There was never a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry,” says Dylan of this Harlem lefty turned matinee idol. “He appealed to everybody, whether they were steelworkers or symphony patrons or bobby-soxers.” Though this artist-selected double CD bypasses the hit 1957 studio versions of both “Day-O” and “Mama Look at Bubu” for show-band arrangements, it’s pretty impressive once you learn to listen through his compromises with conspicuous respectability. He deploys Caribbean percussion as subtly as folk melody, jokes around about sex roles without getting sexist about it, ends a ban-the-bomb verse “Back to back and belly to belly,” and keeps the musical-comedy exoticism to a tolerable modicum. Though “Jamaica Farewell” isn’t quite “Chances Are,” he was one of the decade’s prettier balladeers. Born poor, he made himself a folk hero.
Not to cry sellout, but John Hammond’s deal with Seeger at Columbia seems kind of crass, re-recording classics after his voice had lost a portion of kind and tender intensity, often in cheap live versions. Folkways could compile pretty much the same repertoire more effectively. But that would mean recognizing how preachy he could get on songs with too high a sermon quotient. Beyond the cookie-cutter anti-conformism of “Little Boxes,” this selection demonstrates why he was adored—the voice is too relaxed, but the songs are still strong. They include the Columbia-only “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” eminently revivable up against a war where the quicksand is dry until mixed with blood.