Various Artists

The Best of Harry Belafonte's Long Road to Freedom

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Harry Belafonte undertook an ambitious and enormous recording project in 1961, an attempt to tell the whole story of what he termed "African-matrixed" music in the United States, beginning with its African origins in the 17th century and reaching through to its urban fruition on the edge of modern soul music. Choosing not to work from field recordings or archival releases, Belafonte instead opted to record faithful re-creations of the music with a cast that included himself as well as the likes of Bessie Jones, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Joe Williams, and Gloria Lynne. This massive project took ten years to complete, and then wasn't released until 30 years later, appearing in 2001 as a box set with some 80 tracks arranged chronologically across five CDs, featuring a staggering array of work songs, mountain hollers, ballads, deep blues, chain-gang songs, hymns, children's songs, minstrel tunes, and street-vendor calls. This single disc sampler condenses things into 20 tracks, beginning with Ashanti and Yoruba chants and percussion pieces, working through religious shouts, early spirituals, country blues, urban spirituals and concluding with an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. While the occasional "high art" approach to these songs takes some getting used to, they're always lovingly and faithfully done, and one of the highlights on this sampler is Belafonte's own epic version of the folk song "Boll Weevil." Since the complete box set is a bit of an investment, this collection serves as a good introduction to the wonders to be found there.

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