22 June 02005

An American ballad collection: Playlist #3

A few weeks ago, I started reading the collection of essays The Rose and the Briar, which re-imagines America through the lens of its ballads — mostly from the twentieth century, though the origins of some go back much further (and to parts of the British Isles). As soon as I started reading, I realised that it would be a frustrating experience unless I could hear the songs being written about.

There is a CD to accompany the book, but it's only available on import in the UK, so I couldn't get it quickly. Instead I turned to the web, since several versions of the ballads, particularly the older ones, are freely available in various audio formats. I compiled a selection of them in a playlist on webjay, so that you can hear them on your computer. (This is the third in a series of shared online playlists — see #1 and #2.)

There are clearly going to be more of these book-CD tie-ins — see the Love Supreme book-CD-radio promotion, for example — but what scope is there for audience-generated resources that augment products in the market place, while also helping to broaden and deepen the audience?

The rest of this posting starts to address this very general question in the specific terms of compiling a Rose and the Briar playlist, focusing on availability of material, its quality and the legal issues.


I used the altavista and Lycos search facilities for audio files across a range of formats (Google does not currently provide an audio search). Searching for traditional ballads is often less than straightforward, as different versions have different titles: as well as Omie Wise, I found essentially the same song listed under Little Lona and Little Noma.

Certain sites are particularly rich sources of freely available songs. The Live Music Archive covers all kinds of music, whereas there are also specialist sources like the Wolf Folklore Collection of Ozark Folksongs. Roger McGuinn's Folkden has a growing set of traditional songs that McGuinn has recorded as a 'Global Community Service' (vainglorious capitals in the original). Let me know if you know of other good sources.

While the old ballads can usually be found with enough searching, the latter part of the book and the CD focus on more recent songs that are generally associated with only one performer. So this part is more or less unrepresented in the playlist: unsuprisingly I couldn't find legitimate freely available versions, by any performer, of Bobby Patterson's Trial of Mary Maguire, Dolly Parton's Down from Dover (although I did find one very poor illegal version of Parton's recording — see below), Randy Newman's Sail Away, or Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. I did find a version of Newman's Louisiana 1927 (also covered in the book) and, surprisingly perhaps, two versions of Bob Dylan's Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.


Are these freely available versions any good? In some cases I was spoilt for choice: there are so many versions of Barbara Allen that the four I collected only scratch the surface. To show the song in different contexts, I selected one from a folk 'big name' (Pete Seeger), a chamber version, an archive 'amateur' rendition, and — for spice and novelty value — a bizarre space-rock version. Sometimes I think this range of versions works really well, better than the official CD — for example, in being able to include both the English and Irish versions of Foggy Dew to which the book refers — but the choice is often extremely restricted. For example, I think the bell-ringing version of The Water is Wide is beautiful, but I was sad that I couldn't find a recording with a female vocal, since Ann Powers' essay in the book presents the song as a kind of feminist lament.

In some cases, I could only find one or two versions of a song, and then it's Hobson's Choice: quality is a secondary consideration to being able to hear the song at all.

At 46 songs (probably over two and half hours listening), I think the playlist is too long to be digestible to any but the most dedicated. I may cut it down, or produce a 'light' version, by removing some of the multiple versions.


I compiled the Rose and the Briar playlist on webjay, and the way that webjay works means that I did not need to download or distribute any of the audio files. And neither do you, as a listener: you stream them from the webjay site with your favourite media player, but the files stay where they were on the sites where I found them. If those files or sites are taken down, the tracks concerned will no longer feature in the playlist. So my playlist does not affect the control, or liability, of the siteowners who make the files available.

The legal status of the recordings on the playlist varies. For example:

  • Clarence Ashley's Coo Coo Bird and Jelly Roll Morton's Buddy Bolden's Blues are now beyond the fifty-year UK term of copyright in the recording (and over 75 years in the former case);
  • the Wolf Collection recordings seem to be effectively in the public domain as learning resources;
  • Roger McGuinn's Folkden recordings are licensed under a Creative Commons licence for music;
  • the Grateful Dead are known for their laissez-faire approach to their live recordings, one of which is taken from the Live Music Archive;
  • some, like the Nassau Ringers, are recordings freely released by performers who do not appear to see their music-making as a commercial activity;
  • others are promotional 'samplers', such as Bert Jansch's Omie Wise, which fades after one minute of the recording.

As I was compiling the playlist, I tried to avoid including recordings that were clearly infringing rights. So I passed on the Johnny Cash version of Wreck of the Old 97 (much better than the one on the Rose and Briar CD), Marty Robbins' original El Paso and the Dolly Parton Down from Dover (though it was so poor you could barely hear the words). Jan and Dean's Dead Man's Curve is not out of copyright, but the version in my playlist is a RealMedia stream, so no-one can download it to keep. In retrospect I realised that the Odetta recording of Battle Hymn of the Republic should probably not be there, but it's so good I can't bring myself to remove it. [Update, 25 June 02005: having read the webjay legal note, I've deleted it.]

This may be the last of my online playlist experiments for a while. Next comes a review of the different playlist sharing services I've tried out. [Update, 26 June 02005: as part of that review, I've also created a version of the Rose and the Briar playlist on Upto11.net and another on Soundflavor.]

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Curatorial, Music and Multimedia, Playlists on 22 June 02005 | TrackBack
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