Woody Guthrie’s grandchildren Abe and Annie show up on a couple of tracks on Black Legacy Project, Vol. 1, and that’s a good indication of this album’s roots and approach. The Black Legacy Project was inspired by the Black Lives Matters protests of 2020, but in its vision of American music as an integrated force for understanding and change, it harks much further back to the folk revival of Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Dylan.
The Black Legacy Project is a collective of Black and white musicians aimed at promoting dialogue across racial and political lines. They record and perform songs that speak to the modern Black experience in America and compose original songs calling for change. For this album, project co-directors Todd Mack and Trey Carlisle organized recording sessions in venues across the country, from the Berkshires and Atlanta to Denver and the Mississippi Delta. The set list and personnel are both similarly, and determinedly, eclectic.
Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots),” about the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting, is infused with jazzy melancholy by Los Angeles singer Paige Williams. Blues legend Bobby Rush pops in to an Arkansas session, exchanging stone soul vocals with Jenna Melnicki on the original “Where I Find Love.” Singers Gina Coleman and Chantell McFarland and guitarist Tony Berkley turn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into an electric gospel rave-up, providing undeniable evidence that rock and roll began in the church. Singer Eric Reinhardt and banjo player Chris Merenda deliver a hearty sing-along to “We Shall Overcome.” Pete Seeger would be proud.
The joyous range of styles and the sense of collective celebration capture the best spirit of the folk revival, with its political optimism, its enthusiasm, its inclusivity, and its embrace of American traditional song, from gospel to blues to jazz to Appalachian music. Some of the weaknesses come through too. The earnestness and the high-mindedness inevitably sands some of the edges off the music being celebrated; the blues here isn’t as dirty, nor the rock as angry, nor the jazz/funk as freaky, as those traditions get.
Still, the album as a whole is uplifting, and the best moments are wonderful — like singer-songwriter Felice’s ethereal, heartbreaking version of Leon Bridges’ “Sweeter.” “The tears of my Mother rain, rain over me / My sisters and my brothers sing, sing over me,” she sighs. Per the Black Legacy Project’s remit, all those sisters and brothers do in fact gather around, and sing.
Black Legacy Project, Vol. 1 is out Sept. 22. Learn more about the Black Legacy Project in our Winter 2022 journal, available here.