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  • Now Available: Classic American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways

    In the days before YouTube, Twitter, and “Serial” podcasts, newsworthy events “went viral” in the form of song. Certain tragedies and grisly crimes captivated the American imagination, and entrepreneurial ballad writers penned songs catering to the thirst for details. Classic American Ballads, featuring Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Pink Anderson, and Sis Cunningham, among many others performing American topical songs that may draw from the British ballad tradition but are distinctly native to the United States.

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    The 25 tracks on Classic American Ballads, written between 1836 and 1947, chronicle tragic and significant events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the wreck of the “Old 97” train in Danville, Virginia, and the murder of a young girl along the Ohio River. Woody Guthrie’s “Billy the Kid” narrates the exploits of the notorious 19th-century outlaw, while Pete Seeger’s “Young Charlotte” tells the tale of the young Maine woman who froze to death on New Year’s Eve, 1840. Lead Belly’s version of the popular folk song “Duncan and Brady” is based on the notorious story of James Brady, a St. Louis policeman who was fatally shot by bartender Harry Duncan in 1890.

    The 24th installment in Smithsonian Folkways’ award-winning ‘Classic’ series aims to highlight the early years of the American tradition of topical songwriting that has continued on through generations of musicians from Bob Dylan (“Hurricane”) to Eddie Vedder (“Guaranteed”), John Legend (“Glory”), Lil Wayne (“Tie My Hands”) and Gillian Welch (“April the 14th”).

    Compiled, produced, and annotated by GRAMMY-winning Smithsonian Folkways archivist Jeff Place, Classic American Ballads features over 40 pages of enriching liner notes and an introductory essay, along with many rare historical photographs. Among them is an iconic shot of the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic in April 1912.


    1. Banks of the Ohio – Doc Watson and Bill Monroe
    2. Blue Mountain Lake – Pete Seeger
    3. Claude Allen – Hobart Smith
    4. Cole Younger – Dock Boggs
    5. Cowboy’s Lament (Streets of Laredo) – Buck Ramsey
    6. Boll Weevil – Sam Hinton
    7. Duncan and Brady – Lead Belly
    8. Floyd Collins – Paul Clayton
    9. Frankie and Johnny – Rolf Cahn and Eric Von Schmidt
    10. John Henry – John Jackson
    11. Jesse James – Sis Cunningham, Mike Millins, and Wes Houston
    12. Billy the Kid – Woody Guthrie
    13. The Death of the Lawson Family – Glen Neaves
    14. Naomi Wise – Doug Wallin
    15. Pearl Bryan – Bruce Buckley
    16. Sam Bass – Hermes Nye
    17. Springfield Mountain – Bascom Lamar Lunsford
    18. Tom Dooley – Glen Neaves, Roscoe Russell, Ivor Melton, Warren Brown, and Ted Lundy
    19. Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail – Cisco Houston
    20. Young Charlotte – Pete Seeger
    21. Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm? – The Tex-I-An Boys
    22. Zebra Dun – Joan O’Bryant
    23. The Titanic – Pink Anderson
    24. The Louisville Burglar – The Iron Mountain String Band
    25. The F.F.V. (Engine 143) – Annie Watson
    Now Available: Classic American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings