Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Who We Are and Why We Are Here

"Civilized man thinks out his difficulties, at least he thinks he does. Primitive man dances out his difficulties." - R. R. Marrett

The Anthology of American Folk Music
was first published by Folkways Records in 1952. It was compiled and edited by an extraordinary individual named Harry Smith. Smith was born in 1923 and died in 1991, shortly after being awarded a special Grammy for the Anthology. Upon receiving the award, he remarked "I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music."

Smith's achievements go far beyond the Anthology. He was a painter, a filmmaker, an archivist, an anthropologist, an occultist, a famous mooch, and the intimate friend of Allen Ginsberg and the Fugs. This blog is not about Harry Smith.

This blog is about the extraordinary music that Smith gathered together into what is perhaps the most significant musical release of the 20th century. Upon its release, the Anthology sparked a boom in folk music that launched the careers of such notable artists as Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, John Fahey and Eric Von Schmidt. Dave Van Ronk wrote, "We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated. They say that in the 19th-century British Parliament, when a member would begin to quote a classical author in Latin the entire House would rise in a body and finish the quote along with him. It was like that."

I first encountered the Anthology in the late '90s when I read Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, later republished as The Old, Weird America, a book on Bob Dylan and the Band's 1967 recordings collectively known as "the Basement Tapes." I picked up the book because I was a Dylan fan and I was interested in the "Basement Tapes." I knew nothing of Harry Smith or of this collection of reissued music from the '20s and '30s. When I started reading the chapter on the Anthology, I was mesmerized. Marcus made it sound incredible, which I mean in the most literal sense of the word. It did not seem credible that such an amazing and influential album could exist without my having heard of it. It also seemed unlikely that such an artifact was still in print, much less on CD. Fortunately, a friend of mine was a grad student at the Eastman School of Music and therefore had access to the Sibley Music Library. I asked if he would take me and he agreed.

When I first sat down to listen to the first disc of the Anthology, I had no idea what to expect, but I did have a list of songs Marcus had mentioned in his book that sounded interesting. The LP copies of the three Anthology sets were from a later reissue and featured a Depression Era Ben Shahn Farm Administration photograph in place of Smith's original cover art.

Nevertheless, it was with a trembling hand that I placed the stylus in the groove of the first track and began to listen. I would like to say that I was immediately transported, but that would be a lie. The truth is that it sounded like scratchy old country music to me. It wasn't until I reached Clarence Ashley's recording of "The House Carpenter" (a song I already knew from Bob Dylan's recording on the first Bootleg Series set) that I began to get it. "The House Carpenter," a Child Ballad about a ghost who spirits his unfaithful lover away to her doom, had always creeped me out in Dylan's version. Ashley's version (which leaves out the supernatural element) was even more chilling. I was hooked.

Through my friend, I borrowed the three volumes (although I didn't own a turntable at the time) and compiled a tape of highlights using my friend's stereo. Not having time to listen to the whole thing, I was largely guided my the list of songs I had gotten from Marcus's book and also by happenstance. I listened to that 90 minute tape over and over again over the course of the next several months. I shared it with everybody I knew, and I saw something amazing happen: Every time I played the tape for someone, they immediately asked for a copy. Something in this music intrigued people. They wanted to hear more.

Eventually, I learned that Smithsonian Records (which had acquired Folkways) had released a six CD box set of the Anthology. As it happened, a beloved aunt had recently passed away and had left me a small amount of money with the specific instruction that I was not to use the money for anything mundane. I was to spend it on something "fun." One of the things I bought with that money was the Anthology.

That was many years ago. I have listened to the three volumes of Smith's original set countless times, as well as the fourth volume (compiled from Smith's notes) released at the dawn of the 21st century on John Fahey's Revenant Records. I have internalized this music and carry it around with me at all times. Which brings us to this blog.

The purpose of this blog is simple: Just as I played my compilation tape for friends, I wish to share the Anthology with as many people as possible. The idea here is that I will share and review one track of all four volumes of the Anthology at a time for as long as it takes to get through the whole thing.

The music on the set was recorded between 1927 and 1934 and is therefore long out of copyright. I do not, however, wish to give the idea that I am simply giving this music away. Ultimately, it is my hope that whoever reads this blog and hears this music will go out and get themselves a copy of the Anthology. Not only did Harry Smith compile the music for the original Folkways sets, but he also wrote and laid out a booklet that accompanies the set. This is not to be missed. In addition, the Smithsonian CD reissue includes an additional book that goes in to further detail on each track and features a host of essays and reminiscences.

The blog will be updated on Sundays and Tuesdays. I look forward to this project and to sharing this wonderful music with all of you.

The "In The In Interest of Full Disclosure" Department:

The title of this blog has been borrowed from a wonderful book by Nick Toches, which may be obtained at and at other fine booksellers. I would like to make it plain (for legal reasons) that I am NOT Nick Toches, nor am I affiliated with him in any way, shape or form. Other than a shared interest in old music, this blog has absolutely nothing whatever to do with Mr. Toches' fine book. Toches' book is a biography (of sorts) of the blackface comedian Emmett Miller. I recommend it highly.

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