Love Can Crash Or Soar in New Folk Music Anthology ‘Seasons.’ Kind Of Like in Life.
Some 70 years ago, a brilliant eccentric named Harry Smith compiled what he called The Anthology of American Folk Music, 84 vintage recordings that incorporated a wide range of the folk styles that fell outside the popular music mainstream in the 1920s and early 1930s — the early days of the recording industry, when everyone was still figuring it out.
From raw blues to Hawaiian ballads, hellfire preachers to back-porch country swing, Smith assembled a marvelous course in what “the folk” were singing when for the first time in human history it became possible to preserve their voices.
If some of the songs play to 21st century ears like music from another galaxy, that’s all the more reason it needs to exist.
Now, many musical evolutions later, we have a spiritual sequel: The Seasons Project, an 80-song collection of more contemporary folk music curated by Christine Lavin.
Lavin is a folksinger herself, a veteran of decades on the circuit. She has fewer quirks than Harry Smith, but she’s no less fierce an advocate for the importance of preserving the music.
In keeping with the title, Seasons is framed as a celebration of the four seasons. That would be winter, spring, summer and fall, not Frankie Valli.
Years ago Lavin compiled multi-artist CDs with winter and autumn themes, so Seasons in a sense completes that premise. Some of the songs offer more explicit seasonal references than others, but each fits thematically into its calendar quadrant.
Unlike most other modern folk anthology projects, of which there have been a number, Seasons does not revolve around well-known songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or Joni Mitchell. While a few bigger-name artists are represented, including Judy Collins, Richie Havens and the late Dave Van Ronk, most of the artists here have flown under the commercial radar.
That’s not a reflection on the quality of their work, just on the style in which they have created it. Folk ballads, which comprise much of Seasons, are a niche in the music world. An important niche, to be sure, just not one that tends to get the kind of widespread exposure provided by, say, top-40 radio. A large number of the artists who do populate the top 40 incorporate folk elements into their music, but they expand the sound. Seasons sticks closer to the roots.
That said, Seasons has little of the raw sound heard in the Smith collection. The songs here are almost all melodic and often sweetened with background strings or vocal choruses.
What it shares with Smith’s collection, however, is that it focuses on the songs. The words. The lyrics. It comes as a slight surprise when Frank Christian’s “Where Were You Last Night” — a very good song — incorporates long instrumental passages.
The recordings are drawn from the last several decades, accurately reflecting the fact these artists have almost all been in the game for years. Accordingly, many of the songs are reflective, ruminating on what we learn and don’t learn simply from living.
One of the most striking tracks, Barry Oreck’s “Drinks at 4,” has the singer waiting for an estranged lover to show up and give him a last chance to salvage some of that love. It’s a scene that could play out with a hundred thousand millennials at Starbucks, but as day turns into night and night into a lonely trip home alone, we find this relationship didn’t start six months ago at a tech startup. It’s been 40 years.
Nor is Barry Oreck nursing the only heartache here. Seasons bursts with lamentations about relationships down to their last thread, or sometimes that only ever existed in the singer’s imagination.
Based on the data in Seasons, folksingers collectively have lousy luck in love, perhaps because it’s not a life conducive to making love work. One of Lavin’s own songs here, “Gettin’ Used To Leaving,” lays out that dilemma.
There are light moments. Hugh Blumenfeld’s “Waiting for the GH Man” recalls the thrill of hearing the Good Humor Man’s bell turning onto your street back when a rocket pop or a strawberry shortcake bar was the high spot of a summer afternoon. The pleasure of the memory outweighs the melancholy of lost youth.
But then soon enough we have Maude Maggart (Fiona Apple’s sister) lending her lovely voice to the haunting “Last Song For You.” As the title declares, she’s had enough. Except that’s so often not how these things work. “This is my last song for you,” she sings. “But those other songs were the last ones, too.”
So yes, The Seasons Project may be a psychological as well as a musical snapshot of modern times. Truth is, folk music has always done that, which is why it’s been sung ever since the first folk were sitting around the fire chewing on leg of mastodon and maybe getting the first brief flash of wondering what it’s all about. Whatever its style and sound, folk music verbalizes human expression and communication. Just like spoken words.
Those ruminations can get weighty and intense, like in Declan O’Rourke’s “We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea.” They can have the light touch of Lui Collins’s “Wildflower Song” or the Annie Bauerlein/Chip Mergott collaboration “Remember When We Were Just Friends.”
While Seasons is much more homogeneous than the Smith collection, it pays the same tribute to its own roots in multiple styles. David Buskin’s delightful “When I Need You Most of All” is one of many tracks whose skipping melody could slide right into a country show. So could “How Can You Love Me,” by Buskin’s long-time musical partner Robin Batteau.
Dar Williams turns a meteorological assessment into a metaphor for relationships in “February,” and John Foster admits in “Loving and Losing” that a lot of songwriting is simply distilling what’s happening in your life into rhyming stanzas and a chorus.
There are some cool ancillary things about The Seasons Project, including the fact it’s packaged as a thumb drive inside a lovely wooden box designed and produced by Mykhailo Chaban, a Ukrainian who like so many of his fellow Ukrainians has been living for the last year under a hard rain.
Seasons provides an enduring snapshot of an often underappreciated artistic community and the final track, Lucy Kaplansky’s “Old Friends,” sends it home with a message that’s downright upbeat: Some connections never break apart.
(The Seasons Project is $100, available from christinelavin.com.)