x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Vanguard Records: Box set celebrates maverick label

A new four-CD box set celebrates the vital role played by the New York-based Vanguard label in promoting the 1960s musical revolution.

The late John Fahey, who remains 
a revered cult figure. 
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
The late John Fahey, who remains a revered cult figure. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Today we hear almost as much about the people behind the music as the people who made it. These people, as we have come to learn through music biography, are the "mavericks and madmen" of the record industry - essentially the enthusiasts who fell into business, and were as outrageous as any of the bands or artists with whom they worked.

But what of those whose social lives offered a less convenient expression of their wildly alternative thinking? These we hear less about, and among that number are Maynard and Seymour Solomon. The two New Yorkers founded their Vanguard label as a classical imprint, with a loan from their father, and with the intention of releasing a definitive edition of the works of Bach. And yet, in the winter of 1955, the pair decided to abandon that comfort zone, embrace their leftist leanings, and release a live album of that year's Christmas concert by The Weavers.

Today, the gentle strumming of The Weavers music sounds anything but radical, but in the 1950s this benign, progressive singing group was driven by a desire for equality that drew them into regular contact with the kinds of people - communists; African-American community leaders - that would mark them out to the government as persons of interest. In this paranoid climate, Weavers shows were picketed by right-wing groups, and band members were investigated by the House UnAmerican Activities Commission. By releasing their records, Vanguard effectively abandoned its comfortable home in high culture and staked out a tent near the confluence of political debate, racial equality and topical/regional/historical songwriting that helped make up the "folk revival".

On this four-CD box set, the group are represented by just one song, their version of Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land, but that is enough to be emblematic of the label's impressive reach and its radical mission. The song reaches back to the Depression and optimistically looks forward to better times. It anticipates the Utopian spirit of the 1960s radical counterculture, whose music Vanguard would also release, and even throws forward to today, where the song has been covered by Neil Young for his new album, Americana.

It's an anthem for a nation that is changing, and Vanguard's mission tacitly became to record the grassroots-level musical expression of that change.

As such, the label's compass is huge. It would persist into the 1970s and release disco records, but in this, its most important period, Vanguard reissued recordings from the 1938-39 From Spirituals To Swing concerts, which revolutionarily presented before an integrated audience African-American folk/blues artists like Big Bill Broonzy alongside gospel singers and jazz musicians. Mindful perhaps of the historic power of these recordings, in 1959 Vanguard signed a deal to ensure a supply of more, and become the label of record for the Newport Folk Festival, taping every note played at the event.

It's this festival that provides some of the most illuminating material here. In this selection, you'll find the regional voices of rediscovered pre-war blues artists like the Reverend Robert Wilkins all the way to the million-selling collegiate bluegrass japes of the Kingston Trio. The Mumford And Sons of their day, their take on Woody Guthrie's Hard, It Ain't Hard borders on tongue-in-cheek.

Newport was also the place where Maynard Solomon saw the 19-year-old Joan Baez, who he immediately signed. Compiler John Crosby has done a smart thing here, programming a Bob Dylan Newport performance of North Country Blues next to Joan's version of Dylan's Farewell, Angelina. Dylan was not signed to Vanguard (folklorist John Hammond, who had signed Bessie Smith, and would sign Bruce Springsteen, had taken him to Columbia), but here the compilation gives a solid illustration of the pair's unwanted, if attractive, status as the Prom King and Queen of the Folk Class of 1963.

So great was Dylan's contribution to the scene at this time, it's difficult not to perceive some of the acts gathered here other than through his long shadow. The feisty Koerner, Ray And Glover (friends of Dylan's from the Minneapolis "Dinkytown" folk scene). The rough-hewn but melodically inventive Dave Van Ronk, Dylan's New York mentor. The hilarious, high-spirited performances of transplanted Irishman Liam Clancy (again a New York contemporary). Even if Vanguard didn't have a pole star of Dylan's magnitude to plot their course by they could certainly record a stout-hearted crew.

But Vanguard did have Joan Baez. She was significant to the label, not only for her credentials as campaigner and artist, but also as a big seller. At one point Baez had three records in the Top 10, which was remarkable enough. When you consider these were generally recorded by Baez alone, at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, she becomes a phenomenal business proposition. Overheads at these sessions typically only ran to tape, hire of the room, and a rug for the barefoot singer to stand on.

The profits that the company made from such recordings were in part invested in new recordings by musicians lately "rediscovered" such as Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. Their remit also widened to include the brand of folk pop that sprang up in Baez's wake: from the whimsical efforts of her own sister Mimi and her husband (Richard and Mimi Fariña) to the earnest but anodyne work of Ian & Sylvia. It recorded as the gaze of the folk singer turned inward from the world's injustice and gave birth to singer-songwriters like Patrick Sky and Jerry Jeff Walker. Not all of the label's experiments were successful: the hippy rock showcased on discs three and four from Frost, Serpent Power and Walker's first band, Circus Maximus, is, at best, of its time.

However, when the label stuck closer to its core qualities: passion, a hard to define "artistry", and a certain radical commitment they could strike their own kind of gold. Country Joe & The Fish, as the sleeve of their first album attests, looked like a travelling yokel circus with magician pretensions. Their witty, anti-Vietnam war polemic Fixin' To Die Rag, however, perfectly caught the mood of the counterculture. Disappointed, exuberant, angry, it is an anthem of the 1960s.

Vanguard, this set suggests, began by offering source materials to blues/folk purists, but would ultimately confound them. The label's core business - as much as it was about recording music - was about recording change. On Vanguard, young and old, traditional and modern stood shoulder to shoulder. Rather than being dominated by one personality, Vanguard provided something like a census of the notionally "folk" population: living and dying, adopting new influences, adapting, and being reborn.

It would be hard in this respect to think of an artist who found a more natural home or who better personified the label's ethos than John Fahey. Today, Fahey (who died in 2001) is a revered cult figure: his immense body of work testament to his drive; his relative obscurity a symptom of his unmanageable personality. So keen was Fahey's zeal for the blues, he didn't only rediscover the music of Skip James - in 1964 he tracked down the actual person, crotchety and afflicted with cancer in a Tunica, Mississippi, hospital.

For this act alone, Fahey would be revered, but his engagement with blues source material took it to genuinely new places. Fahey played blues guitar, but through his unique filter of modern classical music theory, part-remembered Christian music, and his own prolix self-mythologising. It's difficult to point to one among his 30 or so albums as definitive, but we can admire the playing excerpted here (the wonderful March! For Martin Luther King and Commemorative Transfiguration and Transformation At Magruder Park) and explore further.

The Vanguard label invokes much the same response. It invites us to salute the achievement in amassing such a varied body of work, and admire the passionate, utterly individual approach that gave rise to it. The revolution is no easier to record or neatly compile than it is to televise - the achievement of this set, however, is to suggest something of its power.

John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide's rock critic. He lives in London.