Good compilation albums tell a story. It's not a story that can be told by any single song on the compilation, but a story that recognizes each song as a vital part of something larger. Good compilation albums find a big truth within the voices of small songs.
That's Why We're Marching finds the big truth within 25 small songs. The individual songs might be about political hypocrisy, racial inequality, unions, war, or Fascism, but the big picture is about love. Each of these songs is about a powerful love for the poor people and the tortured people and the neglected people and the black people and the Russian people and the Jewish people and the people who worked in factories and the people who joined unions and the people who bought war bonds and the people who enlisted and the people who fought and the people who buried their children and the people who sacrificed their own lives in order to help save the lives of strangers who were being slaughtered on the other side of some mighty big oceans. These are songs of love for all of those people and countless others.
The songs on That's Why We're Marching might be about politics and race and war and fighting and dying and working. The album, though, is simply a collection of great love songs.
I can't imagine how this collection of songs could be any better. Everything on here is good, even the stuff that's kind of tough to get through. What might be the best song on the album isn't even a song, it's a story by Jimmy Longhi about being with Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston on a ship that was under attack. When the story ends and "When the Yanks Go Marching In" begins, it is a joyous musical moment that literally gave me a chill.
Like virtually everything from Smithsonian Folkways, the booklet in That's Why We're Marching is superb. It's 28 pages long, with two columns of small print on each page. There's an extraordinary amount of detail, even by Smithsonian Folkways standards, and it's fascinating to read. There are a couple of minor typos and factual mistakes, though, and for a CD that acts as a historical document, errors like that can bring its credibility into question. In the EPFL's version, there is a hand-written correction on the first page of the booklet, which means that someone checked out the CD and cared enough to fix a mistake. That's the kind of thing that can only happen with CDs from the library, and that's the kind of thing that makes the EPFL so wonderful.
Listen if you like: folk artists like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly; folk revivalists like Billy Bragg and Wilco; protest songs; love.
If it were food, it'd be: the kind of homemade stew that simmers on the stove all day long and contains pretty much everything that's leftover in the fridge and the pantry, and it tastes like all of those things but it tastes like something more... perhaps it tastes just a little bit like love.