Various Artists

The Best of Broadside 1962-1988: Anthems of the American Underground From the Pages of Broadside Magazine (Smithsonian Folkways)

Tastefully appointed, this five-CD box set is billed as a celebration of the power of folk song in the '60s -- tales of social injustice filtered through Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, and a host of others, complete with hagiographies on their impact -- but one sentence deep in the liner notes moots the whole concept. "A number of Broadside artists began to write more personal and introspective songs as the years passed," goes the introduction to Phil Ochs' "Changes," "since so few aspects of American life appeared to improve in any profound way." And there you have it: Broadside, a celebration of the misbegotten and foolhardy notion that a song could actually change the world.

Founded in 1962 by a pair of New Yorkers, Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, Broadside was launched as a simple mimeographed newsletter of stories, letters, and transcribed topical songs -- a true precursor to the slew of politicized fanzines that punk would inspire a generation later. As an enterprise that suggested that songwriters were perhaps the best spokespeople for American society (and possibly its best agents for change), Broadsideworked as both springboard and commune for folk's leading lights -- or those who would soon pick up the torch.

Tom Paxton, Malvina Reynolds, Bob Dylan (as "Blind Boy Grunt"), and Nina Simone all wrote songs celebrated in Broadside's pages, though Cunningham and Friesen's perception of the topical song was loose enough to include Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and the Fugs' great proto-punk Vietnam rant "Kill for Peace." It's the provocative, vicious sarcasm of the latter song -- "The only gook an American can trust/ Is a gook that's got his yellow head bust" -- that sets the tone for much of this new Folkways set; in other words, it's lousy background music. Far from the earnest where-have-all-the-flowers-gone goop that is now folk music's public image, Broadside's five CDs are mostly acidic: the simplicity of Paxton's "Train for Auschwitz," Seeger's indelible "The Willing Conscript," Ian's nursing home rant "Shady Acres," Ochs' "We Seek No Wider War," and the four black power songs from the Rev. F.D. Kirkpatrick and Jim Collier, which lay out American racism in both the specific and the general.

Broadside's brand of folk music was, at its best, journalism -- tales from the front and news analyses that the wider world could choose to act on, or not. That most chose not to act doesn't make the project a failure; the problem was in the artists who may have expected too much from their musical labors. It's that high expectation -- and the fear of being dubbed a useless "folkie" that comes with it -- which has ruined American folk music ever since, as Paul Simon fills albums studying his wrinkles and supposed great new hopes like Dar Williams cuddle with their therapists. For what it was worth, Broadside, which shuttered in 1988, now serves as a reminder of how singer/songwriters shifted their gaze from their windows to their mirrors.

 
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