In the process, it illuminated the grand sweep and vigor of American literature. Last week, Smithsonian Folkways records re-released another such document, the "Anthology of American Folk Music," originally issued by Folkways Records in The brainchild of the avant-garde filmmaker, folklorist and anthropologist Harry Smith, the anthology comprised three boxed two-LP sets that contained 84 performances recorded between and Included were early black blues and white country music, Cajun recordings, hymns and sacred music, and more, thrown together under a loose framework that almost single-handedly redefined folk music.
In doing so, the anthology became the single most important source of material and inspiration for many young singers in the 's and 60's and the touchstone of the early's "folk revival. The package appeared on the small but important Folkways label, run by Moses Asch, who had recorded performers like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, and thought of his label as a great aural museum.
Before issuing Harry Smith's Anthology, Folkways had released a series of compilations of various ethnic musics as well as early jazz music. But Smith's project was different. The anthology itself seemed to have a personality, much like that of its compiler: erudite, hermetic, witty in a deadpan way.
The cover of each boxed volume was plain black cardboard, with the selections and performers listed plainly on a label affixed to the front. Volume 1 contained ballads songs with a narrative content , Volume 2 was titled Social Music dance music and religious music and Volume 3 was a catchall called Songs, offering vocal selections with no real narrative aspect. The six-disk reissue wisely follows the exact format and sequence of the original. Each box contained a copy of a booklet written, designed and laid out by Smith himself, an idiosyncratic compendium of discographical information, bibliographical references and summaries of the songs, all set in various type fonts and illustrated with photographs, advertisements from old record catalogues and other ephemera.
The music itself on the anthology opens a door to a world that will be just as strange to most listeners of today as it was in , and perhaps more so. The lyrics offer a panorama of murders, religious visions, hangings, agrarian complaints, heroic exploits, swindles, assassinations and endless traveling. The extraordinary range of vocal sounds in which these marvels are expressed is no less wondrous. The nasal timbre of the coal miner and banjoist Dock Boggs on his two recordings included here, or the rasping throat tones of the religious street singer Blind Willie Johnson, so different from each other, both still carry the power to shock 70 years after they were recorded.
The vitality and variety of the music are staggering, from the country singer Uncle Dave Macon's hollering, headlong vocal and banjo on "Down the Old Plank Road" to the inwardness of the New Orleans songster Rabbit Brown on his "James Alley Blues" to the pinched, wry, tall-tale quality of Kelly Harrell's small masterpiece "My Name Is John Johanna," a song about a laborer's disastrous trip to Arkansas in search of work.
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Around , he developed a hobby of collecting old blues , jazz , country , Cajun , and gospel records, 78s being the only medium at the time. While mainstream America often considered these records to be ephemeral , he took them seriously and accumulated a collection of several thousand recordings, and over time began to develop an interest in seeing them preserved and curated.
In , he met with Moses Asch , with an interest in selling or licensing the collection to Asch's label, Folkways Records. The anthology thus technically qualifies as a high-profile bootleg.
Folkways would later obtain some licensing rights, although the Anthology would not be completely licensed until the Smithsonian reissue. The compilation was divided by Smith into three two-album volumes: "Ballads", "Social Music", and "Songs. Each song tells a story about a specific event or time, and Smith may have made some effort to organize to suggest a historical narrative, a theory suggested by the fact that many of the first songs in this volume are old English folk ballads, while the closing songs of the volume deal with the hardships of being a farmer in the s.
The first album in the "social music" volume largely consists of music likely performed at social gatherings or dances. Many of the songs are instrumentals. The second album in the "Social Music" volume consists of religious and spiritual songs. The third "Songs" volume consists of regular songs, dealing with everyday life: critic Greil Marcus describes its thematic interests as being "marriage, labor, dissipation, prison, and death.
Smith's booklet in the original release makes reference to three additional planned volumes in the series, which would anthologize music up until Smith also edited and directed the design of the Anthology. He created the liner notes himself, and these notes are almost as famous as the music, using an unusual fragmented, collage method that presaged some postmodern artwork. This etching was printed over against a different color background for each volume of the set: blue, red and green.
Smith had incorporated both the music and the art into his own unusual cosmology , and each of these colors was considered by Smith to correspond to an alchemical classical element : Water, Fire, and Air, respectively. The fourth 'Labour' volume released later by Revenant is colored yellow to represent the element earth.
In the s, Irwin Silber replaced Smith's covers with a Ben Shahn photograph of a poor Depression-era farmer, over Smith's objections, although others have considered this a wise commercial choice in the politically charged atmosphere of the folk movement during that decade.
In , Smithsonian Folkways Recordings , having acquired Folkways Records in , reissued the collection on six compact discs, each disc corresponding to each album of the original set on vinyl, including replicas of Smith's original artwork and liner booklet. The back cover to this booklet closes with a quote by Smith: "I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music. Writing for Allmusic , critic John Bush wrote the compilation "could well be the most influential document of the '50s folk revival.
Many of the recordings that appeared on it had languished in obscurity for 20 years, and it proved a revelation to a new group of folkies, from Pete Seeger to John Fahey to Bob Dylan Many of the most interesting selections on the Anthology, however, are taken from [obscure] artists In its time, it wrested the idea of the folk from ideologues and ethnomusicologists by imagining a commercial music of everyday pleasure and alienation--which might as well have been conceived to merge with a rock and roll that didn't yet exist Somebody you know is worth the 60 bucks it'll run you.
So are you. The Anthology has had enormous historical influence. Smith's method of sequencing tracks, along with his inventive liner notes , called attention to the set. This reintroduction of near-forgotten popular styles of rural American music from the selected years to new listeners had impact on American ethnomusicology , and was both directly and indirectly responsible for the aforementioned folk music revival.
The music on the compilation provided direct inspiration to much of the emergent folk music revival movement. The Anthology made widely available music which previously had been largely the preserve of marginal social economic groups. Many people who first heard this music through the Anthology came from very different cultural and economic backgrounds from its original creators and listeners.
Many previously obscure songs became standards at hootenannies and folk clubs due to their inclusion on the Anthology.
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