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The Story Of Vanguard Records Shines In New Vinyl Me Please Anthology (Part 2)

Mark Smotroff learns even more about some folk music he missed along the way…

In part 1 of my exploration of the fantastic new Vinyl Me Please (VMP) anthology The Story of Vanguard we presented an overview of the impact of so called “folk music” on the broader landscape of popular music. Please click here to catch up on this review series if you missed the first portion. 

Across six albums, this set paints a snapshot of some of the underdogs, movers and shakers who created often politically charged acoustic based music that inspired millions.  

Again, from the VMP website we learn about the pressings included in set: 

“First edition limited to 1000, on 180 gram audiophile colored vinyl, pressed at GZ. All six albums were AAA cut from the mono master tapes by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound. All of these albums were lacquered directly from the mono master tapes, preserving the original sound upon release of these albums in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

Indeed, every one of the albums I’ve heard sound excellent. The pressings are quiet and well centered. The covers are all premium and arguably better looking than the originals in glossy laminated productions featuring original artwork and liner notes. Even the labels are period accurate. This is a quality collection through and through….

In part one we explored Joan Baez’ debut and The Weaver’s stunning concert comeback at Carnegie Hall. Today we’ll explore the other albums in the set…

Odetta: My Eyes Have Seen…

I can hear why Joan Baez was obsessed with Odetta after really listening to this album.  I’ve heard some of Odetta’s music before — she, a legendary Black protest singer “discovered” by Pete Seeger — but I admit I never really dug down into her music for deeper to study. That will change after this. 

Here on Vanguard Records she delivers vocal and guitar versions of songs I’ve heard done by many of my favorite artists who came later such as “Down On Me” which Janis Joplin rocked brilliantly for the first album with Big Brother & The Holding Company in 1966. “Bald Headed Woman” I’ve heard The Kinks and The Who and many others do but never really “heard” the lyrics which are quite stunning as delivered by Odetta.  Her version of “Motherless Children” is especially poignant (and I know this one very well as we do this sometimes when I play out with my friend Gary Floyd!).   

“No More Cane On The Brazos” is a revelation for me as I first heard it while watching the incredible concert documentary Festival Express. The film has a moment — it was like Woodstock on a train traveling across Canada — with a very drunken (but happy) Rick Danko (of The Band) with Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir singing this song (click here to watch this touching moment where these icons got together and the only substance allowed on the train was booze!). 

Odetta’s My Eyes Have Seen…. is powerful and beautiful which feels somehow more timely than ever… 

Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way!

For years several friends have suggested I check out Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music and in recent years I have begun exploring her albums.  Listening to her 1964 debut included in The Story of Vanguard boxed set, I’m taken with not only her aggressive and even angry voicing but also the power of her individual style.  

Coming in at a peak of the 2nd wave of folk — just a year before Dylan sent shockwaves through the music worked “going” electric at the Newport Folk Festival — Sainte-Marie’s voice is quite unlike any other I’ve heard in the folk universe. The amazing thing is this recording sounds utterly timeless. Her sense of phrasing and timing in how she structures her songs feels very modern.

A student at University of Massachusetts and an early friend of Taj Mahal, she mixes unusual guitar tunings (pre-dating Joni Mitchell’s similar approach to music making) and eclectic influences from Blues and English folk to Asian musics and even Edith Piaf! 

“Universal Soldier” is clearly a centerpiece here — later covered by Donovan and even Glen Campbell — as one of the early anti-Vietnam protest epics.  Her anti-drug warning song “Cod’ine” was later covered by no less than Gram Parsons, Janis Ian and Garbage. 

It’s My Way is a powerful album. I’m glad I’m finally all in on exploring Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music. This one sealed the deal for me….

Doc Watson

I didn’t have any Doc Watson records in my collection and I’m not sure why.  I do know that I haven’t come across his records frequently out in the wilds of record collecting (ie. flea markets, garage sales, thrift shops or even in proper record stores). 

You just don’t see his albums much and indeed even on Discogs this notion is reflected: at the time of this writing there was exactly one original Mono copy of his self titled debut listed there (asking price nearly $70). Even the reissues are relatively elusive, so getting a pristine remaster in a nice clean modern pressing that is off the master tape is a joy.  

In the booklet in The Story of Vanguard boxed set you’ll be able to read about how he was discovered and came to prominence in the burgeoning folk music scene in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Apparently he was quite the wizard at “flat picking” which at the time wasn’t prevalent — nowadays, when you hear people play acoustic guitar, it sounds an awful lot like what Doc Watson does here.  Some of his instrumentals remind me of the brilliant guitarist Leo Kottke.

His voice is rich and rustic, welcoming like a crackling fireplace on a cold winter’s night.  If you ever enjoyed any of the acoustic music of Jerry Garcia (and The Grateful Dead for that matter) or of Jorma Kaukonen (Hot Tuna, Jefferson Airplane), you’ll probably dig Doc’s bag. Good stuff here. 

Skip James: Today!

On one hand I’m a bit surprised I didn’t have any or Mr. James’ music in my collection and I have to change that. On the other hand, learning about his Paramount 78 RPM records from the depression era being among the rarest sides ever, it doesn’t surprise me entirely.  

In recent years — since restoring a 1921 Victrola — I have been collecting 78s more avidly and grab up any old blues sides I can when I find them.  This album from 1966 is not old crusty repurposed 78s but fine then-new recordings. Part of the folk blues revival of that period saw numerous living legends like James finding fresh audiences among engaged and interested college students of the times. 

What gets me most about Mr. James’ music is not so much his fine fingerpicking but his soft and higher pitched voice. His singing reminds me more of Curtis Mayfield and even Smokey Robinson than the gruff growl of Howlin’ Wolf or bittersweet blue of Muddy Waters. Together, makes James sound a tasty listening experience. 

One side note that is kind of funny to me these days relates to 1960s British rock band Cream’s cover of his song “I’m So Glad.”  According to one James biographer cited in the set: “he hated Cream’s version, couldn’t understand why they’d gussy up his simple raw song with bass and drums that he never needed to make his version iconic, thought the guitar was all flash and no meat and that the singing stunk too.” 


From Skip James to Joan Baez, Vinyl Me Please’s The Story of Vanguard offers hours of immersive enjoyment that demands and commands your attention. It gives the listener a fantastic toe in the water into the folk music universe.

If you like this, you should no doubt explore many of the early and mid-1960s albums by Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio, Phil Ochs, Janis Ian, and Gordon Lightfoot. And you may gain new appreciation for groups like Crosby, Stills & Nash as well as Leonard Cohen, John Denver and Harry Chapin whose popularity flowered later in the 1960s and early 1970s.  

The Story of Vanguard has been a surprising and happy journey which even I didn’t fully expect to be quite so rewarding.

This is the good stuff, kids.

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