Judy Small, one of New South Wales' most talented daughters, remains among my favorite topical songwriters from the 1980's folk boom. This was the period, Reagan years and all, that produced some of the best topical folk songwriting since the mid-1960's, and some of the highest-quality songwriting generally of any decade in the twentieth century. Alas, the quality and the topicality did not last. By about 1991, folk became popular through top-forty recordings of songs like "From a Distance" (which had been a staple in the folk community for years before it landed on Bette Midler's desk), and the progressive politics got dropped from folk repertoires like a hot potato.
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Soon enough, even the most progressive of folk artists became obsessed with intimate navel-gazing and heart-searching, cranking out whole albums of nothing but bland mainstream ballads about relationships past, present and future. It is albums like "One Voice in the Crowd" (1985), my personal favorite of Judy Small's work, that take me back to the good years of topical folk songwriting, when good storytelling and messages of change were paramount in this genre.
This is one of the song collections that most influenced my own songwriting; indeed, that drove me to begin writing in earnest about sociopolitical topics that few others were covering, even in the folk genre. The title track that opens the album has that very driving message: "One brick in the wall you may be, one voice in the crowd/But without you, we are weaker, and our voice may not be heard." It is practically an open invitation to begin one's own topical songwriting career.
Open engagement with contemporary issues is both a theme and a modus operandi of many of the other tracks, which deal with reaching across ideological barriers in places of conflict ("Walls and Windows"), joining with others to effect change in common causes ("Never Turning Back") and Australian aboriginal struggles for justice and equality ("Futures Exchange", which also deals with environmental damage caused by uranium mining in the Australian outback). Judy is also well-known for her personal, intimate songs about the lives of individual people of influence (such as a former teacher, "Alice Martin", and Lady Jessie Street, in "A Heroine of Mine").
Unfortunately, this album has gone through a period of being out of print; hopefully, with enough outcry from topical folk fans, it may be reissued sometime soon, if this hasn't been done already. My only significant complaint about the original song selection is "Just Another Death in New York City", which I tend to ignore when playing this album. It sounds like a song "ripped from the headlines", or perhaps even a caricature of a song ripped from the headlines. In any case, it's not quite up to Judy's usual songwriting standards. I suppose that even the best songwriters can have an off day on occasion. That song aside, however, this is a terrific topical collection overall, if you can find it--and it still takes me back, after all these years.
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