This great collection of music (83 tracks total) from the Vanguard Records label is not only good music, but also defines an exciting period in music. This was the era when record labels themselves were largely defined by the caliber of music they released. And for a few years the Vanguard label was the equal of other small (or large) labels like Elektra or Columbia. Even a cursory look at the artists in this set proves that Vanguard had big, open ears when it came to great music. The packaging was also top drawer-the album jackets exuded quality-and almost forced you to pick up an album to check it out-and then you were pretty much hooked. Hopefully many of the artists heard here will spur people on to dig deeper (especially the live Newport Festival releases) into their respective music styles.
This set comes with a 57 page booklet which contains an Introduction by Samuel Charters, noted for his work at Vanguard, and in the blues field in general. There's also a piece by John Crosby, on both the era and the music and it's relation to British fans and the Vanguard label. But the bulk of the booklet is taken up with track by track information-recording date, where the track can be found, and a bit about the artist-also written by Crosby. Another nice touch is the pertinent album cover (but not for every artist) is also pictured alongside the artist. There's also photos of many of the artists, ads, articles, Vanguard advertisements, and record labels. There's even a Contents page and Index for ease of use. This booklet is how all collections of music should be presented. The discs snap inside a quad-fold package-which also have some good graphics underneath the disc trays. Everything fits inside a rather flimsy cardboard slipcase, which lists the song titles and artists on the back cover. For this much money I would've liked to have seen a thicker outer box to both protect the contents and give this music (and label) the presentation it warrants.
The first disc is given over to blues artists (both country and big city styles), with a bit of gospel music for good measure. The second disc is Americana/folk/country/bluegrass music. The third contains more folk music, but also highlights some of the label's rock artists. And the fourth disc continues with folk music, but adds a bit of jazz-fusion, solo guitar, a combination of East-West music, and country-rock. This set was mastered using Vanguard's master tapes by Nick Robbins at Sound Mastering Ltd.
Also included are live tracks from the Newport Folk Festival, including a previously unreleased track by Bob Dylan ("North Country Blues", which is on the DVD "Bob Dylan: The Other Side of the Mirror-Live At The Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965"), and for 4 minutes brings into sharp focus great memories of that period and "our Dylan" as the folk purists claimed, among a number of other artists who appeared on The Newport Folk (or Blues) Festival records for Vanguard, and a rare studio track ("Janis" which is quite a departure for the band) from Country Joe & The Fish.
A sample of who's included is Skip James ("I'm So Glad"), JB Hutto ("Too Much Alcohol"), Doc Watson ("Deep River Blues"), Koerner, Ray & Glover ("What's The Matter With The Mill"), Dave Van Ronk ("Cocaine"), Buddy Guy ("Fever"), The Weavers ("This Land Is Your Land"), Phil Ochs ("There But For Fortune"), Jesse Fuller ("San Francisco Bay Blues") check out the just reissued album "Move On Down The Line" for some of Fuller's great early recordings, Ian & Sylvia ("Early Morning Rain"), Paul Butterfield Blues Band ("Born In Chicago"), The Dillards ("Dueling Banjos"), Joan Baez ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") a 45 single, Swan Silvertones ("Oh Mary Don't You Weep"), Rev. Robert Wilkins ("Prodigal Son"), Charlie Musselwhite & Harvey Mandel ("Cristo Redentor") which is from the album "Stand Back!..." and includes some soulful Hammond organ-and was a quite a departure for a blues band-which is indicative of the experimentation of the era, Larry Coryell & John McLaughlin (an acoustic "Rene's Theme"), a solo live Country Joe McDonald (with his classic anti-war "Kiss My A**") and many other well known artists.
But there's also a number of lesser known artists, like the Cajun Band, Almeda Riddle, Cisco Houston, Gary & Randy Scruggs (Earl Scruggs, boys), Eric Andersen, Partick Sky, Serpent Power (including the 46 second "Dope Again"), Notes From The Underground ("Wish I Was A Punk", with classic lyrics like "wipe your nose off and zip up your pants boy", and ends with the sound of a toilet flushing), (the slightly twisted) Circus Maximus, The Frost (who missed the mark a bit with so many other good-i.e. popular-bands playing rock), Tom Paxton, Kinky Friedman (including "Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed"), The Country Gentlemen, Elizabeth (actually a band-check out the lyrics, something about having some "tea"), Hedy West ("500 Miles"), Oregon ("Sail"), and others. And check out the band 31st of February-whose album (still available with a pretty rare never recorded tune by Jackie DeShannon) I wish someone would reissue-along with all the Cowboy albums originally on the Capricorn label. That would be something. But that's another story.
But here I have to comment on (a personal favorite) Almeda Riddle. Her stark, untutored voice goes back to not only the earliest days of America, but is reminiscent of the type of singing heard in Britain centuries ago. Riddle's long (7 minutes) story is beautiful in it's starkness. Of the many high points heard across these four discs, Riddle's is surely one of the best. As Doc Watson was a national treasure because his songs and style speak to an earlier era in America, Riddle goes back even further, and she too is just as important in her own way. I'm just afraid in these modern and certainly different times, Riddle will be heard as to "old fashioned"-which is too bad-because "fashion" has nothing to do with intrinsic worth. Listen to this track (and the entire disc) when you have some quiet, unhurried time.
Together, this collection is a good snapshot of the many different genres of music and artists, that music fans of the period were avidly listening to. For instance, Doc Watson recorded several fine albums of Americana/folk music. Cisco Houston was part of the initial folk music wave. Eric Andersen went on to record a number of good songs still remembered today. Serpent Power (with poet David Meltzer and his wife) released one album of psychedelic/folk/rock music. Circus Maximus (with a young Jerry Jeff Walker) released two pretty good albums in the 60's. The Frost was the label's hard rock group. Sandy Bull was one of the first to popularize solo instrumental music (also included is the slightly weird "Gotta Be Juicy (Or It Ain't Love)"-along with John Fahey. Tom Paxton was a died-in-the-wool-folkie. Buffy Saint-Marie helped pave the way for female solo folk artists-along with Joan Baez-who recorded some of her finest (perhaps her best) work for the Vanguard label. And these are just some of the many great artists in this collection.
If you were listening to music in the 60's, beyond pop music, you'll find much to like in this wide ranging collection from one of the best small labels of the period. If not, this collection will give you a good idea of what was happening musically during those exciting times. Admittedly there's a bit of nostalgia here for those of us who purchased and listened to a lot of this music. But putting that aside, this will be a (small) window into a great period when all sorts of music was alive with possibilities, and it was possible (and exciting) to hear all kinds of music new to a generation coming of age during a never repeatable era.
The Vanguard label, at least for a few important years, released many fine albums by great artists. The 60's were a time of musical exploration and great change-which some of this music mirrors-and Vanguard released it's share of still relevant, important, exciting music. This box set is proof of that. Check it out, and be transported back to a time when record labels took chances on artists, when music was alive with interest and diversity, when some of it spoke to important ideas of the era, and it was just plain fun and exciting-a far cry from today's tight, narrow playlists of same-sounding music. This is a good look at one record label's attempt to corral seemingly disparate musical genres into some kind of whole-and they succeeded.