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Heroic Tradition

Woody Guthrie
Worried Man: The stinging social-issues lyrics of Woody Guthrie are highlighted in Rykodisc's reissues from the Tradition Records catalog.

Rykodisc does right by its blues and folk reissues

By Nicky Baxter

THIS IS Dan Greenberg discussing a recent catalog acquisition by the record company he works for: "It was definitely a business move. It was in our best interest to find material to fit into our budget-line products. So we went looking for sizable catalogs." Now, coming from the lips of a Columbia Records bill collector or one of the other major-industry players, this public admission wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But Greenberg is production manager for Rykodisc, one of the most eccentric indie-record labels in the business.

This is the label that issued Frank Zappa's entire catalog--not a strictly commercial venture; the company whose artist roster includes such loss leaders as ex-Nun Alejandro Escovedo and Native American activist, poet and rocker John Trudell. Rykodisc also released a compilation of fragile pop gems by the little-known British singer/songwriter Nick Drake.

And now, thanks largely to Greenberg's efforts, Rykodisc has acquired Tradition Records, undertaking what is undoubtedly its most ambitious reissue campaign to date. During the 1950s and '60s, Tradition released a steady flow of sides by artists whose pivotal role in this country's musical heritage is now taken for granted: bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi Fred McDowell; folk artists Odetta, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie; singing cowboy Ed McCurdy and more.

At some point as he sifted through the hundreds of dust-encrusted reels of tapes, Greenberg's visions of collecting a modest profit seem to have given way to the notion of artistic merit. Still sounding slightly surprised, he says, "After awhile, I thought, here's a label of quality, not just budget-line [product]."

Widely recognized for the care and attention it routinely tenders, Tradition's new retainer went to work sprucing up the rediscovered material. Remastered and "sonically cleansed," the series was introduced this past spring at mid-priced discount ($9.98). "The [original] art was lousy; [there were] no liner notes," Greenberg reports. "We're actually taking a lot of care to reintroduce this music. What started out as a bottom-line deal turned into a labor of love that also helped our bottom line."

The bottom line from this view is that this series is far more than a documentarian's delight. The biggest difficulty for collectors may be deciding where to begin. How about Woody Guthrie's Early Masters, a session that features Cisco Houston's vocals and harmonicat Sonny Terry's prodigious gifts.

Listeners can rediscover the Guthrie of myth in seminal form delivering a collection of folk standards as well as his own works. Listening to Guthrie's acerbic social critiques sends chills down your conscience; that some of these songs still retain their relevance some 50 years after they were written is food for thought. Take a long hard listen to "Worried Man Blues" and "Hard, Ain't It Hard" and ask yourself if Guthrie's not addressing life in the 1990s. Add to the mix some equally pungent musical accompaniment, and even the most faithful of Bob Dylan's believers will be obliged to dismiss Guthrie's heir apparent for the faker he is--if they haven't already.

THOUGH NOT perceived to be as "radical" as Guthrie, Leadbelly (né Huddie Ledbetter), represented on In the Shadow of the Gallows Pole, may well be considered the first American-born African folk/blues artist to cross over. His interpretation of folk standards ("Irene," "Rock Island Line" and "The Midnight Special") did much to preserve interest in them until the folk boom in the early 1960s and again in more recent times.

It was Ledbetter's interpretation of a hoary folk tune, "Gallis Pole," on which that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant modeled their own--right down to the tormented moaning and odd, olde-worldly guitar figure. Now, everybody's down with the Zep, but the group's version comes off limp juxtaposed to the m-a-n-ly fashion the felon-turned-folk singer delivers. And for the clucks balloon-headed enough to think they invented hard-core political script, listen to Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues." It doesn't get any harder than this, especially considering that in the 1930s and '40s, singing lines like "Me and my friend/we wuz standin' upstairs/heard a white man shout/don't want no niggas up there" could get a blackman six feet under.

Space doesn't permit detailed dissection of all that Rykodisc-revitalized Tradition has to offer; suffice to say that by year's end, a total of 40 discs will be on the market. September's 10 titles accented the pioneering efforts of folkies like the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, Emerald Isle­inspired trillers Seamus Ennis, and the aforementioned McCurdy. All that jazz is duly represented by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Earl "Fatha" Hines and Meade "Lux" Lewis.

Greenberg expects a favorable response to the Tradition reissue project. According to him, what's in record store bins has already created a nice buzz. "Because we're based near the 'House of Blues' and Tower Records," comments Greenberg, "we've gotten a great bump, in terms of visibility." Ordinarily, art, and profit mix about as well as a punk at a funk convention; here's hoping that folks blues people and jazz addicts come out the pocket for sounds that gave birth to the unplugged generation.

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro

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