I must confess from the start that I am no expert on folk music of any sort, let alone American folk music.
But there is something about genuine folk music that appeals. It has an unrefined honesty and spontaneity that sets it apart from other music.
Now I'm not talking about what passes for "folk" music in modern times, which is often just a sounding board for political leanings left and right. I'm referring to the original music of peoples long ago, from Europe West and East, Africa and the Americas. Not only does it give an insight into the lives and times of these people, it also shows the evolution of music of today.
So who was Harry Smith?
Harry Smith was no musicologist in the conventional sense of scholarly training. He was an eccentric, alcoholic, gritty renaissance man. He made experimental films, and art, but is best known for assembling certainly the most famous, and probably the most influential collection of what he called American Folk Music.
He was a collector of neglected and almost forgotten recordings from the 1920's and 30's. This was his American Folk Music. Not field recordings or dusty museum pieces, but music that was recorded, or in his words "music that somebody thought important enough to put on record and somebody else thought it was worth paying for".
And, in the 1950's he saw this rich legacy decaying and being lost forever. So, from his own collection, he assembled 84 pieces of music that he regarded as ther most significant of them all. The music ranges from Appalacian murder ballads to Cajun to early blues to bluegrass to gospel. And more Cajun.
The presentation was remarkable: 6 LP's organised in 3 volumes of 2 LP's each, grouped as Ballads, Social Music and Songs. Harry's liner notes was an entire booklet, with Harry's unique artwork on the cover, reproductions of the original record covers, and his annotations of each piece, including a potted summary of each plot. Two examples:
"Theft of Stetson Hat Causes Deadly Dispute; Victim Identifies Self as Family Man"
"Single Girl: Dressed Fine, Goes to Store Buys, Going Where Please. Married Girl: Wears Any Kind, Rocks Cradle Cries, Baby on Knees"
Anthology of American Folk Music
This CD re-release preserves the original feel and structure of the Anthology. Packaged in a gorgeous fabric-covered box, the 6 CDs are in 3 volumes of 2 CDs each. Harry's original booklet is included, with an additional excellent 100 page booklet of essays, appreciations and photographs that puts the whole collection into perspective.
As a bonus, one of the CDs doubles as a CD-ROM for the technologically capable, with live footage of Harry Smith himself.
This collection is not always easy listening. Most of the performers were amateurs, and the recordings are often scratchy and faded. And there is a bit too much Cajun for my taste. But the authenticity is overpowering. Listening to these recordings takes you back to more simple times, but also more difficult and desperate times. These are recordings of hardship, lonliness and pain, and also of love and joy.
But the most amazing thing about the Anthology of American Folk Music is that this is the music that set the blueprint for modern popular music. Listen to these discs, and you will hear the origins of Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones and even the Beatles. And everybody who came after.
Somewhat of an acquired taste, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music is a landmark recording, but also an entertaining and revealing collection for modern times.
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Anthology of American Folk Music
- Henry Lee - Dick Justice
- Fatal Flower Garden - Nelstone's Hawaiian
- The House Carpenter - Tom Ashley
- Drunkard's Special - Coley Jones
- Old Lady and the Devil - Bill Reed
- The Butcher's Boy (The Railroad Boy) - Buell Kazee
- The Wagoner's Lad [Loving Nancy] - Buell Kazee
- King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O - Chubby Parker
- Old Shoes and Leggins - Uncle Eck Dunford
- Willie Moore - Richard Burnett
- A Lazy Farmer Boy - Buster Carter
- Peg and Awl - Carolina Tar Heels
- Ommie Wise - G.B. Grayson
- My Name Is John Johanna - Kelly Harrell
- Bandit Cole Younger - Edward L. Crain
- Charles Giteaux - Kelly Harrell
- John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man - Carter Family
- Gonna Die With My Hammer in My Hand - Williamson Brothers
- Stackalee - Frank Hutchison
- White House Blues - Charlie Poole
- Frankie - Mississippi John Hurt
- When That Great Ship Went Down - William Smith
- Engine 143 - Carter Family
- Kassie Jones - Furry Lewis
- Down on Penny's Farm - Bentley Boys
- Mississippi Boweavil Blues - Masked Marvel
- Got the Farm Land Blues - Carolina Tar Heels
- Sail Away Ladies [Fiddle Solo] - Uncle Bun Stephens
- The Wild Wagoner [Frolic Tune] - Jilson Setters
- Wake up Jacob - Prince Albert Hunt
- La Danseuse [The Dancer] - Delma Lachney
- Georgia Stomp - Jim Baxter
- Brilliancy Medley - Eck Robertson
- Indian War Whoop [Country Dance] - Hoyt Ming
- Old Country Stomp - Henry Thomas
- Old Dog Blue - Jim Jackson
- Saut' Crapaud [Jump, Frog] - Columbus Fruge
- Arcadian One-Step - Joseph Falcon
- Home Sweet Home - Breaux Freres
- Newport Blues - Cincinnati Jug Band
- Moonshiner's Dance (Pt. 1) - Frank Cloutier
- You Must Be Born Again - J.M. Gates
- Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting - Rev. J.M. Gates
- Rocky Road - Alabama Sacred Harp
- Present Joys - Alabama Sacred Harp
- This Song of Love - Middle George Singi
- Judgement - Rev. Sister Nelson
- He Got Better Things for You - Memphis Sanctified
- Since I Laid My Burden Down - Elder & E McIntosh
- John the Baptist [Singing Sermon] - Rev. Moses Mason
- Dry Bones - Bascom La Lunsford
- John the Revelator - Blind Will Johnson
- Little Moses - Carter Family
- Shine on Me - Ernest Phipps
- Fifty Miles of Elbow Room - Rev. F.W. McGee
- I'm in the Battlefield for My Lord - Rev. D.C. Rice
- The Coo-Coo Bird - Tom Ashley
- East Virginia - Buell Kazee
- Minglewood Blues - Cannon's Jug Stompe
- I Woke up One Morning in May - Didier Hebert
- James Alley Blues - Richard Brown
- Sugar Baby - Dock Boggs
- I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground - Bascom La Lunsford
- The Mountaineer's Courtship - Ernest Stoneman
- The Spanish Merchant's Daughter - Stoneman Family
- Bob Lee Junior Blues - Memphis Jug Band
- Single Girl, Married Girl - Carter Family
- Le Vieux Soulard et Sa Femme [The Old Drunkard and His Wife] - Cleoma Breaux
- Rabbit Foot Blues - Blind Leroy Jefferson
- Expressman Blues - Sleepy John Estes
- Poor Boy Blues - Ramblin' Thomas
- Feather Bed - Cannon's Jug Stompe
- Country Blues - Dock Boggs
- 99 Years Blues - Julius Daniels
- Prison Cell Blues - Blind Leroy Jefferson
- See That My Grave Is Kept Clean - Blind Leroy Jefferson
- C'Est Si Triste Sans Lui [It Is So Blue Without Him] - Cleoma Breaux
- Way Down the Old Plank Road - Uncle Dave Macon
- Buddy Won't You Roll Down the Line - Uncle Dave Macon
- Spike Driver Blues - Mississippi John Hurt
- K.C. Moan - Memphis Jug Band
- Train on the Island - J.P. Nestor
- The Lone Star Trail - Ken Maynard
- Fishing Blues - Henry Thomas