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The Story Of Vanguard Records Shines In New Vinyl Me Please Anthology (Part 1)

Mark Smotroff brushes up on his music history and learns some things…

The fact that Vinyl Me Please (VMP), the thematically-driven vinyl anthology series producers, created a multi-disc set just dedicated to Vanguard Records is kind of astounding in these 21st Century tymes. From the get-go, I applaud them because it brings attention to a genre of music that some seem to be forgetting even though it’s actually quite popular these days, albeit in a different guise.

Vanguard Records was one of the premier labels supporting the pioneering folk and even some blues musicians in the 50s and into the  1960s. Some of Vanguard’s records were incredibly influential and wildly popular at the time… some of them were at the heart of socio-political movements. 

Now some of you might be wondering what folk music is? Its actually kind of funny as I wrote this before even looking at the opening paragraphs of the booklet which comes with the set and they more or less go down a similar path.  Bottom line, if you’ve been listening to Iron & Wine, Fleet foxes and perhaps even some of Taylor Swift you’ve been listening to the resonant echoes of folk musics past.  If you’ve been discovering Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan these days, well you’re already deep into folk music and might not even know it!  

Going into a deep definition of folk music is beyond the scope of this listening report (and frankly, you should buy the set so you can read about it there in the included 36 page booklet).  In the loosest sense, if an acoustic guitar is involved in making the music you love, and there are clear vocals and harmonies present, chances are you are listening to something in the neighborhood of folk music.

Across six albums, The Story of Vanguard helps to paint a snapshot of some of the underdogs, movers and shakers who created often politically charged acoustic based music that inspired millions.  

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 in The Story of Vanguard sound excellent. The pressings are quiet and well centered. The covers are all premium and arguably better looking than the originals, all bearing glossy lamination protecting the original artwork beneath. Even the labels are period accurate. This is a quality collection through and through….

The first two albums in The Story of Vanguard which I’ll explore about today are created by perhaps the biggest stars on the label: The Weavers and Joan Baez.  

Meet The Weavers

Wow! It is kind of amazing to consider the impact The Weavers had on popular music and society as we know it. Blacklisted in the McCarthy-era anti-communist witch hunt, the group ultimately returned triumphantly performing at venues like Carnegie Hall.  Arguably the first folk super stars after Woody Guthrie, The Weavers — who were Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman and Lee Hayes — set the template for diversity and inclusivity with songs from cultures as diverse as Ireland, Africa, Israel, Spain and the Caribbean. 

On The Weavers At Carnegie Hall we hear their legendary “Wimoweh” (which later was morphed into a pop hit in the 1960s called “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” is an Irish folk song which they came to via Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly). It was later covered by second generation folk mega stars Peter Paul & Mary in a very similar arrangement. Another Leadbelly song they covered was “Rock Island Line” (which in England was popularized by Lonnie Donnegan’s skiffle movement, one of the artists who inspired a young Skiffle group called The Quarrymen which would eventually be renamed The Beatles).  The Weavers even tackle Gospel and Spirituals like “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “I’ve Got A Home In That Rock.”  

The sound quality on The Weavers At Carnegie Hall is quite wonderful and record collectors should not take this for granted.  Sure, you can go to most any thrift shop and you will likely find this Weavers album but most copies I have come across are pretty well trashed.  I was lucky recently when I wanted to prep for this review in that I actually found a very clean original pressing at Amoeba Music (for a dollar!) but really folks, that doesn’t happen very often with these old Vanguard albums.

That said, I can attest that the new version sounds very much like the original, which is the underlying point of the all analogue transfer of the original tapes here.  

Joan Baez

While I knew a bit about The Weavers going into this review, I learned some new things about Joan Baez which I didn’t fully appreciate. Sure, I knew she was important in helping get Bob Dylan’s career off the ground in a bigger way. But I didn’t realize just how significant her efforts were and the magnitude of her rapid ascension to a folk superstar.  A huge fan of Odetta (who we’ll explore in Part 2), Baez’ career started when Bob Gibson invited her to back him at The Newport Folk Festival in 1959. She was such a resounding success at that performance — she got to sing two of her own songs — that a label bidding war began. She opted for the relative freedom and support from Vanguard and by 1960 she was a featured artist at the festival.

Joan Baez’ eponymously titled album is a simple guitar and vocal listening affair.  Like The Weavers, her mastery of different folk forms is a wonder. Here she delivers “House of the Rising Sun” four years before The Animals had a smash hit with an electrified version. Dylan later covered “Fare Thee Well” and “All My Trials” was covered by Peter Paul & Mary. 

Joan Baez’s self titled debut album for Vanguard Records is a beautiful and simply recorded album, yet there is nothing simple about it. From the purity of her voice to the technically flawless fingerpicking, Joan Baez earned her place, literally at the vanguard of folk music history.  

And now you can have a pristine copy for your collection in The Story of Vanguard

Tune in tomorrow when we explore other albums included in the set by Odetta, Doc Watson, Skip James and Buffy Sainte Marie. 

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