Thursday, August 04, 2011

Pledge-Breaking: Legends of Folk

It was a time when folk singers could afford to pay rent in Greenwich Village. While jazz still has a toe-hold in Lower Manhattan (tenuous as it might be) and popular forms flourish, folk’s salad days in the Village (East or West) are essentially over. Yet, its musical influence persists, thanks to the major recording stars that emerged from those coffeehouses. Folk’s glory days are revisited in Legends of Folk: the Village Scene (promo here), a greatest hits special tailor-made for pledge-breaks, produced and directed by Jim Brown, which airs this coming Tuesday on New York’s WNET.

Hosted by the appropriately hospitable Noel Paul Stookey, the Paul of Peter, Paul & Mary, Legends never attempts to be an exhaustive survey, like Ken Burns’ ambitious (if somewhat controversial) Jazz. Like a compilation CD for your TV, it covers all the big names that were ever on the scene, mostly showing complete performances in their entirety.

Some of their choices are quite shrewd. It is rather eye-opening to see a rather outgoing young Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” compared to his comparatively reserved stage persona of recent years. Stookey and company are also well represented with a vintage recording of “If I Had a Hammer” that nicely showcases their harmonies, while serving as a dramatic contrast to the snoozy stereotype of folk songs. For those who are wondering, the Don McLean selection is not “American Pie,” which frees up a lot of time, but on the other hand, who really cares about “Castles in the Air?”

To its credit, Legends stretches the genre definition a bit, including artists from the blues and roots revival. Yet, frustratingly, the only musical performances that talking heads speak over are those from Mississippi John Hurt and The New Lost City Ramblers. This is particularly frustrating in the case of Hurt, because his segment is ostensibly about how great it was for a real deal old timer to final get some respect.

Quibbles of a jazz and blues fan aside, Legends is perfectly respectable music television, if never especially challenging or deep. It follows comfortably in the tradition of previous nostalgic jukebox specials frequently broadcast during pledge drives, almost like the Time-Life Music commercials you find yourself watching in spite of yourself. For old folkie-singer-songwriter types, Legends airs this coming Tuesday (8/9) on WNET, but do not be surprised if someone asks you for money.

(New Lost City Ramblers photo: David Gahr)