I recently read an interview with the late great John Fahey, in which he named Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of Folk Music as the single most important source of musical education for him and a whole generation of folk music students, which included himself and Bob Dylan among others. I had never heard Harry Smith’s anthology so I tracked down the CD’s at the library. They came in with a giant Smithsonian booklet full of essays and notes, a major score for a music junkie of my kind. Legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Carter Family, Charley Patton, along with many names I’d never seen before sing 80 plus perfectly interwoven songs. Cajun songs, delta blues, cowboy ballads and Appalachian folk story songs are all together. Listening to the Harry Smith anthology this month has been one of the greatest musical pleasures I can remember in a very long time.
Unlike the selections on most other Folkways compilations, every record in Harry Smith’s anthology was originally a commercial release for another label, made between 1927 and 1932. In the 1920’s and 30’s, early gramophone companies made folk and blues recordings and sold them with the machines to gramophone buyers in rural America. Radio hadn’t yet come to nationalize hit songs and generalize popular styles of music. Each old record in the Harry Smith collection is rich with local color, accent and style. Equally as refreshing is the lack of “folk art” self-awareness in recordings of the anthology. Collegiate activist types hadn’t yet gotten hip to rural music in the 20’s and 30’s. The hyper-conscious attempts at “authentic” folk music made during the 50’s and 60’s don’t make it onto this compilation. The singers and players on the Anthology recordings don’t know they’re “folk” musicians making “folk” music. They’re just musicians, singing their hearts out, playing the songs they know best with the intention of making them sound good and maybe making a little money.
Harry Smith wasn’t a social activist song archivist like Pete Seeger or Alan Lomax, he was a weird artist guy with tremendous taste and a remarkable collection of 78’s. He came from Portland, Oregon and he came to New York City, where he studied the occult and made experimental films and small pieces of visual art. He was destitute most of his life and lived several years in the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street with Allen Ginsburg. Smith’s great love for the records in the Anthology was esthetic more than socio-political. The same can be said for Bob Dylan, John Fahey and the greatest students of Smith’s Collection. In their works you hear powerful melodies, spooky sounds and enduring stories that come directly from the records in the Anthology. Years later the cartoonist/illustrator R. Crumb would feel a similar connection with the soulful performances and the cultural “marginality” of the artists in pre-war recordings. Crumb published portraits of many of the artists in the anthology and comic books of their life stories.
Harry Smith included very thorough informational notes with the records in his anthology. But you can just let the songs play without reading a word and they speak for themselves. Great art is made by wonderful weirdos with advanced esthetic intelligence, brave hearts and open minds. Harry Smith was one such wonderful weirdo, as were the great artists in his collection. If you don’t know the Anthology, you’re in for a treat.