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Classic American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways

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Classic American BalladsThe Classic series is an enjoyable introduction to the diverse repertoire of American music available from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Each explores the breadth and depth of a genre while the notes trace its significance within American musical heritage. Longtime lovers of American roots music and newcomers alike find value and enjoyment in the Classic series. Compiled and annotated by GRAMMY award winning Smithsonian Folkways Archivist Jeff Place, award winning bluegrass radio presenter Lee Michael Demsey, blues historian Barry Lee Pearson, and others, the series has produced compilations of bluegrass, folk, blues, maritime, old-time, and mountain music.

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. On March 24, Smithsonian Folkways will release 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.

Born of the British ballad, its American offspring was the blank canvas for all type of tale, the more calami­tous or scandalous, the better. Jesse James and Billy the Kid, train wrecks and hurricanes, the Titanic and Tom Dooley, fatal lovers’ quarrels and foiling the devil, all and more were normal fare, served up in a song. Classic American Ballads is 25 tracks of time-worn tragedy drawn from the deep fount of the Smithsonian Folkways archives. 74 minutes, 40-page booklet with extensive notes and photos.

This is the 24th release in the Smithsonian Folkways Classic Series. 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.

Please enjoy a free MP3 or FLAC download of “Banks of the Ohio” by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe.


  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

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