Pioneering Folk/Blues Label Vanguard Celebrates 50 Years

Company that was home to Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie still going strong.

Fifty years ago, when brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon borrowed $10,000 from their father and rented a tiny office in New York City, their intent was to start a classical label.

The vinyl long-playing record had just been introduced, and the brothers saw the excellent sound quality and the ability to put longer works in one package as the gateway to a recording future.

The first discs the label released were, in fact, Bach cantatas. But on the label's two-disc anthology Route 50: Driving New Routes for 50 Years, which comes out this Tuesday (8/29), there's not a lick of Bach, Haydn or Mahler anywhere to be found.

Instead, more typical offerings are "Beg to Differ" (RealAudio excerpt), by cutting-edge folkie Patty Larkin, "Crawfishin', " by Cajun traditionalist Tab Benoit and "Don't You Throw That Mojo on Me" (RealAudio excerpt), by up-and-coming blues artist Mark Selby.

It will have songs by Jerry Jeff Walker, Ian & Sylvia, Doc Watson, Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton and Bill Miller.

Music As Political Speech

It was a hard-right turn in the world of '50s politics in the United States that steered the fledgling Vanguard label toward becoming a powerhouse home for folk and blues musicians and that's made its reputation in the decades that followed.

Pete Seeger, leader of the wildly popular folk group the Weavers, was blacklisted by the then-rampant anti-communist movement led by Senator Joe McCarthy, resulting in the Weavers disbanding.

But their manager, Harold Leventhal, got them together for a reunion concert at New York City's Carnegie Hall, and the Solomons, taking the political and business chance of their lives, decided the music had to be heard and in 1956 issued a recording of the show.

Samuel Charters, who worked for the Vanguard as a producer from the 1960s to the '80s, has said that the brothers "had a deep political commitment and deep knowledge of what they were doing."

"People were really scared during that time: I was; everybody was," the Weavers' Ronnie Gilbert recalled for Billboard. "It was an amazing, courageous move on their part." And one they followed up on by recording African-American artist Paul Robeson, who was also censured for his politics in that era.

Sound Quality Is Job 1

A reputation for political independence, combined with an attention to sound quality that provided folk musicians with a technical precision more common for classical performers, led many artists to Vanguard.

Vanguard's red-and-silver label could be found on the LPs of one of the biggest stars of the '60s, Joan Baez, as well as on those of folk-rockers Ian & Sylvia and Native American singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The label's engineers recorded hundred of hours of live shows at the seminal Newport Folk Festival, chronicling a time that saw traditional folk turn to folk-rock and spawn the singer-songwriter movement.

As the folk era waned, Vanguard became a champion of blues, putting out records by Skip James, Otis Spann and James Cotton. They also began issuing records by left-coast folk-rockers Country Joe and the Fish and remained true to another belief that had become a hallmark: encouraging artists to develop their own musical paths.

Though the label's direction diffused in the '70s and '80, it was nonetheless behind early recordings from Texas troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker, groundbreaking guitar experimentation by Larry Coryell in jazz and John Fahey in folk, and the emergence of song poet Eric Andersen.

The Changing Of The Vanguard

In 1986, the Solomon brothers decided to retire and sold their powerful independent company to the Welk Music Group. Kevin Welk, CEO of that firm, has focused the label's energies in recent years in mining its vast archives of unreleased recordings from the Newport festivals and '60s studio sessions with seminal folk, blues and jazz musicians, as well as on signing new talent in the new folk-song poet vein.

True to the label's history, these artists' styles range all over the map, from the solo career of Ian Tyson (formerly of Ian & Sylvia) as a Western artist to the rock-edged style of Terry Radigan and the heritage-inspired music of Native American artist Bill Miller.

Miller, in fact, finds that things have come full circle for him. "When I was younger, Buffy Sainte-Marie was the first Native American artist I ever listened to who had a national record out, and she was on Vanguard," Miller said. "Now, I'm signed to Vanguard myself, and it feels right."