'Tis the season for sprawling three-disc surveys of American music. Hot on the heels of Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938 comes my copy of Janet Reno's Song of America. The former Attorney General, with her nephew-in-law, Nashville pro Ed Pettersen, and two other co-producers, has put together a 50-track survey of American history in song as interpreted by an assortment of talented artists of various levels of renown.
Disc 1 (1492-1860) has the largest amount of inspiring stuff. Three a capella numbers - "Lakota Dream Song" sung by Earl Bullhead, the Blind Boys of Alabama's gorgeously harmonized slave-era spiritual "Let Us Break Bread Together," and the the Fisk Jubilee Singers' steely version of "Go Down Moses" - are soul-stirring, and John Wesley Harding's harshly off-kilter brass band arrangement of "God Save the King" vividly evokes the war pains of revolutionary times. But more often, modern stylistic choices undercut the songs' power. Often these choices reflect the 20th century fashion for confession in art, where smallness, quirkiness, and meekness are the rule. Elizabeth Foster sings a haunting arrangement of "Young Ladies In Town" (or "Address to the Ladies") in a chillingly beautiful, quavery voice, but she swallows so many of the lyrics that the meaning is lost. (Some of them can be found here.) A vivid splash of history, the song was a pre-Revolutionary call for women to wear only homespun clothing and not British imports.
Malcolm Holcombe lends gravitas (and gravel) to "The Old Woman Taught Wisdom," a plea for reconciliation between Britain and the Colonies, while Harper Simon, who sounds like a more psychedelic version of his father Paul, was an inspired choice to arrange and sing "Yankee Doodle." But producer Ed Pettersen's soporific take on "The Liberty Song," Steven Kowalczyk-Santoro's goopy "Hail Columbia," and Beth Nielsen Chapman's languid, affectless version of "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" are more typical of the collection's overall low energy ("Jefferson and Liberty" is done as a lively bluegrass tune by The Wilders - but what's the point without the words?). Backed by The Mavericks, Thad Cockrell sings the usually march-like "Dixie's Land" as a slow swell, but in that case, the re-imagining of a traditional song works.