If You Ain’t Got the Do-Re-Mi

by

by Steve Leggett (All Music Guide):

Released by Smithsonian Folkways in collaboration with the Museum of American Finance in New York, If You Ain’t Got the Do-Re-Mi is a fascinating collection of folk and blues songs about money and its powerful, dangerous allure drawn from the vast Smithsonian Folkways catalog. Full of vernacular tunes chronicling fortunes made, lost or not sought at all, these selections, although many of them date from the Great Depression, have a timeless applicability given that cries of hope and frustration and grand wishes for financial solvency will undoubtedly never cease to be contemporary concerns.

Among the gems here are a pair of Woody Guthrie songs, “Do-Re-Mi” from his Dust Bowl cycle, and his classic Oklahoma-outlaw-turned-Robin Hood ballad “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Josh White’s haunting “One Meat Ball” from 1944, Pete Seeger’s stark, banjo-led lesson in international economics titled “Business,” and Derek Lamb’s 1962 version of “The Money Rolls In,” an ode to counterfeiting set to the melody of the old British music hall standard “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”Autoharpist Kilby Snow’s sparkling instrumental take on “Greenback Dollar,” which is structurally based on “East Virginia Blues” and not on the Hoyt Axton song called “Greenback Dollar” from the ’60s folk revival, is a sonic delight.

Then there’s “Ida Mae,” done here in a version by Joe Glazer. Ida Mae was Ida Mae Fuller of Vermont, who in 1940 was the first person to ever receive a Social Security check (the Social Security Act had been passed in 1935 — her first check totalled $22.54). Born in 1874, Ida Mae was over a hundred years old when she died in 1975, having drawn checks from the government for some 35 years amounting to some $20,000 in benefits (not a bad return, since she had only paid in $24.75 before she retired in 1939), making her a folk hero of sorts.

Glazer also performs a rendition here of what is perhaps the most famous song to come out of the Great Depression, Jay Gorney and Yip Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” which was written in 1932. That Harburg also had a hand in writing “Over the Rainbow” shows how much hope and yearning are actually at the heart of most of these old songs, which tend to harbor wishes and dreams more than they do declarations of solvency. Money may not actually make the world go ’round (gravity and physics have a much bigger hand in that), but the lack of money sure makes the world a tough place to hang around in, as these apt and durable old songs clearly show while demonstrating an uncommon grace, sense of humor and dogged determination.

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