Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Harry Smith’s “Anthology” - the greatest music compilation of them all?

I’m ambivalent about much old-timey roots music: I start off listening to compilations of field or commercial recordings of blues and folk performers from the 1930s and 1940s with the best intentions – but after two or three tracks my brain starts saying, “Anyone fancy a pint?”

Often it’s because you’d have to be an expert in the field to tell one from the other: the songs just blend into each other after a while to form one long double entendre involving dripping honey and big sausages or a tale of woe featuring dead mules and faithless wives and poker games gone wrong:there’s only so much thinly-recorded bad luck and lust a chap can take.

But the one absolute exception, a compilation I’ve returned to many times over the past thirteen years, is Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, comprising six CDs issued in an expensive Box Set by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1997 (a snip at £71.99). The anthology was originally issued on Folkways as a series of double-albums in 1952. Although it was anything but a bestseller, it pretty much created the 1950s Folk Revival in the States, which in turn led to Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Crosby, Stills & Nash and thousands of other folk and folk-rock acts, every one of whom would probably have known the collection backwards –Dylan himself certainly nicked enough of the tunes to fill a whole LP.

It could be argued that no single collection of old recordings has ever had a greater effect on the direction of popular music. As folkie Dave Van Ronk said in 1991, “We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.” As John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers put it in 1995, “It gave us contact with musicians and cultures we wouldn’t have known existed.”

I suppose the nearest my generation came to the experience was Paul Oliver’s The Story of the Blues double-LP compilations from the early 1970s – but, by then, old blues recordings had pretty well been plundered to death by countless British R&B groups in the 1960s. It was enjoyable, but it didn’t come as a revelation.

So, why does Harry Smith’s anthology work for a fairly interested but non-obsessive modern listener? 

Well, for a start, all of the tracks had been released by commercial record labels, so some quality filter had already been applied, and we presume that, between 1927, when advances in recording techniques led to a higher sound quality, and 1932, when the Depression knocked the stuffing out of the US record industry, a fair number of people went out and bought these records. Secondly, the 84 tracks selected by Smith were from a potential list of thousands: this was the absolute cream of a huge crop. Third, Harry Smith had great taste.

But the fourth– and probably most important - reason was that Smith turned sequencing into an art form. There’s something about the order of the tracks that makes it all work as one organic whole – play them out of sequence on iTunes, and one’s concentration rapidly wanders: play them in sequence, as Smith intended, and it’s like listening to any favourite LP, where the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts, and where the fact that a track is Track 4 on Side 2 actually matters.

Thanks to Smith’s exquisite sense of placement, we end up hearing the music that he loved as he wanted us to hear it, in one long, mysteriously coherent narrative. The effect is enhanced by the original booklet which accompanied the original release (reproduced for the 1997 CD version) – Smith told the story of each song in the form of newspaper headlines: for instance, the Carter Family’s excellent “John Hardy was a Desperate Little Man” is headlined “JOHN HARDY HELD WITHOUT BAIL AFTER GUNPLAY. GIRLS IN RED AND BLUE VISIT CHURCH. WIFE AT SCAFFOLD.”

The quirkiness of the whole enterprise is its making. Smith was certainly a true original: musicologist, maker of experimental films (unwatchable, one presumes), and mystic. He was, inevitably, constantly short of money, rarely of any fixed abode, and a keen imbiber of drugs and alcohol (these three facts may possibly have been connected). He died in 1991 at the Chelsea Hotel in New York (where else?). What he left us was a window onto what Bob Dylan called “The Old Weird America”, a world more recent but somehow far stranger to us than, say, that of Dickens, Shakespeare or even Chaucer. Perhaps that’s because we can hear the voices of the performers rather than supplying them from our own imagination, as we do when reading, or having modern actors do it for us on stage or screen.

As it is, we’re afforded a glimpse of an intriguingly uninterpreted world. In
Bascombe Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”, for instance, the singer meets Kimpy, a lady who wants a $9 shawl. Luckily, he has $40 on him. She asks the singer, who has already told us he wishes he was a mole in the ground so he could “root that mountain down”, where he’s “been so long”. He tells her he’s been “down in the bend [possibly prison], with those rough and rowdy men”, and adds:

                    “I don’t like a railroad man
                    No, I don’t like a railroad man
                    If I was a railroad man, they would kill you when he can
                    Drink up your blood like wine”


The surrealistic, dream-like strangeness is compounded by that fact that Lunsford’s halting banjo-playing doesn’t altogether match the rhythm of his singing. Lunsford, known as the “Minstrel of the Appalachians” was a North Carolina lawyer who described the song as “ a typical product of the Pigeon River Valley” – if so, it might be a region best driven through at speed, with the car windows up and central-locking on. 

The impression of having entered a parallel universe when listening to the Anthology is heightened by the strange spelling of some artists’ names and song titles: did Furry Lewis think that we wouldn’t recognise “Kassie Jones”as “Casey Jones”, and did Bill Casey imagine we’d be put off the scent by calling himself “Buell Kazee”? (Of course, they might just not have been very good at spelling - not a public school man among them, I suspect.)

If Lunsford sounds oddly friendly, Doc Boggs, here performing “Sugar Baby”, sounds like a 120-year old homicidal maniac. Did people honestly used to dance cheerily to this sort of music? It’s so threatening, and it sounds like it predates the landing of the Mayflower.

I mentioned Blind Willie Johnson’s compelling “John the Revelator” in an earlier post – in this context, it sounds positively normal.

Oddly, the primitive nature of the recording techniques puts you right there with the singers: listen to Rev. Sister Mary Nelson’s “Judgment”, and you’re in the midst of the gospelling ladies, with their superb, joyful voices: and can’t you just see those Cajun dancers bopping along to Hoyt  “Floyd” Ming and his Pep-Steppers (oh those glorious names!) performing “Indian War Whoop”. I guarantee no modern digital recording ever created such a sense of presence.
There are countless other delights, of course, and some well-known names – Blind Lemon Jefferson and the beautiful, feathery tones of “Mississippi” John Hurt – but even they never sounded as right as they do in the context of this wondrous compilation. 


  1. It is hard to hear what BLL is singing as he is clearly concentrating so hard on keeping his banjo completely out of sync with his singing to pay much attention to enunciating the lyrics. It is kind of you to refer to this as "doesn't altogether match the rhythm of his singing". However, surely "in the bend ", which other versions also use must be a transcription of "in the pen".

    Fascinating post, Scott.
    Saturday, January 22, 2011 - 01:14 PM

  2. At the risk of further exposing the Frank Miles influence, I've always thought the railroad men verse was about the fate that awaited any poor hobo caught stowing away in the freight cars by the railway company employees. Bob Dylan lifts part of the lyric for one of the versions of "Stuck Inside of Mobile" thereby proving your point about his tendency to borrow quite a bit of the material that KCS 6th formers saw as proof of his original genius.

    Like you, I'm intending to give Pigeon River Valley a swerve. It sounds the kind of place where you're regarded as odd if you aren't married your second cousin by the time you're 15 and all the men have names like Jimmy Bob.
    Saturday, January 22, 2011 - 01:26 PM

  3. I’m sure you’re right about “bend” being “pen” (besides, that’s what the booklet accompanying the CDs suggests!). And I knew Dylan had pinched a bit of the “railroad men” lyric had been half-inched by His Bobness, but had forgotten it was for “Stuck Inside of Mobile” – which is odd because it’s one of my favourite Dylan tracks from my favourite Dylan album.

    I spent several years being rude about Dylan just to annoy Richard Stoate, but “that thin wild mercury sound” on Blonde on Blonde finally got to me (I’d been softened up by “Positively 4th Street”, admittedly). I’d borrowed B on B from a Canadian workmate at a temporary job in Peckham the summer after “A” levels, who’d been boring on about it, and on the third play-through it suddenly dawned on me that it was, indeed, magnificent, and that I’d just have to allow Stoate his moment of triumph when I admitted it – though I got my revenge by rolling about on his carpet laughing when he played me Self Portrait and tried to convince me it was an example of brilliant irony – he had more success with the bootleg, Great White Wonder.

    By the way, I’m all for bluesmen and folk-singers nicking old stuff (mainly because it has always been a pleasure discovering where it all came from. Dylan’s good on modern music. He says most of it means nothing to him because it has no connection to past musical traditions – I always suspected the old bugger was a Conservative at heart!
    Tuesday, January 25, 2011 - 11:29 PM