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February 13, 2012

In The Dust #17: Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’

by @thoughtontracks

Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.

In the early 1950s, there began a revolution. It wasn’t marked with massacre or power struggle. Those outside it knew it existed, but barely, and only through stories of the Bohemian, Greenwich Village, and emerging stars like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs. It was a new American revolution, one in which musicians, critics, casual listeners, and even hipsters and some fashionistas began to look back in order to look forward. It was a folk revolution, and Harry Smith, then just 29 years old, was at its center.

Smith was, in many ways, a jack-of-all-trades. A filmmaker, ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, mystic and artist, he embodied 1960’s New York bohemianism. He lived with Ginsberg, rubbed elbows with Igliori and The Fugs, hung out at Hotel Chelsea, screened films at the San Francisco Museum of Art and, perhaps most importantly, amassed an astonishingly deep collection of early American 78 rpm records. Many of these records were collected to form The Smithsonian Anthology of Folk Music, a six-LP box set that stands not only as a valuable document of the development of American music, but also as one of the most influential compilations ever released.

The collection, released in 1952, is comprised of 84 sides recorded sometime during 1927-1932 (Smith notes his reasoning for this timeframe as “1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Depression halted folk music sales,”) and divided into three parts, each with two records of stylistically linked material: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. Ballads collects songs that recount a particular time or event and loosely tells a historical narrative. The first LP of Social Music collects dance songs and party music, typically performed, as one can imagine, at community gatherings. The second LP features pieces centering on religion and spirituality and Songs collects those in between, detailing everyday life, relationships, activity, etc. Genres range from Cajun to country to delta blues, generally running the gamut of popular, regional American music of the time.

Smith oversaw every aspect of the box’s production. He wrote and crafted the liner notes himself, which are nearly as famous on their own, using a style of collage later adopted by post-modernist artists. Always the eccentric, Smith sometimes provided editorialized summations of songs in cryptically poetic, journalistic expressions. For “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” by Chubby Parker, a song in which a frog marries and mouse, later sampled by Mickey Avalon for his song “What Do You Say”, Smith penned the following: “Zoologic Miscegeny Achieved Mouse Frog Nuptuals [sic], Relatives Approve.” Each volume in the collection features the same cover art, a “celestial monochord”, but printed in its own unique color: green, blue and red. These, Smith asserted, were to represent the essential alchemical elements, Air, Water and Fire, and were to be in harmony with the “celestial monochord”, another alchemical reference, taken from an early treatise by the alchemist Robert Fludd. It was later replaced by a photo of a farmer in response to the politically charged atmosphere of the culture at which the collection was aimed for fear that its mystic angle might prove heavily divisive.

But the collection was anything but divisive. Its track listing reads like an all-star revue. It introduced uninitiated listeners to Blind Lemon Jefferson, The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Gus Cannon and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Dock Boggs, Sleepy John Estes and a host other artists. Its sounds graced the ears of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and all the players in the New York folk scene, even Ginsberg, fellow poets, The Grateful Dead in San Francisco, and all those with an ear to the ground. Ronk recalls, “we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.” Instantly, it was heralded as a driving force behind the folk movement and all efforts of musical resurrection, inspiring Newport Folk Festival to include Mississippi John Hurt and Dock Boggs on the roster of their next festival. Overnight, forgotten stars once again ascended and were flown to New England, Europe, all over the world, anxious and engorged with folk fever.

It later seduced John Fahey, Elvis Costello and infinite others, the entrancing “talismanic aura” driving every listener under its spell to obsessive love and reverence. It is #276 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-time. Required listening for any American music lover, Smith and his Anthology are American treasures, of the past but not forgotten, to be held closely and affectionately, with curiosity and desire, and appreciated not as antiques but as indispensible, undying articles of America.

Written by Ben Brundage

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