The kitschy television spots for Time-Life recordings stamped them as the Ronco of the music biz, peddling soundtracks for stooges with shrill enthusiasm.
My opinion of the outfit began to change a couple years ago, when Time-Life’s “The Stanley Brothers: The Definitive Collection (1947-1966)” really was the definitive collection, an essential three-CD package for any bluegrass fan. So when the same publicist came at me with another three-CD boxed set, “Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement,” pegged for release a week from now, to a nation awash in the good vibes of MLK Day and the Obama inauguration, I replied, “Yes I can review this package,” and the kitsch came full circle.
“Let Freedom Sing” earns points for ambition and enterprise. There are 58 songs spread over a 70-year period, from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in 1939 to The Blind Boys of Alabama’s “Free at Last” in 2008. There are some obscurities — Nat King Cole’s previously unreleased “We Are Americans Too,” Louisiana Red’s “Ride On, Red, Ride On” — and some slam-dunk choices, from Mahalia’s “We Shall Overcome” to Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” to Aretha’s “Respect,” to Marvin’s “Inner City Blues” to JB’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
There is humor that’s intentional, like Redd Foxx’s hilarious “Prayer” for George Wallace, delivered by Ray Scott, and unintentional, such as Bill Moss’s proud shout-out to O.J. Simpson on 1969’s unfortunately titled “Sock it to ’Em, Soul Brother.” And there is a welcome lack of whitewash, from Nina Simone’s scabrous “Mississippi Goddamn” to Bill Broonzy’s not-so-innocent question, “When Do I Get to be Called a Man?,” to announcements from John Lee Hooker (“The Motor City Is Burning”), Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) up through Solomon Burke in 2002 (“None of Us are Free”).
But on a canvas this large — the music of the civil rights movement — quibbles and caveats are inevitable. While neatly capturing a wide swath of gospel, blues, soul, funk and R&B, the collection is thin on hip-hop: Scott-Heron, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, and Jungle Brothers, from the Native Tongues clique, are the only three artists represented. In fact the 21st century tracks are the least savvy choices: Without the clarity of history to determine import, the Time-Life folks resort to safe names and/or themes.
Last, but certainly not least, there is a distressing discrepancy in the sound quality at times. For example, a crystal clear “People Get Ready” segues into a soft and muddy “Nobody Can Turn Me Around” (by the Mighty Clouds of Joy). Without constant monitoring of the volume, you’ll miss the nuance of some tracks and be jolted out of your seat by others.