January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

Various Artists (Smithsonian Folkways)

Forget the “Mighty Mississippi.” The river portrayed in this two-CD tribute album—companion to a four-part PBS series airing this month—is more like the Wussy Mississippi. There are such gritty performers as blues pianist Henry Butler, singer Irma Thomas and country-rocker Levon Helm of the Band, but the 36 selections also include the wan sounds of the alternative-rock bands Soul Asylum and Babes in Toyland, an almost three-minute chant by a group of Ojibwe musicians and “The Singing Leaf” by Laotian Wang Chong Lor, singing in Hmong, More disappointing is what’s lost because of the decision to use only contemporary musicians: There’s no Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River,” no Frank Sinatra singing “River Stay Away from My Door,” no Roger Miller singing “River in the Rain” from his Broadway musical Big ‘ River. A great waterway deserves a great tribute.

Bottom Line: Not a high watermark

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