The archivists and musical archaeologists at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings have been mining their mammoth catalogue of folk, world music, blues, jazz, frog sounds, educational recordings, early electronica, historical documentary, and so on to create new vinyl reissues of some of their shining gems.
This week, in celebration of the start of Women’s History Month, the label has put the spotlight on three releases by Folkways icons. There’s legendary guitar picker Elizabeth Cotten, whose 1958 album Folksongs and Instrumentals With Guitar will be reissued. Alt-country-roots-blues luminary Lucinda Williams’ 1980 recording Happy Woman Blues will also get the vinyl reissue treatment. Rounding out the March 2019 batch is jazz/gospel composer-arranger-pianist Mary Lou Williams’ self-titled, self-produced, self-released 1964 album. Each album has been newly remastered from the original master tapes by Grammy-winner Pete Reiniger, and the iconic artwork has been replicated from its original sources. All three were released yesterday, March 1. In addition to the individual titles, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is also offering an exclusive bundle of all three albums plus a turntable slipmat. But before you place your pre-orders, let’s dig a little deeper into these releases!
Elizabeth Cotten may rank as one of the most well-known of the folk guitarists. She was mainly self-taught on acoustic guitar and her trademark style has confounded guitarists for decades. Early on, Libba, as she was known, was a left-handed guitarist who exclusively played a standard-strung right-handed guitar upside-down. As Folkways’ website puts it, that means she “picked the bass strings with her fingers and the treble (melody strings) with her thumb, creating an almost inimitable sound.” This trademark finger-and-thumb-only style of fingerpicking eventually became known as “Cotten picking.” While not everyone knows Cotten’s name (for shame), her songs are known the world over. Her “Freight Train” has become a folk standard, covered by everyone from Chet Atkins, and Taj Mahal, to Peter, Paul and Mary, and Paul McCartney (in rehearsals for MTV Unplugged). Another trademark tune, “Oh, Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” has appeared in setlists for Bob Dylan and her “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” has been covered extensively in concert by The Grateful Dead.
The latter two no doubt picked up the song by way of her Folksongs and Instrumentals With Guitar . The album was meticulously recorded by Mike Seeger at Cotten’s house in Washington, D.C. The Seeger family had previously hired her as a housekeeper and nanny. When they learned she could play, they encouraged her to return to the instrument that she had once put away. While she continued to record for decades after that landmark 1958 album, it remains probably her most enduring album in her catalog. As always, there will be an informative liner notes booklet inside the iconic tip-on sleeve. Inside, listeners will find a booklet with lyrics alongside Mike Seeger’s own updated notes that provide insight into Cotten’s life, music, and enduring legacy.
Another remarkable, pioneering talent whose early work is reissued today is Lucinda Williams. Her style runs the gamut of country, blues, folk, with her New Orleans roots shining through. These days, she’s recognized as a Grammy-winning torch-bearer of the folk-country tradition. Just one listen to her second album, Happy Woman Blues, and it’s easy to see the extent of her talent, even early in her career. It was her first album of all-original material with accompaniment from a six-piece band. As Rober Christgau put it, Williams was a “guileless throwback to the days of the acoustic blues mamas” who “means what she says and says what she means.” From the jaunty, rock-inspired “Happy Woman Blues” to the country-picking and balladry of “Hard Road,” Happy Woman Blues sees Williams melding musical traditions into something that’s distinct and compelling all the way through. Completing the package, the new LP reissue will include a liner notes booklet with an introductory essay and complete song lyrics.
Mary Lou Williams (no relation) was also known for her skillful blending of forms and genres. Even Duke Ellington once called her “beyond category.” Always deeply rooted in spiritual music, Williams was a deft arranger, skilled interpreter of blues standards, and pioneering composer who could never be tied to just one style. From be-bop and swing to avant-garde; from gospel and big band, to concerti and choral music, Williams was a musical explorer whose work was always fresh and inspired. Her work was recorded by the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and the aforementioned Ellington. But in 1957, she elected to quit the scene in favor of devoting herself to Catholicism and to serving others. Her 1964 self-titled album – recorded by Folkways founder Moses Asch – was billed as a triumphant return for Williams that features modern jazz choral hymns like “Black Christ of the Andes (St. Martin de Porres)” and “Anima Christi,” the humorous “A Fungus Amungus” that illustrates a repeatedly interrupted sermon, the more traditional pieces like “A Grand Nite for Swinging” and “My Blue Heaven,” featuring bassist Percy Heath, and more. In all, the album had a lasting influence. It reinvigorated Williams’ music career, established her as one of the most provocative and boundary-pushing of the artists of the day, and, more tangibly, the funds helped support the rehabilitation center she had founded to aid sick musicians.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ March vinyl reissues celebrate the long-lasting legacies of pioneering women in an array of genres. From the down-home picking of Elizabeth Cotten, to the country-rock of early Lucinda Williams, to the genre-redefining modern jazz of Mary Lou Williams, listeners are in for a treat. All the titles have been newly remastered for re-release by Pete Reiniger and will be presented in replicas of their original issue with informative liner notes booklets and song lyrics. So follow the links below to secure your copy of the individual titles, or grab all three and a turntable slipmat over at the Smithsonian Folkways Store.
- Wilson Rag
- Freight Train
- Going Down the Road Feeling Bad
- I Don’t Love Nobody
- Ain’t Got No Honey Babe Now
- Graduation March
- Honey Babe, Your Papa Cares for You
- Here Old Rattler, Here / Sent for My Fiddle, Sent for My Bow / George Buck
- Run…Run / Mama, Your Son Done Gone
- Sweet Bye and Bye / What a Friend We Have in Jesus
- Oh, Babe it Ain’t No Lie
- Spanish Flang Dang
- When I Get Home
- I Lost It
- Happy Woman Blues
- King of Hearts
- Rolling Along
- One-Night Stand
- Howlin’ at Midnight
- Hard Road
- Louisiana Man
- Sharp Cutting Wings (Song to a Poet)
- Black Christ of the Andes (St. Martin de Porres)
- It Ain’t Necessarily So
- The Devil — Chorale Vocal
- Miss D.D.
- Anima Christi — Chorale Vocal
- A Grand Nite for Swinging
- My Blue Heaven
- Dirge Blues
- A Fungus Amungus
- Praise the Lord — Chorale Vocal