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We Answer Your Burning Vanguard Anthology Questions

You Asked VMP Staffers What You Want To Know About Anthology

On November 11, 2021

For this Anthology, we tried something new, and invited purchasers of our most recent VMP Anthology, The Story of Vanguard, to email into our Anthology Mailbag to ask any questions they have about the set, or VMP Anthology in general. At the end of this experience, a few lucky participants were chosen to receive test pressings from the Vanguard Anthology.

Congratulations to our Vanguard Anthology Mailbag winners, Brandon, Mitchell and David.

And now, here are the responses to your submissions.

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Jake asks: “What is your favorite part about putting the Anthology titles together? Specifically choosing the titles, not the theme.”

Andrew Winistorfer, The Story of Vanguard’s executive producer: I think I speak for all of us at VMP when I say it’s the work days where we spend all day just listening to the incredible catalogs of these artists or labels. I had like two weeks worth of work days earlier this year where I was just listening to old folk music, basically from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. We take the curation part of these boxes seriously, and try to listen to everything, which never feels like a chore.

Steve asks: “Was Merle Watson’s finger picking self-taught or did he learn from his dad?”

AW: Merle definitely picked up a lot of Doc’s technique, but I think what’s most intriguing is where they’re dissimilar. Merle is maybe the only folk guitarist who could go toe-to-toe with Doc, but when you listen to an album like Doc Watson & Son (also on Vanguard), it’s possible to tell who’s who pretty much right away. Doc is more technically wild, while Merle’s playing is easier to pick out for its attitude. My favorite Doc/Merle album is Ballads from Deep Gap, if you want some continued Vanguard studies.

Lawrence asks: “When can we expect a Volume 2?”

AW: Never say never! Maybe it’ll be classical music focused though?

Molly asks: “What artists did Vanguard pass on signing?”

AW: The most famous one is Bob Dylan, who was brought to the label by Joan Baez, but the Solomons thought his voice wasn’t up to snuff and passed on him. In a weird bit of kismet that also shows how close-knit the folk community was, Albert Hammond — who had worked at Vanguard in the ’50s — eventually signed Dylan to Columbia, where he’s been for around 60 years. I’m sure they passed on many more — they essentially had their pick of folk music for six to seven years there — but Dylan is the one that has to hurt the most in retrospect.

David asks: “What are some of the most interesting areas in reproducing the artwork and packaging for this Anthology?”

Stephen Anderson, The Story of Vanguard’s vinyl producer: It was especially interesting to take in the albums’ liner notes as we transcribed them to see just how deep Vanguard’s commitment to posterity ran — they really were targeting the connoisseur from every angle. Unlike, say, a lot of jazz albums released around the same era, which tended to have some underlying subtext of “just buy the damn record already,” Vanguard’s liner notes are exhaustive, often tuned to a doggedly objective, academic point of view, replete with citations and song-by-song history lessons.

Even the ways in which they underscored the purity of sound of their records sets them apart, whether in the use of their “Vanguard Quality Control” seal or the specificity given to how and with what equipment the performances were captured, not just some boilerplate copy about “observing the RIAA cycle.” In a way, I think that recognizing the gravity given to these albums upon their release set the bar high for how we approached faithfully reproducing them, physically and sonically.

Joseph asks: “I admit, I purchased the Vanguard folk box set knowing absolutely nothing about folk music (except for the mockumentary movie A Mighty Wind which actually got me interested in folk music) on pure faith that VMP, with Vanguard, were going to put something great together to introduce me to the genre. Since I haven’t opened it yet, I was curious to know what order I should listen to them in, according to you. Are there particular tracks that you would like to highlight that capture the best of the box set or best of the era? Also, what was the most painful LP you had to edit out? Just in case I’d like to go chase it…”

AW: First off, thanks for taking the plunge here, we’re honored there are people who have the faith that we’ll give them something worthwhile.

I’ll take that latter part next: You can basically throw a dart at any Joan Baez Vanguard title (there are more than 10) and be in good hands, but I have a couple sentimental favorites I wish we could have incorporated like Buffy Sainte-Marie’s country album, I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again, and Country Joe and the Fish’s I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die. A must-own is Buffy’s Illuminations, one of the most important albums in the history of electronic music, too. A final hearty recommendation: Paul Robeson’s At Carnegie Hall.

As for ideal listening order: I think this box, like our label Anthologies on Motown and Blue Note especially, is best experienced in order, because you can chart the evolution of the central music here, as it goes from traditionalist to iconoclast and back to OG Traditionalist in the span of about 10 years.

Chris asks: “I swear it sounds like someone is playing the bass on the Weavers record but no one is credited. Am I wrong? Was there an overdub? Some other explanation?”

AW: Definitely no overdubs, and no bass player. What I think you’re hearing is a combination of the natural reverb of them recording this in Carnegie Hall with a couple mics, and Weavers’ singer-guitarist Fred Hellerman, who typically plays his acoustic guitar in the lower registers of the instrument, to offset the higher register of Pete Seeger’s banjo. You definitely had me focusing on this like I was trying to crack The Da Vinci Code, so I thank you for that.

Bret asks: “How did artists of color generally feel about Vanguard’s management and promotion of their albums/concerts?”

AW: For a folk label at the time, Vanguard had a fairly diverse roster: Joan Baez, Odetta, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Paul Robeson and more. I can’t speak for any of these artists directly, but it seems like the comfort with Vanguard basically varied from artist to artist. Baez stayed with the label for 15-ish years without complaint, while Buffy Sainte-Marie thinks she got pigeonholed based on Vanguard’s production/promotion, according to her biography with Andrea Warner. Mississippi John Hurt seemed to love being able to make a living late at life singing his blues, while Skip James treated the whole thing like a cosmic joke. Paul Robeson was able to make a living selling records at a time when he was basically barred from doing anything else, thanks to the Solomons’ patronage.

Chris asks: “It may seem a frivolous question, but there must be some artistic merit involved when selecting vinyl colors. How were the colors that were chosen for this set selected, and why?”

Clay Conder, The Story of Vanguard’s designer and art director: Not a frivolous question at all! There are a few things taken into consideration when selecting vinyl colors. The first being, what effect speaks to the music the most? For example, a wild and loud splatter effect doesn’t really fit the vibe of a folk record… but a subtle smoke effect? Definitely!

Then, once we decide on an effect, which we try to keep consistent throughout the box for cohesiveness, colors come into the picture. And to be honest, we at VMP are big fans of having the color match the cover in some way, so it’s really just a game of which available colors go well with this.

From there, we have to make sure that the plant is able to do these color combinations at the quantity we need. Some effects take longer to produce, like splatters, A-side/B-side, etc.

Brandon asks: “What would be your top selling point to a younger music fan if trying to turn them on to Vanguard/that folk scene more generally?”

AW: I try to get to this in the Listening Notes for this box, but the thing that struck me most was how the folk scene was really like Version 1.0 of basically every reactionary musical genre that came after it. Punk, new wave, hardcore, grunge, hip-hop, backpacker hip-hop, indie-rock in the ’00s: They’re all just using the folkies’ handbook. They gathered around an aesthetic, and set out to change music — and maybe the world. In an era where it feels like collectivist movements are thwarted by any number of systems, I think that ought to be an inspiring story: a bunch of teenagers and college kids really took old English folk songs and ballads of the American south and made an impact.

Michael asks: “Did Vanguard bring any of its artists together? Wondering how these artists interacted beyond showing up at Newport the same years.”

AW: This question required a lot more research than I thought it would! It turns out not as much as you’d think, given how often these artists were always together playing at coffeehouses and festivals. There were no high-profile collaborative LPs that I could find, apart from some blues sessions featuring artists like Junior Wells and Buddy Guy in later years of the ’60s.

Charles asks: “Was there an artist that you wanted to feature, however the master tape was unavailable/damaged or there were licensing/estate complications?”

AW: Nope, thanks to our partners at Craft/Concord, this one was honestly one of the smoothest idea-to-finished box Anthology projects we’ve ever done. Tapes were impeccable, all the artists/estates were on board.

Claude asks: “Was Folksingers ’Round Harvard Square a Vanguard record? If so, is there any chance to find it somewhere?”

AW: Claude is referring to the recorded debut of Joan Baez, who sings on a handful of tracks on an album made by and for the Boston folk community. It was not a Vanguard record, but that, along with her debut at Newport, convinced Vanguard to sign her. It’s not been reissued recently, I suspect due to the label being a small concern, but you can get it for reasonable prices on Discogs.

Mitchell asks: “How do you decide on what to feature in the Anthology box sets? Whether it be a record label or individual artist, there is so much variety even just in the box sets themselves, let alone the albums within.”

AW: Thank you; we try really hard to make that the case in each and every Anthology set.

I’ll tackle this in two parts: First, the variety in what is featured in each VMP Anthology box is a tribute to our staff of real people, with varied musical interests, who, thanks to our customers, are able to dive down rabbit holes that interest us. That’s how we ended up with a Stax box, a Grateful Dead box, a Zamrock box and a box of obscure jazz from Detroit; at least one VMP staffer helped come up with the idea and was encouraged to help make it happen.

In the case of Vanguard, for example, it was borne out of Courtney Catagnus, who heads our Anthology projects (you’ll see her name in most of their Listening Notes) coming to me and saying, “Andrew, do you have any ideas for a label-centric Anthology that is different than what we’ve done before?” And since we’ve done soul and jazz boxes already — and we’re preparing our first country box for 2022 — I immediately thought of folk music, and nearly as immediately thought of Vanguard. Luckily for us, we have a really great relationship with the folks over at Craft Records, so we got the green light to do this box pretty quickly.

For deciding what albums to include, that was a lot of white-boarding on my end; originally this box sprawled to nine to 10 albums, as I tried to capture Vanguard basically from 1955-1970, where they split off into folk-rock and blues, in addition to folk. But I realized that was too big of a box, and too big of a story, so I instead narrowed it down to just the era captured here. We don’t like to replicate artists, so that meant picking one Baez, Sainte-Marie and Watson album — which meant listening to all of their Vanguard albums — before I came to the idea of doing basically everyone’s Vanguard debut, as a way of charting the evolution of folk just through the Vanguard debuts featured here.

Mattia asks: “Did Vanguard refuse some artist/record because it was too political?”

AW: Not that’s been made publicly known. To the Solomons’ credit, they really embraced the political edge of folk music fully: They let their artists say what they wanted to say, and allowed the Weavers and Paul Robeson to be performers during the Blacklist by releasing their LPs.

Katie asks: “Curious if you think Buffy Sainte-Marie considered herself ‘folk’ entirely at the time or her own particular genre?”

AW: I can’t recommend Andrea Warner’s book on Buffy enough; it’s one of the most complete musician biographies I’ve ever read. Read that for a considered take on Buffy’s music and the way she moved through popular culture. But since you asked us, I think Buffy originally probably didn’t mind being called folk, but if you look at the records she made in the late ’60s, she definitely felt like the genre tag boxed her, and did everything she could to explode how people perceived her, doing a country record, one of the first electronic records and generally expanding how she could be perceived. Being that she eventually wrote one of the most identifiable, big-budget ballads for a romance movie kind of drove the point home: She was her own thing. It really was her way.

Steve asks: “Having been classically trained and performing in musical theater, how did Odetta move into folk singing? Was there someone or something that provided the impetus for her to move exclusively into that genre?”

AW: Sorry to give you homework here, Steve, but allow me to plug the VMP Anthology podcast here. If you listen to this episode on Odetta, where I talk to Matthew Frye Jacobson, who’s written a book on Odetta, we cover this. The short answer is that she felt she could be most effective as a person/performer in the folk space.

Mark asks: “Which Vanguard records just missed the cut?”

AW: The final eight-LP version, before we decided to cut it down to six to have a tidier story to tell, had Junior Wells’ It’s My Life, Baby! and Country Joe and the Fish’s I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die, which would have been cool, but made the arc of this box less clear.

Pierre-Alexandre asks: “Are you going to reissue any classical albums from Vanguard? What about more Joan Baez albums, since some of her albums are out of print?”

AW: Classical is a good question; we haven’t dipped our toes into classical music much as a company, but maybe we should. The Solomons had great taste in what they picked to release, so maybe that’s our next assignment.

As far as more Baez albums, why not? I’m looking at doing a different folk album — which leans a little blues in spots — in our VMP Classics subscription, and if that does well, I think there’s no reason Joan couldn’t be next!

Colin asks: “Absolutely blown away by the Skip James record. Ashamed to say, but I wasn't familiar with his stuff. His vocals are absolutely spectacular — never heard anything quite like it. Are there any plans to release any more of his catalogue? I, like many I'm sure, would be forever grateful!”

AW: Welcome to Skip James fandom, Colin. He totally rules! No immediate “in the next few months” plans or anything like that, but he’s definitely on the list for VMP Classics in the long run; he’s got just a handful of LPs, and any of them would make for a great VMP Classics release.

Keith asks: “Since Vanguard began as a classical music label, how did it eventually become known as a place for blues and folk singers?”

AW: Allow me to plug the Listening Notes booklet included with your box here: I get into it more fully there. But the short answer is basically the Solomons realizing that folk and blues were just as important as classical music, and devoting their label to those art forms as well. Once Carnegie Hall started booking folk and blues, the old guard could no longer deny those musics.

Mark asks: “When will the Grateful Dead Anthology be repressed? Can you talk about Anthology represses in general? Dying to know.”

AW: As for Anthology represses in general: It’s not something that will happen for all Anthologies by any means, but it’s something we’ve talked about; sometimes these Anthologies don’t get the proper notice and reach a larger audience who would love to take the plunge until they’re sold out, and only available on the secondary market for two or three times what the price was originally. I don’t expect we’ll repress Vanguard — copies are still available now! — but there’s plans for at least one of our more popular Anthologies from last year to get a new life in 2022, with different art to make the second edition different from the first.

Now, to Grateful Dead: As you might have heard by Googling “Vinyl production backups” or seeing every record label on earth talk about how far out vinyl deadlines are now, the global supply chain for vinyl is extremely backed up right now. We were hoping to have the Dead repress sometime by the end of the year; it’s likely it won’t happen until sometime into 2022 now. Most of the plants we work with aren’t taking any new orders for the next couple months to try to catch up, and it’s something we’re all keeping a close eye on going forward. We always left the possibility open of doing more Dead — which is why we announced a 7,500 unit limit — so keep your eyes peeled. In the meantime, listen to the Grateful Dead season of the VMP Anthology Podcast while you wait.


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