August 2001

Songcatcher: Songs from and Inspired by the Motion Picture
Vanguard 79586-2
Released: 2001

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]The great historian of folk music Alan Lomax, in his monumental Folk Songs of North America, said this about pioneer white Americans’ folk-singing methods:

"A singer sat stiffly erect, his body rigid, the muscles of his throat and face tense, gazing into the distance or with his eyes closed -- an impersonal, though highly charged story-teller. For him the words and tune were separate entities and the words more important than the tune. … The fiddle was the most widely used instrument and, as played, it was another high-pitched, reedy, wailing voice …."

Songcatcher: Songs from and Inspired by the Motion Picture mixes that approach with the more melodic, less reedy, more richly arranged ways familiar to those of us who have followed or heard bits of the commercially successful post-World War II folk revival.

Rosanne Cash leads off with the classic "Fair and Tender Ladies" and does a fine job. This track starts with just Cash’s voice and a guitar plainly strummed and picked. Additional instruments enter in the second verse, more in the third. "All instruments" are credited to John Leventhal, who also "produced, recorded and mixed" the song.

One of the most exciting tracks is "When Love Is New," a mother-daughter dialogue on the same theme as "Fair and Tender Ladies," written by Dolly Parton and sung by her and Emmy Rossum, with several capable musicians, including Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Sam Bush on mandolin. "Love is pretty when love is new / Like a blushing rose in a dazzling dew, / Intoxicating like cherry sweet wine. / When love is new it’s magic." A fifth line is added to the refrain every other time: "When love grows cold, it’s tragic."

A brilliant aspect of this gem, in addition to its touching, eternal honesty, is how closely wedded it is to the folk tradition through the refrain’s precise earthy similes, while hinting at sexual desire unacceptable among the pioneers (though present in Old World versions of the same songs): "You think he’s handsome, you think he’s fine. / He’ll use your body and tangle your mind." "Mother, oh mother, he’s not that way / His touch just takes my breath away." Though associated in the public imagination with Nashville glitter, Parton shifted a couple of years ago to the bluegrass roots of the tradition in which she has long worked and to which she has contributed significantly.

As if to highlight the album’s contrasting traditional and modern styles, Emmylou Harris’s delightful modern rendition of "Barbara Allen" is immediately preceded by the first two verses of the same song sung skillfully in the "mountain" way by Emmy Rossum. Both singers follow the custom of pronouncing the name of the female protagonist in this rich tale of fatal heartbreak "Barb’ry Allen."

Others also contribute significantly to the collection’s success: Iris Dement ("Pretty Saro"), Allison Moorer ("Moonshiner"), Patty Loveless ("Sounds of Loneliness" by Patty Ramey), Julie Miller ("All My Tears" by the singer), Maria McKee ("Wayfarin’ Stranger"), Sara Evans ("Mary of the Wild Moor"), Gilliam Welch, David Rawlings and David Steele ("Wind and Rain" in an excellent a capella rendition), Deana Carter ("The Cuckoo Bird"), Hazel Dickens, David Patrick Kelly & Bobby McMillon ("Conversation with Death"), and Pat Carroll ("Single Girl"). This CD should provide rich enjoyment to those familiar with folk music and newcomers alike.