Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music at 66
Several months ago when I transitioned from an owner of music to a renter via streaming, the first selection I imported into my cloud-based digital library was a collection of folk music I first heard when I was just a little sprout. I was introduced to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music by an aunt who also taught me how to make chords and strum her guitar. She allowed me take her well-worn vinyl disc box set home, and for weeks I devoured this music. I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old, and along with having an older sister who endlessly played Joan Baez’s early albums as often as she’d listen to doo wop, rockabilly, and Elvis records, this early life genre convergence and musical immersion set my plate for life.
In the midst of reading a book about the life of Bill Monroe, I was recently reminded that both the Anthology and I will turn 66 this year. While much has been written about this compilation, it seems a good time to both rekindle the memories of older roots music fans and introduce this work to a younger generation.
Harry Smith was a man with diverse interests. He has been described as an experimental filmmaker, visual artist, mystic, bohemian, self-taught anthropologist, and collector of string figures, paper airplanes, Seminole textiles, Ukrainian Easter eggs, and out-of-print commercially released 78 RPM recordings from 1927 through 1935. After moving to New York in 1950, he found himself in need of money when his Guggenheim grant for an abstract film ran out, and he offered to sell his entire music collection to Moe Asch, the owner of Folkways Records. With the introduction of the long-playing album format, Asch instead encouraged Smith to create a compilation of these songs, and he provided him with office space and equipment. What resulted were three two-disc sets titled Ballads, Social Music, and Songs.
In 2014, author Amanda Petrusich published her book Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records and devoted an entire chapter to the Anthology, which was reprinted and is still viewable online at Pitchfork. It is easily the finest and most interesting account of Smith’s assembly of songs, and I love this particular description:
“Previously, these tracks were islands, isolated platters of shellac that existed independently of anything else: even flipping over a 78 required disruptive action. Shifting the medium from the one-song-per-side 78 to the long-playing vinyl album allowed, finally, for songs to be juxtaposed in deliberate ways. It’s possible now, of course, to dump all eighty-four tracks onto one digital playlist and experience the entire Anthology uninterrupted, but I still prefer to acknowledge the demarcations between its three sections — to play it as Smith did.”
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the benefactor and guardian of Moe Asch’s wonderful record label, re-released the Anthology on six compact discs in 1997, and all of the songs are available to listen to for free on their website. The box set includes a 96-page book featuring Smith’s original liner notes and various essays by writers, scholars, and musicians. Here are two brief excerpts:
“The Anthology was our bible … . 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.” – Dave Van Ronk
“First hearing the Harry Smith Anthology of American FoIk Music is like discovering the secret script of so many familiar musical dramas. Many of these actually turn out to be cousins two or three times removed, some of whom were probably created in ignorance of these original riches. It also occurred to me that as we are listening at a greater distance in time to a man or woman singing of their fairly recent past of the 1880s, we are fortunate that someone collected these performances of such wildness, straightforward beauty, and humanity.” – Elvis Costello
The collection offers something for everyone – folk, blues, Cajun, gospel, stringbands, Hawaiian and more – and is less historic and more the progenitor of modern day mix-tapes and curated playlists. Inspirational and influential, if you’re looking for the starting gate of both yesterday’s traditional old-time roots music and today’s popular Americana-branded genre, this is it.
Postscript: Producer Hal Willner paid tribute to the Anthology with a revisionist version called The Harry Smith Project, which included a two-CD set and DVD that were culled from a series of concerts in London, New York, and Los Angeles in 1999 and 2001. Featuring a wide variety of musicians from Steve Earle to Lou Reed, Sonic Youth to The McGarrigle Sisters, it is a loving interpretation that you may have missed. Here’s a taste with Richard Thompson, Eliza Carthy, and Garth Hudson covering Clarence Ashby’s “The Coo Coo Bird.”
You can follow me here at No Depression to get notified when I’ve added something new. Many of my past columns, articles and essays can be accessed at therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate and post daily on my Facebook page The Real Easy Ed: Americana Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed