I grew up during a time when middle-brow culture (to invoke terminology I used in writing about John Harbison’s Songs America Loves To Sing) had decided that folk music was the epitome of “cool.” It was only after I left high school that I began to realize that this was little more than a thoroughly phony (to use J. D. Salinger’s favorite adjective) attempt by the well-to-do middle class to identify with the many disadvantaged sectors of society. Perhaps the most enjoyable source of my insight was Shel Silverstein, who had written a song called “Folk Singer’s Blues.” This was best known by the first line of its chorus:
What do you do if you’re young and white and Jewish?
In the world of jazz, Frances Faye was white and Jewish. She also decided to do an album of folk songs; but it was released by Bethlehem in 1957 when she was in her mid-forties. Her principal partner in this project was Russell Garcia, responsible for arrangements on many of Bethlehem’s recording projects. Whether the plan was to get even with the prevailing pretentions of cool or just to have some fun giving a jazzy twist to tunes generally accepted as innocuous, the resulting recording, Frances Faye Sings Folk Songs was certainly eyebrow-raising.
(I remember when the album arrived at my local record store. At the time I was consuming “real” folk songs with a voracious appetite. The guy who sold me Faye’s album looked at me funny when I asked for it. I soon found out why, and my eyebrows were up there with everyone else’s!)
With all this as background, I was rather pleased to discover that Frances Faye Sings Folk Songs was remastered a little less than a year ago as part of a recent effort to keep many of the most interesting Bethlehem releases in circulation. My jazz listening has grown considerably since I first encountered this album, and I have to say that I am now impressed with the diversity of styles that Garcia has taken to a collection of songs that are very different in nature. Nevertheless, the moments that shine the brightest are the ones that use the swing rhetoric of Count Basie as a point of departure. It is easy to anticipate that “St. James Infirmary” is one of the most stunning of the tracks, as is “Frankie and Johnny;” but “Clementine” lends itself to swing better than one might expect. It is when the tunes get more introspective (as in “Greensleeves”) that Faye tends to get uncertain about phrasing, although her approach to pitch is usually pretty secure for all twelve tracks of the recording.
It is also worth noting that there are several impressive names in the band that Garcia assembled for this project. The drummer is Mel Lewis, just beginning to hit his stride in the decade before he joined forces with Thad Jones for regular sessions at the Village Vanguard. Frank Rosolino is equally memorable for his trombone work. Then there is trumpeter Maynard Ferguson with any number of wails from the top of his instrument’s register, definitely a non-standard way to get in the spirit of folk music!