The album’s blurb sells this album as ”an important piece of American history that still resonates in 2019” but right from the opening track
(Come All You Coal Miners) the huge gulf between the subject matter of pre-World War II folk songs and present day concerns is all too obvious.
Other titles like There Is Mean Things Happening In This Land and I Hate The Capitalist System are self explanatory but there is no attempt to adapt the lyrics or update the basic arrangements to make them relevant to 21st century issues. In this context, even a song by the great Woody Guthrie (Mama Don’t ‘Low No Bush-Wahs Hangin’ Around) comes over as little more than a novelty piece.
Of course, the desperate consequences of hunger and low wages are great levellers in any age but the words highlighting institutional oppression appear as if voiced in an historical vacuum. What ,for example, are the intended modern day parallels for Jim Garland’s The Murder Of Harry Simms, the story of a labour activist killed aged 22 in 1932?
The classic Joe Hill, another man who died for a just cause, should be a song of an immortal struggle for worker’s rights but Yvonne Roberts’ conventional reading contains no sense of passion or righteous anger.
The one detail that singles out this 20 song collection from other labour movement compilations is that, with choices like Aunt Molly Jackson’s I Am A Union Woman and Ella May Wiggins’ The Mill Mother’s Song, the plight of women is given prominence.
This explains why there are five tunes by Sarah Organ Cunning including two, Girl Of Constant Sorrow & Come On Friends And Let’s Go Down, which will be familiar to fans of The Coen Brothers’ ‘Oh Brother, Where Are Thou?’
The album selections are drawn from Alan Lomax’s songbook ‘Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People’ published in the 1960s. It appears that this couple from San Francisco are harking back to their youth in the heady days when the counterculture all too briefly threatened the hegemony of the establishment.
Sadly, times they have a changed greatly since then and despite Callahan and Moore’s noble intentions none of songs chosen hit anywhere near hard enough to dent today’s “dirty capitalist system”.