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Metro Pulse Old Folk

The newly-rereleased sampler The Anthology of American Folk Music reveals where music's been -- and where it's going.

By Mike McGonigal

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  In 1952, a compilation record unlike any before or since was released on Moses Asch's Folkways label. The 84 songs on the Anthology of American Folk Music not only pointed to the myriad bizarre and transcendent possibilities of American vernacular sound, they led the way to deep changes in our society and in the habits of obsessive record collectors. This set of three double LPs influenced—both directly and indirectly—more people than perhaps any other (including Falco's Greatest Hits, Volume Two). It showed that folk music was much more than Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and Pete Seeger. Bob Dylan studied all the songs on the Anthology, as did Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, Peter Stampfel, John Fahey, Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder, Bruce Springsteen, Nanci Griffith, and David Grisman. As David Gates wrote in the June 2 issue of Newsweek, it's "the music behind the music behind the music." And, like any "sacred text" (as Fahey calls it; Stampfel refers to is as "the Touchstone, the Grail, the Real Deal, the Nitty Gritty, Ground Zero"), the Anthology of American Folk Music has had different, divine meanings for each devotee.

Assembled by Harry Smith, the Anthology is an unerring sampler of raw hillbilly singing, unearthly gospel, inspired proto-country, deepest blues, unaffected murder ballads, and body-quaking Cajun dance sounds. The 262 minutes of the collection are composed of 78 r.p.m. recordings, "made between 1927," as Smith himself wrote, "when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932 when the Depression halted folk music sales." (The 78s were transferred to the then-brand-new 33-1/3 LP format. This past August, Smithsonian Folkways issued the set as six compact discs with an expanded, deluxe booklet.) The tunes were recorded in makeshift studios onto disc-cutting machines for successful record companies of the day, among them Columbia, RCA, Brunswick, and Victor. The performers coax undiluted magic out of the banjo, jug, autoharp, fiddle, kazoo, flute, harmonica, guitar, hand claps, foot stomps, accordion, and human voice. Local listeners will be proud to hear several Tennesseans on the collection—Clarence Tom Ashley and Uncle Dave Macon chief among them.

Smith, 29 years old at the time of the Anthology's release, was a mystically-inclined fellow with a passion for collecting records, studying anthropological and scientific texts, checking out what American Indians did during their most secret rituals, examining patchwork quilts made by old ladies, and gathering paper airplanes found on the street. He'd already made the first hand-painted films in this country, beautiful abstract shorts that took years apiece to complete. He made paintings, too. He'd been the subject of a two-person show at the Louvre in 1951, with Marcel Duchamp. Over the course of his life, he was recipient of two Guggenheim grants.

And Smith did a whole lot else—I haven't even mentioned the huge amount of rotting hand-painted Easter eggs he later collected and stuffed into his small Chelsea apartment. Towards the end of his life, this relatively obscure character did receive recognition from his peers. He was consecrated as a bishop in the Gnostic sect he belonged to, the Ordo Templum Orientalis. In the '80s, he was invited to join the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was employed for several years by the Boulder, Colorado, Naropa Institute as a "shaman in residence" for their summer programs. However, the expansive, interdisciplinary mind-f—k that was Smith's life project is just now starting to be understood and celebrated. "It's all the same thing," Smith responded when asked how the Anthology of American Folk Music related to his other work.

Smith first began to collect records while living in Oregon, initially coming across interesting discs by chance. He put together most of the recordings that were used in the Anthology while living in San Francisco in the late '40s. According to disc-obsessed peer Phil Elwood—music critic at the San Francisco Examiner for the last 50 years and a professional historian and influential disc jockey—the Bay Area was a Mecca for record freaks. The Yerba Buena record shop served as the primary meeting place for the area's musical cognoscenti, according to Elwood. "But Harry was not concerned with making friends, he just wanted to find these records." Smith carried a list of particular discs he was looking for, "which was most unusual at the time." He would only purchase records in the most pristine condition, as Smith had plans for the discs beyond his own enjoyment of them. At the time that Smith was looking for these rare 78s of rural Southern music, other record collectors were not tuned in to this kind of music. They focused instead on early jazz and blues music. Elwood explains: "Most collectors were interested only in 'race' records at the time; they'd go into a store and ask where the race records were. People...weren't, in general, aware of valid music being made by whites."

John Cohen—himself a talented and inquisitive musician, filmmaker, and art professor—interviewed Harry in 1968 in Smith's Chelsea Hotel room. A lengthy document, respected folk fanzine Sing Out!, ran it in two separate issues from 1969. It's been reprinted in full in Paola Igliori's 1996 book Harry Smith: American Magus (Inanout Press). Their discussion is a major text for understanding the Anthology. "Harry talked in our interview about doing some things deliberately to fool the scholars."

"Before the Anthology there had been a tendency in which records were lumped into blues catalogs or hillbilly catalogs, and everybody was having blindfold tests to prove they could tell which was which. That's why there's no such indications of that sort [color/racial] in the albums," Smith told Cohen. "I wanted to see how well certain jazz critics did on the blindfold test. They all did horribly. It took years before anybody discovered that Mississippi John Hurt wasn't a hillbilly."

Paul Oliver, from Jazz Monthly magazine in 1963: "This inspired collection...was surely the best pointer to the relationships as well as the differences between white and Negro music forms to have appeared in print or on record outside the more esoteric works which generally escape the jazz and blues collector's attention...No one has taken up the cudgels, no one has continued and extended the work that Harry Smith began."

"You didn't see at the time how preachy the mainstream Folk Movement was, because everyone was becoming a preacher. It was more like a pyramid club; every folk singer became his own preacher," Cohen said. "People had this attitude of 'I will now speak for the Black People,'" rather than listening to what blacks in this country might have to say for themselves.

"The voices on the Anthology are of complaint and suffering and humor and caustic comments of the world. And documentary depictions rather than moralistic statements...And in a strange way, the Anthology was also a tremendous foundation for the counter-culture."

"I felt social changes would result from the Anthology," Smith explained to Cohen. "I'd been reading Plato's Republic. He's jabbering on about music, how you have to be careful about changing the music because it might upset or destroy the government. Everybody gets out of step. You...may undermine the Empire State Building without knowing it."

Songs like Clarence Tom Ashley's "The Coo Coo Bird" and Dock Boggs' "Sugar Baby"—both sung with banjo accompaniment—were marketed in the 20s as "hill-country" music (a group called the Hill Billies had scored several hits but the term wasn't used by the record companies for fear of alienating the Southern buying public) and as "old-time music." It was old stuff 70 years ago; the marketing folks of the time played this up. As Smith wrote in the liner notes, "Only through recordings is it possible to learn of those developments that have been so characteristic of American music but which are unknowable through written transcriptions alone...Records of the kind found in the present set played a large part in stimulating these historic changes by making easily accessible to each other the rhythmically and verbally specialized music of groups living in mutually social and cultural isolation."

Or, as Cohen translated, "What he's [Smith's] saying there is that the same technology that preserved these things also destroyed them."

The songs seem to have been selected because they were very human, very real. They have such great qualities of sound, but in ways that one might not call technically perfect. "Well," Cohen relates, "that impression hit hardest when we heard the Cajun music for the first time, 'cause those guys—'Hey, that's the tune of "On Top Of Old Smoky," but he's got the chords all wrong. Boy, he's singin' in a weird way, he can't even keep a pitch!' But after a while, those things that had troubled you, they grew on you, and then they became much more interesting than any other approaches."

The Anthology is an addiction. It's similar to the first Velvet Underground record in that it seems like everyone who heard it as a youth went out and started a group of their own right away. Elwood tells how he inadvertently got two youngsters going: "Kids in the neighborhood where I lived during the '50s knew that I had a lot of records. They'd come over and I'd show them an original Jelly Roll Morton or something like that. I remember distinctly two of them came over and said, 'Do you have that set of records that came out on Folkways?' And I loaned them the whole set, because they lived just up the block. They came back and the only things they were interested in at all were other country/bluegrass-type records. One of those guys was Herb Pedersen, considered one of the best banjoists alive right now. And the other kid was a guy named Butch Waller, who's been leading a bluegrass band in the Bay Area for about 25 years. So both of these guys that I introduced to this series made use of it in their way."

Fourth and fifth Anthology series were planned but never happened—Smith supposedly sold the original discs to Lincoln Center before they could have been properly assembled. With Smith dead six years now, people have begun to explore and dissect the meaning of his work; the Anthology has thus far received the bulk of the attention. In When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Harvard Press, 1996) folklore/roots music scholar Robert Cantwell, now a professor at UNC at Chapel Hill, devotes an obsessively detailed, 50-page chapter to the Anthology. He praises the arcane, nonracial organization of the set, connects the Anthology to esoteric religious practices, and elaborates on the origins of the musical forms found within.

It's a really good read, despite occasional sentences that might make you feel stupid, like, "Except for Uncle Dave Macon's merry introductory pieces, which are fully formed melodies in a diatonic mode redolent of the road show and the coal camp, the songs on side 12 seem to share a broad Southern tonality formed from the melding of the pentatonic scale to the blues mode, on the one hand, and to the mixolydian scale to the blues mode on the other, closely related tonal realms that account, melodically at least, for the fertile symbiosis of Scots-Irish and African American musical traditions in the South."

In 1991, the last year of his life, Smith was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. Smith expressed gratitude for living to see popular culture profoundly altered by American folk music. Longtime supporter Allen Ginsberg reflected, "It...said that he'd lived long enough to see the philosophy of the homeless and the Negro and the minorities and the impoverished—of which he was one, starving in the Bowery—alter the consciousness of America." While I'm personally a bit too cynical (and young) to share that viewpoint entirely (so Clinton likes Dylan, so what?—Reagan liked the Beach Boys) I'm glad Smith got his award. The Anthology of American Folk Music is the root cellar of country and rock both. Long may it reek.


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