Songs by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson Gain New Relevance On `The Social Power Of Music' Set

Woody Guthrie
Bettmann/Getty Images

Woody Guthrie

The power of music as a unifying force — through struggles for fairness, spiritual quests, human celebrations and global political movements — is the theme of an ambitious new boxed set, The Social Power of Music, set for release early next year from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

While the compilation consists of historical tracks, the themes in the songs have gained new relevance amid current world events. Paul Robeson’s rendition of the union organizing classic “Joe Hill” resounds in a new era of resistance. The Italian folk song “Bella Ciao” speaks against the rise of right-wing leaders in Europe. Peggy Seeger’s “Reclaim the Night” anticipated the #metoo movement. And the plight of immigrants and refugees has never been more compassionately conveyed than in Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” performed below by Sammy Walker.

Other artists featured include: The Freedom Singers,  Pete Seeger, Quetzal, Fanny Lou Hamer, Country Joe McDonald, The Almanac Singers, Ewan MacColl, Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers, The Paschall Brothers, Rose Maddox, Clifton Chenier, Flaco Jiménez and Max Baca, Elizabeth Mitchell, the Rebirth Jazz Band, Suni Paz and Yves Montand.

The boxed set will be unveiled at a listening party on Jan. 2 at the at Songbyrd Record Café and Music House in Washington D.C. and released on Feb. 22. “The Social Power of Music” will also be the theme of the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, taking place June 26 to 30 and July 3 to 7, 2019, on the National Mall in D.C.

The recordings on the four-disc set are culled from labels that Smithsonian Folkways acquired through many years, including Arhoolie, which documented the music of social gatherings throughout the United States and Paredon, which released activist music from around the globe, as well UNESCO and Monitor, which documented folk traditions across the globe. 

The set is organized across the four discs as "Songs of Struggle," "Sacred Sounds," "Social Songs and Gatherings" and "Global Movements."

“When you think about human life, culture, and communities – pretty much everything we do is attached to music,” says Jeff Place, the curator and senior archivist at Smithsonian Folkways, in a statement. Place produced the collection along with Smithsonian Folkways director Huib Schippers. “Every celebration has music, from birthdays to bar mitzvahs. There’s sacred music that goes along with people’s beliefs. Certainly in social justice movements, people have found the power of music. There’s even work songs, where people use music to coordinate their work. When you look at the civil rights movement, that’s what cemented people together. As they were marching, they were singing songs. 

“This project,” says Place, “is all about people using music as a community, together, for a purpose.”


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