The new anthology Milk of the Tree, from Cherry Red’s Grapefruit label, sets forth its mission statement clearly in its subtitle: An Anthology of Female Vocal Folk and Singer-Songwriters 1966-1973. Still, how to anthologize such a broad and powerful group of artists during one of the most creatively fertile periods in popular music history? Grapefruit does a fine job in distilling the essence of the period – and charting the growth of artists from a pure pop framework to one in which they could address deeper issues on both a personal and political scale – on this 3-CD, 60-song collection. The compact clamshell box set features some of the greatest artists whose music still reverberates loudly today, among them Joan Baez, Laura Nyro, Jackie DeShannon, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, and many others. The focus is on the music of both Britain and North America, encompassing (in the set’s own words) “San Franciscan psychedelia, L.A. folk rock, Swinging London pop-folk, electric folk, progressive folk, and even ‘folk club’ folk as well as (of course) a plethora of singer-songwriters (including various ladies of the Canyon and slightly beyond) from the movement’s golden age.”
Disc One of the non-chronologically-assembled set begins with 1972’s “Do You Believe” from the distinctively-voiced Melanie, whose “Brand New Key” threatened to relegate this multi-faceted artist into novelty status. “Do You Believe” captures Melanie’s fusion of folk and pop, a blend explored in differing ways on various tracks here. Throughout her long career, Joan Baez occasionally dented the pop singles chart in the U.S., most notably with her 1971 cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” While that song hasn’t been selected for inclusion here, the beautifully ethereal “Blessed Are…” from the same album has been. Similarly, the compilers haven’t chosen one of Laura Nyro’s more famous compositions to represent the New York singer-songwriter. The honor instead goes to the richly evocative “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp” from 1970’s Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Another “New York” song here is Nico’s epic “Chelsea Girl,” adorned with an orchestration that the artist regretted. Even prior to Laura, Jackie DeShannon was setting the standard for the singer-songwriter before the term was in vogue. Her soulful 1968 album Laurel Canyon immortalized the L.A. scene long before it was commonplace to do so; Jackie’s beguiling interpretation of her own “Come and Stay with Me” (a U.K. hit three years earlier for Marianne Faithfull) has been included here.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the gems are just as plentiful. Marianne Faithfull herself is heard on 1969’s “Something Better.” The Pentangle’s brief commercial flirtation is represented with “Light Flight,” the theme to a 1969 BBC drama. Dana Gillespie is often best remembered as David Bowie’s girlfriend, but she’s had her own, vibrant career as a singer-songwriter, with 1968’s “Foolish Season” just one example of her bluesy folk style. Joni Mitchell (likely for licensing reasons) is among the key artists missing here, but Joni’s “Morning Morgantown” is heard in a bright rendition by London’s Judith Willey, a.k.a. Jude. The title of the compilation is derived from Polly Niles’ “The Milk of the Tree,” featuring a baroque John Barry melody and Dorothy Wayne lyric.
The second disc of Grapefruit’s collection begins with Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys’ 1967 hit version of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum.” Ronstadt’s bouncy kiss-off became her first top 20 success and established her powerful voice as one with which to be reckoned. Ronstadt’s fellow California artist Judee Sill was sometimes described as a West Coast answer to Laura Nyro. Her “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” (produced by Graham Nash and covered by artists such as The Hollies) showcases the powerful voice of the artist whose life was tragically curtailed by a drug overdose in 1979. Buffy Sainte-Marie and Janis Ian established their own voices as singers and songwriters with powerful, often topical material, as heard here on “Society'[s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)” and “The Dream Tree,” respectively. Before her own solo breakthrough, Carly Simon was one-half of The Simon Sisters with her sibling Lucy, no slouch as a singer-songwriter herself (and later an acclaimed composer of Broadway musicals). The Simon Sisters’ gorgeous “Who Has Seen the Wind?” first appeared in 1969 on an album for children, but its enduring qualities have appeal to all ages. The final track on Disc Two is from Lesley Duncan. Though best known for her beautiful “Love Song” (recorded by Elton John, Dionne Warwick, Neil Diamond and countless others), the in-demand background vocalist wrote other, equally gripping songs including “Mr. Rubin,” pointedly aimed at activist Jerry Rubin, from her 1971 album Sing, Children, Sing.
This remarkably diverse collection’s third and final disc offers a number of rare treats, such as “Early Morning Blues and Greens” from Screen Gems songwriter Diane Hildebrand. (The Monkees, of course, recorded the song on their Headquarters LP.) Cherry Red has, in recent years, offered full collections from Bridget St. John and Ruthann Friedman, for those intrigued by their recordings here of “Autumn Lullaby” and “Windy,” the latter which was a Number One in 1967 for The Association. Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, an avant-garde act also recently collected by Cherry Red, might seem an odd inclusion here, but the band’s “Ballad (Of the Big Girl Now and a Mere Boy)” fits in snugly with its gentle sound and haunting lead by Vivienne McAuliffe. Mary Hopkin, Vashti Bunyan, and Margo Guryan are three more of the boldfaced names appearing here, as well as Joan Baez’s sister Mimi Fariña, who time and again proved herself as an artist and activist.
This sprawling collection of course lacks a few key artists of the period, including (but not limited to) Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Judy Henske, Rita Coolidge, and Melissa Manchester, as well as more unexpected but equally worthy names like Petula Clark. (Don’t take exception if your favorite isn’t mentioned; there are truly too many valid artists!) Subsequent years would add yet more illustrious female names to the roster of remarkable singer-songwriters. But Milk of the Tree vividly evokes the adventurous spirit of the era when the lines of folk, pop, and rock blurred into a new sound. Collection compiler David Wells has copiously annotated the full-color, lavishly illustrated 40+-page booklet with track-by-track liner notes, and Simon Murphy has remastered. Read the full track listing right here!