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Harry Smith Makes History: The Anthology of American Folk Music

Smithsonian Folkways
book cover

The best way to understand Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music--six vinyl LPs released as three two-record sets by Moses Asch's Folkways in 1952 and digitally remastered into an exhaustively annotated six-CD set by the federal government's Smithsonian Folkways in 1997--is to call to mind two essential concepts of '90s rock. The highfalutin one becomes ever more inevitable as rock gathers history and commentary: canon. The other is an unavoidable fact of commercial life as labels recycle catalogue for CD purchase: compilation.

A canon is a definitive body of work. When Columbia University requires its minions to survey specified landmarks of Western civ, and also when the Spin Alternative Record Guide names the "Top 100 Alternative Albums," canons are being posited. Because they proceed from aesthetic pleasure, canons are rich and essential repositories of wisdom and inspiration; because they presume cultural authority, canons piss people off. Although many compilations claim to be canonical, even single-artist boxes rarely are, and with multiple-artist jobs keyed to a genre or "concept" (recent themes have included golf and cigars), we're lucky to get decent music and glimmers of taste or sensibility; the most profitable variation, the soundtrack, is so busy throwing singles against the wall it may not even bother to pretend it's about the movie. Yet soundtracks have been canonical: American Graffiti for the '50s, Dazed and Confused for stoner AOR. When a serious reissue label like Rhino constructs its Disco Years series, say, it effectively reconfigures history. And on 1972's Nuggets, which resuscitated galvanic singles by forgotten "psychedelic" garage bands, the visionary critic-musician-compiler Lenny Kaye paved the way for punk.

Yet compared to Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Nuggets could be, oh, Robbins Music's Strip Jointz--a funky and far-reaching overview of sex-show r&b, actually, but you get the idea. At a time when folk music encompassed Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, tame Piedmont bluesmen, guitar-strumming fellow travelers, and a lot of Alan Lomax field and Library of Congress recordings, Harry Smith convinced the world that it was something far weirder and more exciting. The canon he established stretched back to the Middle Ages and forward to the Titanic and beyond, but its pivot foot was in Reconstruction, when American blacks finally became free to create an autonomously miscegenated culture that their white compatriots could miscegenate right back. Smith came at the concept not as a scared McCarthy-era progressive, but as an early record collector who was also a painter, filmmaker, and legendary bohemian scrounger. Sifting through his thousands of 78s, he confidently selected, astutely sequenced, and cunningly documented 84 sides commercially recorded between 1926 and 1932, most of them for the just targeted "race" and "hillbilly" markets.

Only 20 or 25 years had passed--as much time as separates us from Can, or Nuggets. In one form or another, some of these tunes were still widely known. Several were documented Child ballads; "John Henry," "Frankie and Johnny," and "Stagger Lee" never left the air; Guthrie had rewritten (and copyrighted) "Washington Blues" as "Lindbergh"; "I Woke Up One Morning in May" closely resembled "On Top of Old Smokey"; etc. Yet by the testimony of the countless mostly Northern young people whose lives were changed by the Anthology, including musician-annotators John Fahey, Peter Stampfel, and Dave Van Ronk, the virtuosically eccentric sound and arcanely historical content of these recordings, which Smith had chosen for variety as much as anything else, constituted a single thrilling and startling revelation. And this revelation would change American music. It would fuel the coming "folk revival," from the Kingston Trio to Joan Baez and, very definitely, Bob Dylan, and directly impact such '60s rockers as Neil Young, Jerry Garcia, and John Sebastian. It would inspire young explorers to forage the South for more 78s as well as such living musicians as Anthology mainstays Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Dock Boggs, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Traditional musicians who had escaped Smith's net or failed to make his cut would also enjoy belated careers. 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--different listeners took exception to different tracks, especially the dance and religious tunes on Volume II, "Social Music." Anyway, much of what made the Anthology so remarkable--not just individual songs and sounds but Smith's commitment to overlaying the surreal on the commonplace--has been absorbed into rock, undercutting the shock factor for a vast new audience that has once again never heard a minute of this music.

Nevertheless, we're talking treasure house 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. The remastered set--which properly devotes an entire CD, cleansed of direct-from-78 surface noise, to each of Smith's LPs, which were so subtly structured that cramming three onto two discs would compromise the experience--makes nice archaic background music if that's your fancy. But just about every selection--my chief exceptions would be 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 absolutely classic music. As I was writing this paragraph Furry 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 many other examples, or gone on longer about these. I mean, annotators Greil Marcus and Robert Cantwell have recently published major books that center on the Anthology. So spring for this coffee-table package--it's a hell of a lot better bet than imported techno remixes or the latest No Depression cowflop. But since canons wouldn't be canons if they didn't piss us off, I must add a few impolite observations. The most important concerns race. 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 it took folklorists years to figure out that John Hurt wasn't white reminds us that the struggle against stereotyping can never end (presumably, Hurt sounded too gentle to be the same color as Leadbelly). Yet with all Bentlys-vs.-Patton exceptions welcome, I'd just like to say that the black music here averages out a notch or two better than the white--it's less repressed, musically and sexually. I could write a book about it.

I also question Smith's proweird bias. One reason alt types will take to the Anthology is that it's so quintessentially 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. And one reason his choices retain so much life is their access to the passion and originality weirdness can unleash. Prey to no ideology of cash-nexus inauthenticity, Smith insisted on commercial recordings intended for paying customers, and his 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 still wonder whether some contented husband-and-wife team--with an ear, of course--couldn't concoct a radically more domestic musical image of the "folk." Maybe not--song feeds off pain, and families generate it. But comparing Legacy's Joe Franklin Presents . . . The Roaring '20s Roar Again, 12 terrific pop songs of canonical quality but not pretension, I suspect the balance could be shifted some.

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 vision of those chimerical notions--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 that are peripheral to these at best.

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

Spin, Oct. 1997