Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Smithsonian Folkways
Harry Smith was a strange, bearded little man from Portland, Oregon who lived in places like Berkeley and the Hotel Chelsea and spent his days painting, creating experimental films, scrounging money, making whoopee, and collecting stuff--quilts, paper airplanes, Ukrainian Easter eggs, phonograph records, anything. Especially phonograph records.

At a time when most discophiles were classical or jazz buffs, Smith specialized in what might be called subcultural 78s--popularly oriented commercial recordings aimed not at the hit parade but at newly targeted "ethnic" markets, especially "race" and "hillbilly." Unlike Alan Lomax, who produced and engineered voluminous field and Library of Congress recordings himself, Smith had never met the artists he so admired--they grabbed him not as fellow human beings but as entertainers reaching for a paying audience. But they grabbed him so hard that by 1952 he had sifted through his thousands of 78s to confidently select, astutely sequence, and cunningly document 84 songs, which were released in three two-LP sets as Folkways's Anthology of American Folk Music. Now Smithsonian Folkways has digitally remastered them into an exhaustively annotated six-CD set that has no competition as reissue of the year.

Formally, the Anthology is one more compilation, a fact of commercial life as labels recycle catalogue for CD purchase. But where even the best of these--for instance Amp, which realizes Todd Mueller's vision of the pop-techno nexus, or the Dazed and Confused soundtrack, which does the same for Richard Linklater's fond memories of stoner AOR--are hemmed in by profit motive, the Anthology is a collagist's act of love. Given his pick of an unimaginable wealth of song, he configured that wealth according to his own vision of America. And between strength of material and force of vision, he did nothing less than create a canon. Rock's closest analogy is 1972's Nuggets, in which critic-musician Lenny Kaye resuscitated galvanic singles by forgotten "psychedelic" garage bands and paved the way for punk. At a time when folk music encompassed Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, tame Piedmont bluesmen, guitar-strumming fellow travelers, and the Lomax corpus, Harry Smith convinced the world that it was something far weirder and more exciting.

Smith's canon stretched back to the Middle Ages and then forward to the Titanic and beyond, but its pivot foot was in the reconstruction era, when American blacks were finally free to create an autonomously miscegenated culture that their white compatriots could miscegenate right back. Only 20 or 25 years had passed since these tunes were recorded--as much time as separates us from Nuggets. In one form or another, some of them were still widely known. There were "John Henry," "Frankie and Johnny," "Stagger Lee," and lots of Child ballads; Guthrie had rewritten "Washington Blues" as "Lindbergh" and "I Woke Up One Morning in May" closely resembled "On Top of Old Smokey." Yet for the many young people whose lives were changed by the Anthology, its eccentric virtuosity and arcane historical content constituted a thrilling and startling revelation. This revelation would fuel the coming "folk revival" from the Kingston Trio to Bob Dylan and directly impact such '60s rockers as Neil Young and Jerry Garcia. It would inspire young explorers to scavenge the South for 78s and locate such living musicians as Anthology mainstays Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Dock Boggs, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. The bluegrass style that Bill Monroe invented in the mid-'30s spread north because Smith planted the seeds.

So is the Anthology that good? Of course not. Nothing that changes one person's life is going to mean as much to the next guy. Even the folkie faithful didn't like it all equally--taking exception, for instance, to many of the dance and religious tunes on Volume II, "Social Music." Anyway, Smith's commitment to overlaying the surreal on the commonplace has been absorbed into rock, undercutting shock appeal for a new audience that now knows the gestalt even if it has never heard a minute of this specific music.

Nevertheless, we're talking treasure trove here. I've long adored a few of these artists, notably John Hurt and the Memphis Jug Band. But I'd never heard two thirds of the tracks or a third of the songs, and I can't get enough of them. Properly devoting an entire CD, pitch-corrected and cleansed of surface noise, to each of Smith's LPs (which were so subtly structured that cramming three onto two discs would compromise the experience), the remastered setmakes nice archaic background music if that's your fancy. But just about every selection--I'd except a murder ballad or two and some Cajun accordion pieces--rewards note-for-note concentration, and at least two dozen (my estimate keeps rising) pack the endlessly renewable grace, delight, surprise, and irreducibility of classics.

As I was writing the previous paragraph, for instance, Lewis's "Kassie [Casey] Jones" came around again, its riff so fetching and lyric so unpredictable that Smith couldn't resist including both sides. And right after that up popped the Bently Boys' "Down on Pennys Farm." Just a little banjo figure and some Bently or other (nobody's even sure they were from North Carolina) talking mortgage and agronomy in a sidelong singsong that manages to be doleful and sprightly at the same time. Gets me every time--in a way the next track, Delta daddy Charley Patton's "Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues," does not. I could have chosen other examples, or gone on longer about these. I mean, annotators Greil Marcus and Robert Cantwell have published major books that center on the Anthology. But I must add a few impolite observations.

Smith is rightly renowned for ignoring racial distinctions--the musical and thematic connections he draws transcend black and white (forget brown--Latinos, unlike Cajuns, are absent). In pre-Elvis and Brown v Board of Education 1952, stressing the commonality of Southern music was holy work, and Smith's dumbfounding claim that folklorists thought John Hurt was white reminds us how deep the impulse to stereotype runs (presumably, Hurt sounded too gentle to be the same color as Leadbelly). But that doesn't make all music equal, and for most listeners, the "race records" will average out a notch or two two better than the "hillbilly"--because they're less repressed, musically and sexually. I also question Smith's proweird bias. One reason alt types will take to the Anthology is that it's so bohemian--when in doubt, Smith went for strange. He obviously had an amazing ear--most of the CD era's many multiartist folk concatenations are encyclopedia-dull by comparison. Prey to no myths of class or cash-nexus inauthenticity, Smith's tradition-carriers include an Appalachian lawyer, a Hollywood cowboy, and an obscure Minnesota dance band whose semiclassical theme makes room for "When You Wore a Tulip." But I suspect that some contented husband-and-wife team, say, could concoct a more domestic musical image of the "folk."

So we needn't believe The Anthology of American Folk Music represents the "real" folk, much less the "real" America. It's one compelling and engrossing version of those chimeras--profoundly influential rather than the Rosetta stone. It would appear, after all, that the strains of '60s rock forged by Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson, Randy Newman, and the Nuggets collective have their proximate sources in traditions peripheral to these at best.

Which isn't to suggest for a moment that all those guys wouldn't love the shit out of this set.

Spin, Oct. 1997