Sung, declaimed, and chanted in over 20 languages ranging from Arabic to Xhosa, drawn across the planet from Algeria to Vietnam, Smithsonian Folkways’ The Social Power of Music is a benchmark for folk compilations to come. Co-producer and compiler Jeff Place embraces the lively sprawl of music for and by “the people” by emphasizing the social aspect of song. Comprising more than 80 tunes spread over four discs, the collection highlights soundtracks for social justice, hymns of praise and reverence, celebratory songs, and anthems that propel global change. Acoustic guitars, frequently inexpensive and readily available to common folk, are prominent in each category.
Disc One, “Songs of Struggle,” juxtaposes the loping strum and cross-current picking of staples like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and the New World Singers’ “Blowing in the Wind” with Kristen Lems’ coiling and darting guitar on “Ballad of the ERA” and Andrés Jiménez’s plangent swipes and stinging accents on “El pobre sigue sufriendo (The Poor Keep on Suffering).” The sequencing of traditional favorites alongside less familiar tunes emphasizes the timeless yet up-to-the-minute relevance of artists like Guthrie, while also broadening the definition of folk.
“Sacred Sounds,” the focus of Disc Two, traditionally draw their power from the unadorned human voice, yet even here, guitars shine. The Strange Creek Singers’ “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” features tumbling bent-note fills and rippling picking. On “Dayeinu,” a Passover Seder celebration of God’s beneficence, Raasche and Alan Mills thread jaunty vocals through plucked and traipsing rhythms.
Disc Three throws a party with “Social Songs and Gatherings.” Here, guitars rattle like washboard percussion on the Golden Gate Gypsy Orchestra’s “Oylupnuv Obrutch (the Broken Hoop Song),” canter to and fro on Lorenzo Martinez’s “La entrega de los novios (Delivery of the Newlyweds),” or sidewind through carousel fiddle on Austin Pitre’s Cajun rave-up “Jolie blonde.”
The marches and clarion calls on Disc Four’s “Global Movements” rely most heavily on the guitars’ propulsive rhythms and ebullient melodies. Massed acoustics propel the Gypsy-jazz-flavored march “Bella ciao (Goodbye Dear),” an Italian anti-fascist call to action that has acquired increasing urgency amid the world’s increasing slide towards authoritarianism. The balalaika-ish sound of chattering guitar drives Suni Paz’s “Prisioneros somos (We Are All Prisoners),” a call for solidarity across Central America to defy oppression and corruption. Raquel Chaves’ pulsing strummed guitar underpins “Funeral do lavrador (Funeral of a Worker),” where Zelia Barbosa and her band harness the seductive rhythms of Brazilian bossa nova to a message of hope and defiance.
Despite this collection’s impressive reach, it cannot be truly considered comprehensive. Instead the compilers have captured a polyglot and polyrhythmic genre in flux. By embracing such an open and fluid definition of folk, Smithsonian Folkways emphasizes the social aspect of this music, not just its message of social justice, but also the means by which it’s produced—through celebrations, gatherings, worship, and political movements. The Social Power of Music is a vivid snapshot of an international brother- and sisterhood unified by the insistent rhythms and melodies of song.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.