Colleen’s Staff Picks

Hey everyone! Resident amateur ethnomusicologist here. For my staff picks, I’ve dug through our collection looking for gems of traditional or uncommon music. The following four CDs are some of my favorites, old and new, and I highly recommend all of them. But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Let’s start out in Scotland with Scotland the Real Music of Contemporary Caledonia.

(Photo Credit: Smithsonian Folkways)

This is a fantastic compilation of current Scottish folk artists, compiled by Fiona Ritchie and Nancy Groce, PhD, and published under the Smithsonian Folkways label. Fiona Ritchie hosts a fantastic radio program, The Thistle & Shamrock®, Sunday night on NPR. Some of my favorite Scottish artists are featured on the CD, like Dougie MacLean, Malinky, Alasdair Fraser, and members of the Battlefield Band. Dougie MacLean’s claim to fame is his song “Caledonia,” a gorgeous, haunting song of longing for home, though Ritchie chose another song of his, “Garden Valley,” for the CD. Ritchie also included the song “Oor Hamlet,” an amusing synopsis of Hamlet in three minutes and written by a school teacher from Glasgow, Adam McNaughtan. He was teaching Hamlet at the time of writing it, and the final chorus ends with “If you think this is borin’, ye should read the bloody play!” I could get into detail on why each song on this album is amazing, but I’ll urge you to give it a listen instead!

Jumping across the pond to North America, the next CD set I’ve picked is a treasure I discovered in our oversize CD section.

(Photo Credit: Dust-to-Digital)

Art of Field Recording: Volume 1: fifty years of traditional American Music, documented by Art Rosenbaum is a 4-CD set of American folk music under the Dust-to-Digital label. The first CD is titled “Survey” and essentially provides an overview of the following 3 CDs which focus on different genres, “Religious,” “Blues,” and “Instrumental and Dance.” Most of the songs were collected from Southern Appalacia and the corn fields of the Midwest. To my delight, he also includes a handful of tunes from New England. Perusing the tracks, I excitedly saw a tune called “Beaudoin Quadrille,” played by someone outside of the Beaudoin family (La Famille Beaudoin). Thinking this was a tune from my grand-mentor (my mentor’s mentor) that became known outside of that family, I raced to find the liner notes for the track. Rosenbaum also thought there might be a connection and sought to find one, though he has been unable to, supposing instead that the tune comes from the performer’s local tradition. Throughout this collection, Rosenbaum does a wonderful job of presenting multiple interpretations of a tune back to back, letting the listener hear regional and/or style differences for themselves.

And what would a collection of American folk song be without a few Child Ballads? Collected by Francis James Child in the late 19th century, the Child Ballads are a seminal collection of English and Scottish ballads. Naturally, Americans have their own versions of these same ballads. Two of the more recognizable ballads (though not on these CDs) are “Barbara Allen” and “The Elfin Knight” (most would be more familiar with “Scarborough Fair,” a variant on “Elfin Knight”). Listeners of Fleet Foxes would recognize “The Fause Knight Upon the Road.”

Jumping across the Atlantic again, we now travel to Uganda with Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda.

(Photo Credit: Smithsonian Folkways)

Like the first album, this CD is also produced by Smithsonian Folkways, this one compiled by Jeffrey A. Summit. I first heard of this CD a few years ago in a class I took on Jewish music–my professor played us one track and I perked up and just wanted to hear more. Naturally, I nearly forgot about it until a few weeks ago when I searched our CD collection for Smithsonian Folkways CDs and rediscovered this gem.

Near Mbale in Eastern Uganda you will find the Abayudaya. They are a community of practicing Jews who, unlike the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the Lemba of South Africa and Zimbabwe, do not have Jewish ancestry. Instead, their ancestors converted to Judaism in 1919 due to the political atmosphere of the time. Their music has roots in a variety of sources making for the beautiful songs on this CD. Song texts are in Hebrew, English, and various Ugandan languages. In Summit’s introduction he says, “One can ask what is Jewish about a Basoga drumming song, yet if, as the ethnomusicologist Curt Sachs said, Jewish music is music made by Jews, for Jews, as Jews, a closer examination of these songs and their social context deepens our understanding of Abayudaya identity (Bayer 1972:555).”

For my last staff pick, we’ll stay in Africa with Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM (another Dust-to-Digital collection. Sensing a theme?)

(Photo Credit: Dust-to-Digital)

Each CD of this 4-CD collection draws from a different set of countries. Those countries are colored in on the map preceding the notes on each CD. Jonathan Ward compiled this set from old 78s made in the hey-day of recording African music before it was lost to future generations. I don’t have as much to say about this recording as I did on the previous ones, other than it is great, and I urge you to give it a listen. Who knows where it might lead you? As Ward eloquently says in his introduction, “around one musical corner is another corner, and another. Within these 100 tracks, traditional music stands side by side with popular music as traditional culture coexists with so-called modernity.”