Various Artists

Legends: Folk Legends

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This is a curious collection of mostly laid-back versions of classic American folk songs recorded in the late '40s and early '50s as the politicized roots of the great folk revival that would come to commercial fruition in the early '60s was just getting under way, Folk Legends has a strangely filtered feel to it, as if the rough and rowdy edges of these songs had been gently smoothed away, leaving a prettiness that is often more coy than authentic. Not that authenticity was what most of these singers were after anyway, since the notion that folk songs could -- and should -- be used for political and utilitarian purposes was often the guiding factor for artists like Earl Robinson, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie, who stitched together a kind of alternative Americana of the day full of songs that plaintively drew attention to social injustice. In the end, all a song wants, one supposes, is to be sung and be remembered, and if that meant being poignantly political, well, so be it. Among the many highlights here are Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line," Burl Ives' deceptively simple "The Blue Tail Fly," Woody Guthrie's great national anthem "This Land Is Your Land," and Tom Glazer's rendition of one of the prettiest (and saddest) melodies in all of American folk song, here called "Cowboy's Lament (The Streets of Laredo)." In the end, this set overcomes its revisionist feel and manages to feel like an important remembrance of a unique era in American music, a time when looking back at the country's musical heritage seemed to offer up clues on how to proceed into a future full of rapid industrialization, hard rain, and cold wars. That things got hotter and harder doesn't diminish the strange and enduring strength of these old tunes, which were sung and re-sung out of a notion of community, even if that community never really had a chance against what was building on the horizon. It's the hope for it that impresses here.

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