10 Folk Albums Rolling Stone Loved in the 1970s You Never Heard
The folk scene of the Sixties evolved into the singer-songwriter movement of the Seventies, but it didn’t go away. Between 1970 and 1979, Rolling Stone reviewed lots of folk albums: music steeped in old-fashioned, acoustic traditions, more than a few of them by Greenwich Village habitués with personal connections to Bob Dylan, but also spanning local scenes from Kentucky to Maine. These 10 albums earned quality time on our turntables, even if they’ve been largely forgotten in the years since.
[This list was originally published in July 2015]
Judee Sill, ‘Heart Food’
This mystic Christian folk singer and pianist was the first artist David Geffen signed to his Asylum record label; she wrote Bach-influenced songs about the struggle to achieve spiritual enlightenment. With piano and multitracked vocals, it's rapturous and otherworldly — listening feels like a form of mystical transcendence, or tuning into Brian Wilson's head when he's praying. After this album, her second, Geffen dropped her from the label. Sill fell into a downward spiral and died of an overdose (possibly deliberate) in 1979.
What We Said Then: "The goal of Sill's spiritual quest is absolute oneness with God, a fusion that is conceived both as psychedelic pantheism and in primitive, Judeo-Christian terms. The language with which Sill has chosen to express her vision is quite unusual and powerful. Her diction is elevated, at times almost Biblical, at others idiomatic… Judee Sill is a most gifted artist, one who continues to promise almost more than I dare hope for." — Stephen Holden, RS 135 (May 24th, 1973)
Karen Dalton, ‘In My Own Time’
Folk legend Karen Dalton was the muse of MacDougal Street, the inspiration for "Katie's Been Gone" (on Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes recordings). She sang with adenoidal melancholy far beyond her years, like a folkie Billie Holiday. This album, recorded in "Woodstock" (actually, Bearsville, New York) with Harvey Brooks (who had played with both Dylan and Miles Davis), was her second and final record. Dalton died in 1993; in 2004, Dylan said in his Chronicles memoirs that she had been his "favorite singer."
What We Said Then: "The source of Karen's legend is her voice. Like Rita Coolidge whom she sounds a bit like, she is not a songwriter but she sings with so much subtlety and taste that her interpretations are creations of their own… At her best her sound is hauntingly beautiful, addictive…. she performs so rarely it is truly a joy that her brilliance is now available to everyone. There's magic on this record and it's worth getting into." — Danny Goldberg, RS 87 (July 22nd, 1971)
Jean Ritchie, ‘None But One’
Ritchie, born in Kentucky, had released dozens of albums by the time she made this one; we called her "arguably our finest traditional folk singer/songwriter." Singing a cappella or accompanying herself on mountain dulcimer, she sang the songs she grew up with in the Cumberland Mountains, finding a shining thread that extended back through the generations of Anglo-American life.
What We Said Then: "Like a gentler, distaff Basement Tapes, None But One eschews both portent and pretense, only to find greatness anyway, more through inherence than ambition. What we hear is not the questing for, but the realization and celebration of an identity — and that identity is as timeless and universal as it is beautiful." — Paul Nelson, RS 247 (September 8th, 1977)
Mimi Farina and Tom Jans, ‘Take Heart’
Mima Farina was a folk icon, the sister of Joan Baez and the wife and musical partner of the colorful Richard Farina, with whom she recorded two influential albums. But in 1966, on her 21st birthday, Farina died in a motorcycle crash. Following a detour into satirical theater, she married singer-songwriter Tom Jans and returned to music with this enchanting LP, which included her most famous song, a tribute to "In the Quiet Morning." After Take Heart, Farina spent most of her time until her 2001 death working on the charity Bread and Roses.
What We Said Then: "Mimi Farina and Tom Jans do make beautiful music, and this is a lovely album. It's also a haunting one; being reminded of Dick Farina's absence only reiterates his importance. I wish them well with this album. Take heart." — George Kimball, RS 92 (September 30th, 1971)
Ian Matthews, ‘Valley Hi’
On this record, Ian Matthews, veteran of legendary British folk group Fairport Convention, teamed up with producer Michael Nesmith of the Monkees. The appealing result gave Matthews' folk repertoire a high-gloss sonic sheen, but like most of Matthews' work, it was not a hit. He kept recording and also did A&R for the new age label Windham Hill. The arrangement of the song "Seven Bridges Road" here caught the attention of the Eagles, who used it as a frequent concert opener and a hit single.
What We Said Then: "In terms of listening pleasure, Valley Hi is a sensuous delight. The subdued Hollywood glamour of Nesmith's production finds a sympathetic complement in Matthews' own understated musical elegance. Aural beauty is their mutual ideal, consistently attained, since the remodeled schooner on which Matthews sails is constructed with an eye to detail as well as design." — Stephen Holden, RS 145 (October 11th, 1973)
Rosalie Sorrels, ‘Travelin’ Lady’
Sorrels was a folk singer from Idaho who crisscrossed the country with five children so she could play music in bars and at festivals. She was enough of a hard-living woman that Hunter S. Thompson wrote the liner notes to this album; she had traveled enough miles to earn her touches of country-and-western sentiment. And when she played guitar, it felt like somebody had cracked the window just enough that you could smell a different, older world.
What We Said Then: "Her lyrics are still the best this side of Joni Mitchell ('There's no more rooms to retire to / I've got to move, there's no place to stay/And I've nothing that's mine but my shadow/If you need one, I'll give that away'), while Rosalie's voice falls somewhere between the lyricalness of a Joan Baez and the grittiness of a Bonnie Raitt… the direction is always one of melodic introspectiveness tempered with Miss Sorrels' fluid, flowing, prismatic voice." — Gary von Tersch (RS 99, January 6th, 1972)
Happy and Artie Traum, ‘Double-Back’
The brothers Happy and Artie Traum were raised in the Bronx but ended up part of the Greenwich Village scene in the Sixties. Happy Traum ended up part of Dylan's camp; he was in a group that released the first official version of "Blowin' in the Wind," and later would back Dylan up on his album Greatest Hits Vol II. Together, the Traum brothers blended their voices and instruments the way that only family can: this was the second of four albums they made, although they worked together on and off until Artie died of liver cancer in 2008.
What We Said Then: "There isn't a bad cut on this album. It's really a pleasure to lay back and listen to songs like 'Scavengers,' 'The Ferryman,' and 'Brother Thomas,' for while Double-Back must certainly epitomize Woodstock music, both the Band's occasionally tortured inflections and its opposite — super-saccharine harmonies coupled with pretentious lyrics — are conspicuously absent here." — George Kimball, RS 91 (September 16th, 1971)
Mary McCaslin, ‘Way Out West’
McCaslin did homespun versions of her own songs, old western ballads, and modern pop songs: the Who's "Pinball Wizard" on banjo, for example. This album marked her debut as a songwriter, and we deemed this record full of gossamer vignettes as "an exceptional album which virtually no one will hear." (She recorded for the tiny indie label Philo, although she also made a great album for Capitol in 1979, Sunny California — which got only marginally more attention.)
What We Said Then: "McCaslin's unorthodox guitar tunings create unusual, ethereal melodies of striking beauty. Combined with her clear, delicately affecting vocals, the effects are magical on the Everlys' 'Let It Be Me' and her own 'Northfield'… Way Out West is far superior to most of its genre and is well worth the effort of seeking it out." — Ken Barnes, RS 169 (September 12th, 1974)
Various Artists, ‘Traveling Through the Jungle’
Folk in the Alan Lomax tradition: field recordings of rural people making music in their everyday lives. In this case, the subject was African-Americans in the deep South, which makes the collection's title unfortunate, even if it was meant to underscore the African tradition that much of this music drew on. But the music here, made with military drums (store-bought) and cane fifes and flutes (homemade), was raw and rousing.
What We Said Then: "Rhythmically it's like proto-rock & roll, with a very heavy Bo Diddley beat and shouted, bluesy vocals, but the drumming style, with its traces of both Anglo-American parade music and West African polyrhythm, also sounds like a direct ancestor of jazz. Folklorists will probably be discussing the significance of this very important first fife and drum music for some time but that shouldn't keep anyone from enjoying it." — Robert Palmer, RS 198 (October 23rd, 1975)
Gordon Bok, ‘Peter and the Wind’
While the folk music epicenter in the Seventies was Greenwich Village, there were still plenty of regional musicians steeped in their local traditions. Gordon Bok, for example, was a deep-voiced fisherman from Maine who principally did songs about life on the New England shore. We hailed his third album as a rough-hewn masterpiece; in the four decades since then, Bok has kept sailing, carving wood, and releasing a nautically themed album every year or two.
What We Said Then: "There are some fine new songs here, two of them brilliant instrumentals (Bok is one of the most versatile acoustic guitarists imaginable), one in imitation of seagulls' flight… 'Peter Kagan and the Wind' is his own adaptation of one of the better known myths about New England's seal folk… It may never land him in the pop charts with a bullet, but I think he'd rather stay in Maine and mind his own business anyway." — Janet Maslin, RS 112 (July 6th, 1972)
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