Author: Patty-Lynne Herlevi
Pie in the Sky & Other Folk Song Satires
Ewan MacColl & A. L. Lloyd
Blow Boys Blow (Songs of the Sea)
Music and Song from Italy
The Travel Series
Music and Song from Germany
The Travel Series
all recordings on Empire Musicwerks/Tradition
Anyone who has participated in a peace rally will have heard folk song satires.
That is when the crowd isn’t belting out John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance.
These folk song satires provoke belly laughs and release tension in the air.
They are songs of camaraderie and good humor, not so much an “us verses them”
stance, but thought-provoking satire which causes us to question the world we
live and start thinking of solutions to a myriad of problems.
Canadian-born folk singer and archivist Oscar Brand featured 16 of these satire
classics on his
Pie in the Sky album, originally released in the 1950’s. In 2005,
Oscar Brand celebrated his 60th Anniversary of host of the “Folksong Festival”
on New York City’s municipal radio station, WNYC, making his show the longest
running television or radio show.
The collection of songs that appears on
Pie in the Sky comments on everything from labor organizing
compliments of Joe Hill, overpriced food or inflation, slow trains through
Arkansas and even the Revolutionary War. Oscar, who accompanies himself on
guitar and David Sears who also sings and plays banjo bring us this collection
of songs with much gusto. You know that they put their hearts into their
Surprisingly, despite the sell-by-date of these songs, they seem timely today,
especially Ninety Cents Butter or a song that poke fun at a mayor, Give My
Regards. This recording might be over 50 years old, but the tradition of folk
song satires lingers on. It will be interesting to see what generations 20 or 50
years from now think of these songs which by then, hopefully will be archaic
relics simply because we humans learned how to get along with one another.
Back in 2003, the Seattle based Northwest Folklife Festival hosted a concert
featuring sea shanties as well as, songs of contemporary fisherman. This wasn’t
the first time I had heard sea shanties since a friend of mine back in my
college days was obsessed with sea shanties for a spell. And I am certain that I
heard sea shanties sung in Hollywood movies about seafaring men during my
childhood. I remember sleeping through the movie, “Moby Dick” so perhaps those
songs worked their way into my subconscious. (I will admit I don’t like the idea
of killing whales, especially ones that have already been named).
Fortunately, the archival recording of Ewan MacColl & A.L. Lloyd’s
Blow Boys Blow, released in the late 1950’s, does not promote the
killing of whales, at least not directly. The original liner notes included with
the CD ease listeners into a world they might not be familiar with and that is
the world of the sailors, deckhands, captains and northwesterly winds.
“These are songs from the days when ships were moved by white canvas, hemp rope
and brute force. Songs from the days when a skipper would forecast his
arrival-date partly by the weather and partly by the heart of the deck-hands put
into their singing.
The sailing-ship sailors had shanties to ease their working hours, and ‘forebitter’
songs to embellish their leisure time. For the backbreaking jobs of heaving at
the halyards and manning the capstan or the pumps, they had hard-driving salty
work songs set in primitive leader-chorus patterns. For the spells off-watch,
when time might hang heavy even for the mat-makers, coconut carvers and
fashioners of model ships in gin-bottles, there were the ballads, sentimental or
ironical, bawdy or nostalgic, to fit the mood of the moment.”
MacColl and Lloyd bring you 16 such songs representing, all of the above
categories. Accompanied by Alf Edwards on concertina, Ralph Rinzler on guitar,
banjo and mandolin and Steve Benbow on guitar, listeners can soak in all the
stories of seafaring life presented in these shanties. Songs such as The
Handsome Cabin Boy, which had been covered by Kate Bush during the late 1980’s
might sound familiar to non-seafaring listeners. While the remaining songs sung
in a robust manner will either conjure up romantic images of sailors or erase
romantic images of life at sea, all together.
The Tradition label’s The Travel Series visits old folk traditions of countries
from around the world. So far the series includes folk traditions from Italy,
Germany, Australia, Israel and Ireland. For now, we will travel to Italy and
Germany. I listened to the Italy compilation twice and only excerpts from the
Germany compilation. I will admit I am disappointed with this series since the
CDs remind me of “postcard” type recordings.
In fact, if you want authentic field recordings with a variety of regional
instruments, you might need to unearth Alan Lomax’s collection of European field
recordings or search through Smithsonian Folkways’ catalogue of field recordings
(I am not familiar with Folkways catalogue so this is an educated guess). The
Music and Song from Italy is pleasant enough with some hearty
favorites performed on accordion, a traditional lute and guitar. The opener La
Giaconda appeared on least one American television commercial in the past,
although I am not a trivia buff, so I cannot tell you which commercial. But I
assure you that you’ll recognize the song.
O Sole Mio and the Drinking Song from the opera Traviata will also ignite the
memory part of your brain. While this recording can hardly hold water with field
recordings of the past, it certainly could enhance the atmosphere of an Italian
bistro or an Italian meal shared with friends. The description in the liner
notes certainly caused me to think that I would be hearing regional music
performed on a variety of instruments, but the end result is slightly
“The tradition of Italian music turns out to be the least spoiled, most
vigorous and most varied of all Western Europe. The swift rise of high culture
in Italian cities during the Renaissance erected barriers between the habits of
town and countryside. The gap between city and country widened until they spoke
different musical languages.“
Unfortunately, the music on this CD speaks the language of tourist shop and
musical postcard. Certainly the CD could enhance memories of traveling in Italy
and the songs are hum-worthy. But more scholarly types will not find a list of
musicians or regions in the liner notes nor will you find any historical
information of the songs’ origins.
Although I guess for some less informed listeners, TV commercials might be
confused with musical origins. Ah, such the world we live in. And you think I’m
I cannot say that I care for the
Music and Song from Germany CD. I will preface this review by
saying that I find loud people jarring to my senses. And that I would rather
hang out in a spiritual temple with complete strangers than in a room full of
familiar faces drinking to get drunk. I would be overly concerned about their
livers and not too happy with their foul moods the following morning. And for
those of you who are unaware, in Chinese medicine a connection exists between
the liver and the emotion of anger.
Germany brought us many great classical music composers, (Bach and Beethoven
come to mind), and some wonderful folk song traditions, although I cannot think
of any of these folk song traditions off-hand. Here is a description in the
liner notes that describes the German drinking songs and atmosphere that appears
on this recording. Perhaps, you will be enticed…
“A quality of Germans that isn’t always valued by foreigners is that if they
are happy, they are rather boisterous. They sing, speak in loud voices and laugh
even louder. On such occasions, certain songs are sung in loud voices.”
Listeners are even given instruction of how best to enjoy this album. ” 1.
Pour yourself a stein of beer. 2. Turn on the CD. 3. Sit down in a comfortable
chair, take a sip and visualize this scene…”
Of course, the liner notes romanticize the scene a bit and tosses in snow-capped
mountains and merrymaking. But I picture, people falling over drunk on the
street and ending up in hospital emergency rooms or police stations.
No thanks. I think that I will pass and save my healthy liver cells.