Sunday, 28 August 2011

"The Great Folk Discography Volume 1 – Pioneers And Early Legends" by MARTIN C STRONG. A Review Of The 2010 Polygon Music Reference Book (Vol.1 of 3).

"…Don't it Always Seem To Go…That You Don’t Know What You’ve Got…'Til It's Gone…”

The latest in a long run of "Great" Discography books (Rock, Metal, Alternative & Indie), this tome by Martin C. Strong on 'Folk' is without doubt his greatest achievement to date. It has astonishing detail and truckloads of it is seeing the Discography light-of-day for the first time anywhere. Published by Polygon Books in June 2010, "The Great Folk Discography Volume 1 – Pioneers & Early Legends" has over 620 large-sized pages - with Volume 2 due in October 2011 and Volume 3 sometime in 2012. It also has a ‘Forward’ by Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band.

Because the genre of 'Folk' encompasses both 'Rock' music as well as 'Geographical Locations' – Strong has broken his tome down into 3 sections based on both:
1. North American Pioneers And Early Legends (Pages 1 to 332) [American Artists]
2. Britain And Beyond (Pages 335 to 600) [British Artists]
3. Cult Collectables And Continental (Page 602 to 627) [Mixture of all Nationalities]

The layout is the same as his other books – a hugely detailed and fact-heavy Biog heads up the artist section (with albums mentioned and rated) followed by an ascending Year-by-Year discography: Date Of Release, Format (7”, 12” and LPs included), Catalogue numbers for both USA and UK, Title, Labels and Chart Positions (both countries), track list for the original vinyl followed by details of subsequent vinyl reissues, followed by CD reissues (noting bonus tracks where applicable) – even providing line-up changes in-between the entries. The detail is mind-boggling. But the real killer here is the accuracy – which is superb – and the fact that it shows BOTH the USA and UK releases – some came out in this country – some only came in theirs – and so on. It’s a huge amount of genuine information and makes for fascinating reading.

A word on the content because this book has entries way beyond the scope of what many purists would call 'Traditional Folk'. There are large amounts of 'Rock & Pop' acts Strong feels have a 'Folk' element to their music – so he's included them. Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio, Simon & Garfunkel and The Weavers for instance you can understand – but we also get The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Mamas And The Papas, Traffic and Neil Young who frankly had very little to do with the genre over long careers. Equally weird is that some of the Rock artist discographies are full – others curtailed to only folk. For instance the Springsteen list wisely sticks to 3 – "Nebraska", "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" and "We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions" - but the Bob Dylan list goes from his self-titled debut LP in March 1962 right up to his "Christmas In My Heart" CD from November 2009 (his Discography is an eye-catching 8-pages long). BUT – and this is a big but – I would argue that accuracy’s loss is the reader’s gain - because the inclusion of these acts gives you updated discographies on artists that haven’t been done since the 7th Edition of his 'Rock' book in 2004. For instance the Joni Mitchell and James Taylor lists give us "Shine" and "Covers" – from 2007 and 2008 respectively (the lyrics from Joni's "Big Yellow Taxi" title this review).

Then there’s the sheer number of artists included - the list of new and updated discographies is impressive: Eric Anderson, The Band, Robbie Basho, The Beau Brummels, Harry Chapin, Shirley & Dolly Collins, Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen, Karen Dalton, Nick Drake, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Fahey, Fairport Convention (including all offshoots & solo), Julie Felix, Stefan Grossman, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Jake Holmes, Horslips, Janis Ian, Incredible String Band, Leo Kottke, Gordon Lightfoot, Lindisfarne, Country Joe McDonald & The Fish, Don McLean, Ralph McTell, Vince Martin, John Martyn, Melanie, Fred Neil, Nico, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Pentangle (and all solo), Shawn Phillips, Tim Rose, Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie, PF Sloan, Chris Smither, Cat Stevens, June Tabor, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Townes Van Zandt and Loudon Wainwright III.

It also stretches into Folk-Blues, Country, Skiffle and even chroniclers of the genre – so we get Hoyt Axton, Harry Belafonte, John Denver, Lonnie Donegan, Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, Burl Ives, Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, Odetta, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Utah Phillips, John Prine, Paul Robeson, Eric Von Schmidt, John Stewart, The Vipers Skiffle Group, Doc Watson and Josh White.

Rarity collectors will be amazed to see discographies for Vashti Bunyan, Comus, Barry & Robin Dransfield, Fresh Maggots, Gryphon, Kaleidoscope, Loudest Whisper, Mellow Candle, Spirogyra (on the highly collectable Polydor Folkmill label), Meic Stevens and Trees.

Niggles And Omissions - the layout of 3 sections seems like a good idea, but practically it doesn’t work out so well. Say I go looking for Oscar Brand, Michael Chapman or Mushroom – the book presumes I know they’re in 1, 2 and 3 respectively because Brand is American, Chapman is English and Mushroom are an Irish band in the Cult section. Most people don’t have that depth of knowledge. But it doesn’t end there. As this is the first Volume of three, I may end up looking in 9 sections of 3 books to find the artist I want – a right Royal pain. Also – those looking for stalwarts of Irish and Scottish folk like The Chieftains, Planxty, The Bothy Band, Clannad and newcomer keepers-of-the-flame like Kate Rusby, Kris Drever and Cara Dillon – won’t find any of them in here because they’re in the next books.
I will buy the other two sets without fail, but hopefully Volume 3 will have an index referencing all three – because otherwise it could all become ludicrously counterproductive when the work put in here deserves our attention and even warrants our affection.

To sum up – I’ve been living with this book for a few weeks now - delving into it every evening - and it just gets better and better – discovering something new all the time. I can’t imagine the staggering amount of hours (even years) that went into formulating this amazing reference work, but like Terry Wilson’s “Tamla Motown – The Stories Behind The UK Singles” and Michael De Koningh & Marc Griffiths Reggae masterpiece on Trojan Records “Tighten Up – The History Of Reggae In The UK” (both reviewed) - this book is a music discography sensation – a tome you ‘need’ in your life. Thank God someone had the heart and brains to catalogue it all…

In the opening pages – Strong dedicates his book to his parents and his musical heroes – well he’s done both of them proud.

Genius and then some…

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