie / Pete Seeger / Almanac Singers 02:10 Amazon
16 Billie Holiday 03:12 Amazon
17 Josh White 03:23 Amazon
18 Paul Robeson 02:43 Amazon
19 Benny Goodman / Peggy Lee 03:19 Amazon
20 Kay Kyser & His Orchestra 02:35 Amazon
21 Benny Goodman / Johnny Mercer / Paul Weston & His Orchestra / The Pied Pipers / Margaret Whiting 03:12 Amazon
22 Golden Gate Quartet 03:19 Amazon
23 Count Basie 02:12 Amazon
24 Lead Belly 02:20 Amazon
25 London Symphony Orchestra 03:15 Amazon

Track Listing - Disc 3

Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 Bob Dylan 03:14 Amazon
Marilyn Cooper / Reri Grist / Chita Rivera 04:35 Amazon
3 Terence Trent D'Arby 04:50 Amazon
4 Mahalia Jackson 02:45 Amazon
5 Martha Reeves 02:41 Amazon
6 Pete Seeger 01:55 Amazon
7 The Freedom Singers 02:25 Amazon
8 Bruce Springsteen 07:21 Amazon
9 The Impressions 02:39 Amazon
10 Simon & Garfunkel 03:34 Amazon
11 Sweet Honey in the Rock 04:07 Amazon
12 Sly & the Family Stone 03:08 Amazon
13 Richie Havens 06:00 Amazon
14 Billy Joel 07:05 Amazon
15 Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes 03:42 Amazon
16 The Isley Brothers 03:21 Amazon
17 Johnny Cash / Marty Robbins 03:30 Amazon
18 James Taylor 03:13 Amazon
19 Living Colour 05:33 Amazon
20 Donny Hathaway 04:11 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick