Music Critic

Plain Folk

Harry Smith’s bootleg Americana.

The Anthology of American Folk Music
Edited by Harry Smith
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings; $79

Harry Smith (1923-1991) was a self-created character, deserving of a novel no one has yet written. Small, gnomelike, with an acerbic, high-pitched voice, he was a tramp scholar who, in a peripatetic life on the fringes, became a recognized authority on Seminole fabrics, Ukrainian Easter eggs, and the ubiquity of string figures in the world’s cultures. He was a record producer, an adept of black magic, and an avant-garde filmmaker who pioneered, among other things, the kind of collage animation later made famous by Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. He began collecting 78-rpm recordings in the early 1940s, acquiring thousands of “race” and “hillbilly” works from the junk shops of the Pacific Northwest before they could be melted down, their shellac recuperated for the war effort.

In 1952 he assembled 84 of these songs in an anthology that was at once systematic and intuitive. In three volumes–Ballads, Social Music, and Songs–he gathered blues, gospel hymns, murder narratives, reels and jigs, Cajun tunes, sermons, and ancient Child ballads transmuted from their British origins by centuries in the mountains and valleys of America. He laid down a few ground rules: The material had to have been recorded commercially, “between 1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932 when the Depression halted folk music sales”; otherwise, he was guided only by serendipity and his own ears. Yet he succeeded in making a collection that was definitive in its selections and mysteriously cohesive, the diverse offerings falling together like strands of a single design. You have to remember that, at the time, no one had an overview on this stuff. Few people knew any of it, besides some old-timers and a scattering of enthusiasts; “folk music” meant either the topical work of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly or the kind of art-song taxidermy practiced by the likes of the baritone John Jacob Niles.

Slowly and invisibly, the Anthology captivated and influenced a generation. It was the ur-text for the folk music boom of the early 1960s. It was plundered by everybody, especially Bob Dylan, who swiped, alluded, and rewrote, so much in the spirit of the original works, among which lines and verses migrate freely, that he forcefully inserted himself into the tradition. After that, though, the collection’s fame returned underground. Few people born after 1950 had heard of it, despite its remaining in print until Folkways Records dissolved when its owner, Moe Asch, died in the mid-1980s.

I t has finally been reissued, in a lavish package (full disclosure: I contributed a small reminiscence of Smith to the liner notes). This took some doing, because the Anthology was in effect a bootleg–the original recordings had been imperfectly documented if at all, the artists were paid small flat fees and sent in most cases back to obscurity, but the copyrights had accrued to large publishing consortiums. The packaging, while splendid (and including helpful and sometimes inspiring essays, complete documentation, and an enhanced CD containing films and recordings of and by Smith), is maybe too lavish by half, since its price tag will put it far beyond the means of young people. It is to be hoped that its volumes will be issued individually.

Nevertheless, it is available again, and its importance cannot be overstated. Reviewing it in the New York Times, Tom Piazza was reminded of Edmund Wilson’s The Shock of Recognition; Bruce Shapiro in The Nation compared it to the reprinting of Moby Dick in the 1920s. Such assertions might make you suspicious, but they are not hyperbole. Consider that Smith, who said he searched for records that sounded “odd” or “exotic,” managed to include an array of composers and performers who, rather than being typical or representative–the goal of most makers of field recordings–were singular artists. Some were truly weird, others major innovators whose stature would only be recognized later: Blues radical Charley Patton was forgotten; Dock Boggs and Frank Hutchinson have barely been given their due even now. (Click here to hear Boggs’ menacing combination of blues and high-lonesome mountain styling.) Consider also that Smith deliberately avoided identifying the performers by race–“It took years before anybody discovered that Mississippi John Hurt wasn’t a hillbilly,” he said, and it is just as surprising to find out that such bluesmen as Hutchinson and Richard “Rabbit” Brown were white.

The Anthology is a picture of what indigenous American music was like before the age of mass media, at a time when songs and ideas could only be transmitted by live performance and by rumor and yet circulated far and fast, among musicians isolated by race or poverty or lost in rural backwaters. The migratory quality of lyrics–the fact that lines and whole verses traveled from this song to that one, from blues to mountain ballad or vice versa, regardless of origin or even sense–made for a sort of native Surrealism, a collage by accretion. It also shows how profoundly linked black and white cultures were; African and Anglo traditions twined around and through each other like closely planted trees. Tradition, for that matter, coexisted with experimentation, so that it is not always immediately obvious which is which–you might not realize from listening that Blind Lemon Jefferson was an innovator who transformed the blues and influenced every subsequent artist in the genre, or that the shape-note singing of the Sacred Harp choirs represents a late vestige of a style that may have reached its acme of prevalence around the time of the American Revolution. All of it, in any case, sounds new and fresh and enduringly strange.

There is history here, of all sorts: Kelly Harrell impersonating Charles Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin; the Carolina Tar Heels voicing the lament of shoemakers made redundant by the Industrial Revolution; Charlie Poole singing, “Roosevelt in the White House, he’s doing his best; McKinley in the graveyard, he’s taking his rest.” Other songs date back to the 16th century, or the 17th or the 18th. Then Patton, appearing here under his record-company-imposed pseudonym, “the Masked Marvel,” cuts loose with “Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” a number as new and startling and disruptive today as it was the day he wrote it; dispensing with verse-chorus, he barks long, hectoring lines that his guitar slides under and then punctuates with two klaxon notes–rock ’n’ roll!

There are compelling grotesqueries–“The Fatal Flower Garden,” by Nelstone’s Hawaiians–and items of ineffable grandeur, such as the hymn “Rocky Road,” by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. Blind Willie Johnson and his wife sing about the Book of the Seven Seals, but not so great a distance separates them from Rabbit Brown, who sings, “Sometimes I think that you’re too sweet to die, but other times I think you ought to be buried alive.” Clarence Ashley will build his cabin up on the mountain so he can see “Willie” fly by, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford warns that the railroad men will drink up your blood like wine, and Jim Jackson lowers the cadaver of his old dog on a silver chain as with every link he calls his name. Murder, deception, defiance, laughter, orgy, rapture, and arcadia are all represented; there isn’t a number that doesn’t exude passion. The Anthology of American Folk Music, as pure and exalted and lowdown and variegated an article of the native culture as you’ll find anywhere, is no museum piece; as well as being ancient, it is sensational, vivid, and wild.