This lavishly packaged, copiously annotated five-CD, 89-song box set -- subtitled "Anthems of the American Underground from the Pages of Broadside Magazine" -- pays tribute to the influential folk-song magazine Broadside
magazine, which in its quarter-century lifespan printed countless topical songs by many of the era's most important songwriters, along with articles and opinion pieces chronicling concurrent political and social concerns. In the early '60s, Broadside
's focus on topical original compositions was a major influence in turning the folk scene's focus from traditional material towards original compositions. The magazine also launched an offshoot record label, which released several various-artists LPs featuring such essential '60s troubadours as Bob Dylan
, Pete Seeger
, Phil Ochs
, Eric Andersen
, Janis Ian
, Arlo Guthrie
, and Tom Paxton
The Best of Broadside
box -- all of whose tracks originally appeared in the magazine or on its sister label -- does a fine job of defining Broadside
's seminal role in the folk scene, with a broad sampling of often-rare material that includes memorable tracks from the better-known artists as well as some worthy obscurities by less famous ones. The Dylan songs, "John Brown" and "Ballad of Donald White" (the latter credited to the pseudonymous Blind Boy Grunt), have long been the quarry of collectors; both are fine examples of the artist at the peak of his folkie period. he also plays guitar and sings backing vocals to Happy Traum's reading of Dylan's "Let Me Die In My Footsteps." Other highlights include Janis Ian's "Baby I've Been Thinking," an early acoustic acoustic version of her controversial hit "Society's Child"; Peter La Farge's original version of his "Ballad of Ira Hayes," subsequently popularized by Johnny Cash
; Richard Farina
's civil rights ballad "Birmingham Sunday"; the previously unreleased Phil Ochs song, "Freedom Riders"; and Tom Paxton's "Train for Auschwitz," whose stark lyrical imagery drew such intense reactions that the artist stopped playing it live. Inevitably, the box also includes a fair number of justifiably obscure cuts by strident, didactic protest singers, but even these shed valuable light on the musical movement that spawned them.
Not surprisingly, the level of artistic inspiration and social relevance drops off as the folk world becomes increasingly marginalized in the late '60s and onwards, although there are bright spots including a 1979 track by an early Lucinda Williams
. The scattered inclusion of such stylistic departures as Nina Simone
's earthily elegant "Mississippi Goddamn" and The Fugs
' bracingly vulgar "Kill for Peace" suggests that if folk's gatekeepers had displayed that sort of openmindedness more often, the scene - and Broadside
itself -- might have stood a better chance of maintaining the level of influence past its '60s peak.
It's also worth noting that the accompanying 150-page book -- thoroughly researched and copiously illustrated -- tells the Broadside story with such vivid detail that it'd almost be worth the price of admission on its own.