Oscar Brand,
Pie in the Sky & Other Folk Song Satires
(Tradition, 1969;
Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

At the risk of too much self-referencing, we have here yet another offering from Empire Musicwerks in this selective reworking of the old Tradition Records catalogue of seminal folk music. This time out, the spirited guitar and voice of Oscar Brand is ably assisted by the equally spritely banjo and voice of David Sears. Both have embarked here on a journey through the oft-satirical landscape of the topical folk song, with occasionally stellar results.

The opener is the timeless title cut, penned with brio many years ago by Joe Hill, the original Friend of the Working Man. Here is offered the old standard "Sweet Bye-and-Bye," albeit with a bit of a twist. It is followed by Brand's own "Talking Atom," perhaps best known to modern audiences in the version offered by Sam Hinton at the Newport Folk Festivals of the early 1960s. William Keating's mine ditty, "Down, Down, Down," is next, followed by the banjo-driven "90-cent Butter," a lament on domestic economics past and present. Closing the first set is the narrative tale out of Alabama, "Clerks of Parch's Grove," in which small-town life is extolled (somewhat).

The second set gets rolling with Brand's "Give My Regards," in which the immortal sentiment "shakin' just like jello, on account of Fiorello" is uttered. We next hear the guitar-woven "Tenderfoot," a tongue-in-cheek welcome to a new cowpoke. "Oh, Suzannah" is the next reworked standard, emerging in this collection as "Mormon Engineer," a saga to the rail prowess of one Zack. There follows one of the more curious offerings on the disc, the "Track Lining Chant," in which Brand and Sears attempt to play the roles of black rail layers to decidedly odd effect. A lesser known chapter of the Revolutionary War, the mining of the Delaware River, is explored next in Francis Hopkinson's "Battle of the Kegs," voices aided by both guitar and banjo.

The next offering, "Dodger Song," embraces the idea that the conman is dear to the American heart, and is one of the highlights of the disc. It is followed by the travelogue/lament "Arkansas," a tune decidedly not commissioned by the Travel & Tourism office of the title state. Indeed, this song celebrates Arkansas as the place in which nothing is better. It is followed in turn by "Rum a Dum Dum," a turn on "Old Dan Tucker" that speaks to the role of the Sons of Freedom in the Mexican War; it dates from about 1847.

The sly "Tammany," penned in 1905 by Gus Edwards, provides a decidedly politically incorrect infusion of the unscrupulous day-to-day of NYC politics in the post-Tweed years, and a rather strange turn of the "Song of Hiawatha," prospering neither group in the process. The more timeless "Landlord's Lament" extols the sad, downtrodden lot of the leasor, helped along with Brand's understanding guitar. The closer is a spirited re-working of "Old Grey Mare," the Tom Glazer ditty "A Dollar's Not a Dollar Any More," a tune which is, more's the pity, unlikely to lose its topicality any time soon.

Here then is a 40-plus-year-old artifact of an even earlier time, in which the twinned lenses of looking at the past show how relentlessly time moves on. In an age of data overload, there is something to be said for a piece of work that allows one the privilege of moving at a slower pace. The patient listener will be rewarded with a look back, but also a reminder that, the more we change, the more we remain at least somewhat the same.

by Gilbert Head
23 December 2006

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