The Long Memory is a duo album without a duet; Rosalie Sorrels occupies the first six songs and 17 and a half minutes, while U. Utah Phillips follows with the remaining nine songs (along with four untitled stories and introductions as banded on the CD), for 23 minutes. But though they do not perform together, Sorrels and Phillips share a sensibility and a conception for the album, which is concerned with the history of union organizing dating back to the early years of the 20th century in the U.S. The album begins with a story and song by mineworkers union folksinger Aunt Molly Jackson, and Sorrels continues with songs written by Si Kahn and Malvina Reynolds. Sorrels' contributions, while they refer specifically to the needs and hopes of union workers, stay mostly in a conventional folk song singing style. Phillips, of course, is more of a radical raconteur, as interested in reciting stories in a folksy manner as he is in singing, although the point is always the same: that workers need to organize into a union to fight for their rights against the capitalist bosses. To anyone who considers this message at best historical, both Sorrels and Phillips, in their extensive liner notes, have rebuttals. Phillips rejects the notion that the fight for workers' rights is something from the '60s, if not the '30s, '40s, and '50s, arguing, "These tidy little decade packages are only a media convenience used to trivialize and dismiss important ideas and events." More directly, Sorrels notes that, although "there was a hard struggle and enormous sacrifices were made before there could be any justice or fair pay or safe working conditions for the workers who built this country," still, her state of Idaho is a "right to work" state, "which means," says Sorrels, "you have the right to work for next to nothing with no job protection or benefits." In that sense, little has changed, and the advances achieved by the people celebrated on this record (Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood, etc.) remain vulnerable to reversal if workers do not remain vigilant. The Long Memory thus speaks to contemporary listeners not only as a history lesson (and, at that, history largely left out of the history books), but also as a series of cautionary tales.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann