Music of Anthology: Harry Smith and American Folk Music

Among many other things, Harry Everett Smith made seminal surrealist films, overstayed his welcome at countless cheap hotels, produced the first Fugs album, attempted to synchronize painting with jazz notes and archived every paper airplane he found. Born in Portland, Oregon in 1923 his family later moved to Washington growing up in Anacortes, Bellingham and parts in between, where he documented Native American rituals on 78 rpm recording equipment transported by bicycle and delved deep into the mysticism that his eccentric mother introduced him to. After leaving the Northwest for the Bay Area and later New York, Smith was a full fledged beat and a major influence on the hippies. Charting Smith’s poly-artist life is dizzying as it is filled with epic obsessions, volatile behavior and incredible creativity; however, he is most known today for editing the groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music, which he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for in 1991 before his death the same year.

A prodigious record collector, Smith amassed upwards of ten thousand 78’s of pre-Great Depression Appalachian folk, blues, country, and Cajun when most Americans had forgotten about the music. In 1952, Smith moved to New York and tried to sell some of his collection to Moses Asch of Folkways records, but was instead encouraged to put together an anthology for the label. The result was the three volume, six LP, Anthology of American Folk Music. Highly knowledgeable in the occult, Smith assigned an element to the cover of each volume by color: water for Ballads in green, fire for Social Music in red, and air for Songs in blue. Also included on each cover was a Johann Theodor de Bry engraving of the celestial monochord, which Smith found in a 17th century book by alchemist Robert Fludd. The liner notes were also singular, with news clippings acting as social commentary, stark images of the artists and cryptic passages about the songs. Smith summarizes The Carter Family’s “Engine-One-Forty-Three” as, “Georgie runs into rock after mother’s warning. Dies with the engine he loves.”

Celestial Monochord

Beyond the seriously thought out visual presentation of the album, Smith had a mission when selecting songs. Departing from the standard practice of segregating artists by race, the Anthology had black and white musicians mixed together, identified by recording location and year, in an order based on style, theme and perhaps alchemical properties. Although Smith was never an overt political artist, he intended for the Anthology to foment some kind of revolution, telling musicologist and member of the New Lost City Ramblers, John Cohen, in 1969:

“I felt social changes would result from it. I’d been reading Plato’s Republic. He’s jabbering on about music, how you have to be careful about changing the music because it might upset or destroy the government. Everybody gets out of step. . .

The Anthology was not an attempt to get all the best records . . ., but a lot of these were selected because they were odd – an important version of the song, or one which came from some particular place . . . Instead, they were selected to be ones that would be popular among musicologists, or possibly with people who would want to sing them and maybe would improve the version . . .

I was looking for exotic records . . .

Exotic in relation to what was considered to be the world culture of high-class music.”

The seed Smith planted was sown by young musicians such as Joan Baez, Dave Von Ronk and Bob Dylan who embraced the album as a trove of secret knowledge and would go on to change the direction of folk music in the sixties and eventually rock. Dylan said of of the Anthology, “That’s where the wealth of folk music was, on that particular record. It’s all poetry, every single one of those songs.” Even if Smith’s statements about the intention of the Anthology was during the social and cultural upheaval of that decade, it’s clear that he believed the selection and presentation of old music could create powerful change by influencing future generations.

Listening to the Anthology sixty-five years later, I can recognize the styles fairly easily on the songs. After decades of artists plumbing the past, revival bands and films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, one doesn’t need to be a musicologist or from a particular region to be familiar with the sound of Bluegrass or Zydeco. When Nick Cave or Neko Case sing murder ballads it isn’t as exotic anymore because for better or worse they they are high-class musicians. When weighing the Anthology by the individual songs, I sometimes find them quaintly tucked into a history when a folkster could bust out “Stackalee” in a Greenwich Village club and genuinely wow a crowd with something new.

Uncle Dave Macon

But didn’t he say the songs weren’t the best? After all these years the constant on the Anthology is that Harry Smith is the DJ and maybe that was the point the entire time. Record side 3 on Social Music is two tracks of Rev. J.M. Gates hauntingly sermonizing through song followed by two from the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers that flows with atmospheric energy. I feel like I’ve got religion in my mind and that our country has spoken beautifully in hundreds of dialects. Record side 4 of Songs starts with old time country star Uncle Dave Macon happily rollicking through themes of sex, death and money in mere minutes and then transitions to Mississippi John Hurt lending an improbably serene air over the plight of John Henry in “Spike Driver Blues.”  When listening to a Smith selected side in full, I’m transported to a world with different sins and virtues, forgetting what artist I’m listening to and instead thinking about what it looks, feels and smells like. The alchemy aspect of what Smith employed on the Anthology will always be there making the volumes American spellbooks that never fail to beguile. As it is thoroughly freeform, I will be playing sides from the Anthology on my show Music of Folk this Saturday from noon to 2pm, along with music Smith recorded and artists influenced by him. Hope you can listen in!

Here’s a link to Harry Smith’s masterpiece Film #12 (Heaven and Earth Magic). It is quite simply one of the most amazing examples of surrealism ever and well worth spending an hour of your life viewing.

Sources used:

Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular. Edited by Andrew Perchuk and Rani Simon. Getty Research Center: Issues & Debates

The Harry Smith Archives