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Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music

In 1952 the beatnik filmmaker and eccentric musicologist Harry Smith produced a six-album compilation of rare folk and blues records entitled the Anthology of American Folk Music. Released by Folkways Records, this seminal document introduced a new generation to nearly-forgotten forms of rural American music. Achieving talismanic status within the folk circles of Greenwich Village, the Anthology became a touchstone for the revival of American folk music in the 1950s and 60s, influencing artists from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

In 1952 the beatnik filmmaker and eccentric musicologist Harry Smith produced a six-album compilation of rare folk and blues records entitled the Anthology of American Folk Music. Released by Folkways Records, this seminal document introduced a new generation to nearly-forgotten forms of rural American music. Achieving talismanic status within the folk circles of Greenwich Village, the Anthology became a touchstone for the revival of American folk music in the 1950s and 60s, influencing artists from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Harry Smith

Harry Smith was an experimental filmmaker and bohemian eccentric based on the West Coast. An avid music collector, he had built up a vast collection of obscure and wonderful 78 rpm records comprising blues, country, Cajun, and gospel. To Smith, these recordings were relics of a vanished America, providing vivid testimony of rural life, the slave experience and the hardships of the Great Depression. Over time, Smith developed an interest in seeing these recordings preserved. The release of an anthology culled from his collection came about in 1947, when Smith met Moses Asch, head of the premier American folk label, Folkways Records. Together they arranged to re-release these obscure records, many of which had been issued by record companies that were still in existence, on one unique anthology. Technically, neither Smith nor Folkways owned the rights to any of these recordings. In a sense, then, the anthology was the ultimate bootleg.

Smith’s anthology was compiled from his personal collection of 78s. It consisted of 84 recordings that were originally issued between 1927 and 1932. Smith selected these parameters on the basis that 1927 was the year ‘when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction,’ and that ‘the Depression halted folk music sales’ by 1932.

The anthology is divided into three volumes, each containing two discs. The volumes are entitled Ballads, Social Music and Songs. ‘Ballads’ consists of American versions of Child ballads originating from the English folk tradition. ‘Social Music’ consists of music likely performed at social gatherings, together with religious and spiritual songs. ‘Songs’ consists of songs dealing with everyday life (and death).

The Anthology is a wondrous journey through rural America, a familiar but sometimes bizarre landscape populated by long-forgotten artists with names like Jilson Setters, Blind Uncle Gaspard and Columbus Fruge. The content of the songs ranges from social history, Biblical narrative and mother-in-law jokes to tales of murder and madness.

The banjo player Clarence Ashley is represented by The House Carpenter (1930), an apocalyptic tale of infidelity.  This sinister ballad was later re-written and performed by Bob Dylan.  Another Ashley recording is The Coo Coo Bird (1929), a mysterious song that was later sung by Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Kentucky banjo-player Buell Kazee contributes three great tracks, The Butcher's Boy (1928) and The Waggoner's Lad (1928), both based on English ballads, and the haunting East Virginia (1929). This song was later recorded by Pete Seeger.

The first family of country music, the Carter Family, have four tracks on the anthology, each distinguished by Sara Carter’s clear, strident voice: John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man (1930), Engine 143 (1927), Little Moses (1932) and the proto-feminist Single Girl, Married Girl (1927).  John Hardy is a folk song based on the life of a railroad worker in West Virginia. Hardy was ‘a desperate little man’ who killed an opponent during a craps game. He was convicted of first degree murder and was hanged on 19 January 1894. 

Spirituals are provided by Rev. J. M. Gates, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, Sister Mary Nelson and Moses Mason. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, known as the Minstrel of the Appalachians, contributes Dry Bones (1929), and the misanthropic I Wish I Was a Mole In the Ground (1928). Blind Willie Johnson’s John the Revelator (1930) is a remarkable piece of Biblical prophesy that was reworked by the White Stripes.

The terrifying, but brilliant tracks Sugar Baby and Country Blues (1928) are provided by banjo player and coalminer Dock Boggs. 

G. B. Grayson is represented by Omie Wise (1929), an onimous murder ballad telling the story of Naomi or ‘Omie’ Wise, who was murdered by John Lewis around 1815. In accordance with the broadside ballad tradition, lyrics to the original version of the song were written soon after the murder occurred. Charles Guiteau by Kelly Harrell (1927) tells the story of President Garfield’s assassination. The Bently Boys’ track Down On Penny's Farm (1929) is a tale of agricultural corruption that was later adapted by Bob Dylan as Hard Times in New York Town; it also provided the inspiration for Maggie’s Farm, a classic song from Dylan’s transitional period.

Artwork

The Anthology has striking artwork by Smith himself. He assembled fragments of images into an almost Surrealistic collage. Each of the three volumes featured an etching by Theodore de Bry of an instrument Smith referred to as the ‘Celestial Monochord,’ taken from a treatise by the alchemist Robert Fludd. The etching was printed over coloured backgrounds for each volume of the set: green, blue, and red. Smith considered these colours to correspond to the alchemical elements water, fire, and air.

The ‘Celestial Monochord'

Smith wrote the liner notes himself, producing a short synopsis of each song. These often read like parodies of newspaper headlines. For example, Smith describes Chubby Parker's King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O, a song about a mouse marrying a frog, as: ‘Zoologic Miscegeny Achieved Mouse Frog Nuptuals, Relatives Approve.’

Legacy

The Anthology has had a profound influence on the subsequent development of popular music. The recordings, carefully sequenced and annotated by Smith, had talismanic status to the young musicians who eagerly consumed them. The collection had a great impact on ethnomusicology, and helped to fuel the folk revival of the 50s and 60s. Some of the musicians represented on the Anthology lived long enough to experience a resurgence of popularity brought on by the Anthology. Mississippi John Hurt, Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs and others made additional recordings and live appearances.

The Anthology was released on compact disc by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1997 (the Smithsonian Institute had acquired Folkways Records in 1986). The collection was reissued on six compact discs corresponding to the original LPs. Smith's original artwork and liner notes were reproduced, albeit on a smaller scale.

Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is an immensely valuable document of the rich and fascinating music of rural America. It became the Bible of the Greenwich folk scene and has played a central role in the development of popular music ever since. As Smith himself wrote, ‘I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music.’

Reading:

Asch, Moses. "The Birth and Growth of the Anthology of American Folk Music," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Smith, Harry. "Foreword," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1952 edition, Folkways Records.

Marcus, Greil. "The Old, Weird America," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

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Comments (3)

Very cool stuff!

Ranked #4 in Popular Culture

Interesting musical pieces from a long, long time ago.

nice music and very interesting, well researched and written article. thanks Dr.

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