Fifty Years of Folk

Vanguard Records has been one of the leading folk music labels since brothers Seymour and Maynard Solomon started it 50 years ago with 10,000 borrowed bucks and a one-room New York office. This two-disc compilation presents 39 goodies from the label's overstuffed vaults and in the process shows how folk music has changed over the past four decades.

The first, meatier disc weighs in with 21 tracks from 21 artists who primarily recorded for the label during the socially conscious '60s and '70s. Half the tunes come from blues warriors such as James Cotton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Skip James, Otis Spann and Mississippi John Hurt. Odetta's "Mean and Evil" and Big Mama Thornton's "Good-Bye Baby" are among the most memorable cuts. Equally noteworthy are Doc Watson's "Black Mountain Rag," Oregon's jazzy "Charango," and Mimi and Richard Farina's "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream" (RealAudio excerpt), which captures the essential feel of midcentury protest music.

The second disc is less satisfying. Nine contemporary artists, including Tab Benoit, Patty Larkin, David Wilcox and newcomers Terry Radigan and Mark Selby, are represented by two tracks each. With the exception of tracks by Ian Tyson (who's also heard on the first disc with ex-wife Sylvia) and the band Venice, the artists on this disc are more singer/songwriters than folk artists, voicing concerns that are more personal than societal.

The strongest songs are Peter Case's "Blue Distance" (RealAudio excerpt) and Bill Miller's "Ghostdance" (RealAudio excerpt) which displays the truest connection to classic folk.