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Recapturing the American Sound

Anthology of American Folk Music

compiled by Harry Smith
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, $79.00

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes

by Greil Marcus
Henry Holt, 286 pp., $22.50

1.

A collection of old 78s, eighty-four of them—discarded dance tunes and country blues, murder ballads and gospel hymns and comical numbers from an earlier era of commercial recording—was released in 1952 by Folkways Records under the title Anthology of American Folk Music. The assembler was Harry Smith, then twenty-nine years old, a collector, underground filmmaker, occult philosopher, fabulist, and scrounger who sometimes claimed to be the illegitimate son of the satanist Aleister Crowley and who by the time of his death in 1991 had earned the nickname “the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel.”1

The Anthology identified him only by name, but the self-designed booklet accompanying the set’s six LPs signaled the presence of a deep and deeply eccentric scholarship. The booklet’s idiosyncrasies ranged from headline-style summaries of old ballads—ASSASSIN OF PRESIDENT GARFIELD RECALLS EXPLOIT IN SCAFFOLD PERORATION, or ANNIE UNDER GRASSY MOUND AFTER PARENTS NIX MARRIAGE TO KING—to a wildly methodical cross-indexing: “Bible history quoted on record…Broken promise mentioned on record…Death instructions given on record…Echo-like relation of voices…Humming, records featuring …Mountain vantage point theme.” In passing, Smith displayed an offhand familiarity with the corpus of early recordings and with all relevant printed sources.

Many of the performers featured in the Anthology—they include Mississippi John Hurt, Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, Henry Thomas, the Carter Family, Furry Lewis, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Memphis Jug Band, Charley Patton, Clarence Ashley, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Sleepy John Estes—are nowadays more or less celebrated, even if their music is rarely heard over the airwaves or in the aisles of supermarkets. It is perhaps necessary to recall that in 1952 this music was more likely to be found in attics or thrift shops or abandoned warehouses. It was the sound of cultural obsolescence, products no longer fit for broadcast or mass entertainment. Unlike the collections made in the field by such folk music specialists as Alan Lomax, they were all commercial recordings made between 1927 and 1932, a period when previously marginal country music was recorded on a large scale as record companies discovered the potential of rural markets and when, as Smith noted, “American music still retained some of the regional qualities evident in the days before the phonograph, radio and talking picture had tended to integrate local types.” (The process by which performers like this were brought into the commercial system, and the way that system broke down in the Depression, is recounted in fascinating detail in Richard A. Peterson’s Creating Country Music.) By the simple act of bringing these selections together, Smith essayed something like a one-man cultural revolution. Its effects were felt gradually, as the collection worked its way in subterranean fashion from one newly formed folk music devotee to another.

The Anthology has been acknowledged belatedly as more than just a compilation of old recordings, even of recordings as exceptional as Henry Thomas’s “Fishing Blues” or Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird” or Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down the Old Plank Road.” Its catalytic role in postwar American musical culture has been confirmed with a new edition on compact disk—a model of care and research—and it is discussed at length in two recent books, Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic and Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good. Marcus and Cantwell are at one on the Anthology‘s centrality; for Marcus, in his extended riff on the aesthetic roots of Bob Dylan’s 1967 Basement Tapes, it is “the founding document of the American folk revival”; for Cantwell, in the most detailed history of that revival yet undertaken, it is the movement’s “enabling document, its musical constitution.” Similarly reverential remarks abound in the notes prepared for the reissue, like this from Peter Stampfel (of the Holy Modal Rounders): “If God were a DJ he’d be Harry Smith.”

That would be one way to think of the collection, as a supernatural jukebox blasting out favorites for the dead, the old dead, from the time before there were jukeboxes: especially since so many of the songs have to do with death in every form, by drowning, by train wreck, by outlaw’s or assassin’s bullet, by self-inflicted stab wound. Dock Boggs, coal miner and moonshiner, sets the pace in his knife-edge drone:

Go dig a hole in the meadow, good people
Go dig a hole in the ground
Come around all you good people
And see this poor rounder go down.
(Dock Boggs, “Country Blues”)

That was the kind of party it was, and in 1952 or 1962 the jolt was perceptible. It remains so, since all the bloodlettings of neo-noir, neo-Gothic, post-punk, and hip-hop have made it no easier to accept the direct encounter with last things that such songs propose. In that light even the merriest music—the dance rhythms of Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers or Hoyt Ming and His Pep-Steppers, the children’s song “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O,” the protracted comical adventures of drunkards and lechers—acquires an abrasive edge. The soothing and hypnotic aural environment to which latter-day pop music has accustomed us makes this music exotic: it feels like a music in which the world cannot be escaped.

To speak of an abrasive edge is another way of saying that this music is about being wide awake. It is always at peak; it refuses to become sub-conversational pulse or trickling background rivulet. Insistence, emphasis, exhortation: these are the qualities that unite an otherwise extraordinarily disparate collection of performances. Geographically the performers come predominantly from the American South—from Lake Providence, Louisiana, to Burton’s Fork, Kentucky—but also from as far afield as Los Angeles, St. Paul, and Cincinnati. They worked as, among other things, coal miners, ministers, carpenters, mill hands, tenant farmers, and, yes, cowboys. Many were professional or semi-professional musicians, traveling with medicine shows or performing on the street. What these recordings capture is not the folklore of private pastime but the repertoire of public performance.

The Anthology‘s temporal reach extends both forward and backward. It consists of songs that were recorded in the 1920s and 1930s and collected in the 1940s, and attained wide if covert influence in the 1950s and 1960s. But for many of the musicians represented, 1928 was already the aftermath, the last time it was possible to retrieve an echo of a world whose rapid disappearance was signaled by the very fact that these songs were being recorded. That world stretched from the late nineteenth century, when the style of performers like Henry Thomas and Uncle Dave Macon was already taking shape at barn dances and tent shows and political rallies, to the eve of World War I.

It was an era when the hot news was of the depredations of Cole Younger in the 1870s, the assassinations of Garfield and McKinley in 1881 and 1901, the death of Casey Jones on the Illinois Central Line in April 1900, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Even those bulletins were late accretions to a body of knowledge extending back toward Indian war whoops, medieval enchantments, John the Revelator and his “book of the seven seals.” “These ballads are not historical dramas,” writes Greil Marcus in a book that reverts continually, inescapably, to the cultural distance separating us from the old songs. “They dissolve a known history of wars and elections into a sort of national dream, a flux of desire and punishment, sin and luck, joke and horror—and as in a dream, the categories don’t hold.” We are in a place where history survives only by being transmuted into rhymes, charms, complaints, exorcisms, prophecies.

Many listeners have observed that purely as an arrangement—a profoundly satisfying juxtaposition attentive to echoes, responses, thematic parallels, and who knows what hermetic alchemical principles smuggled in by Smith—the Anthology of American Folk Music itself functions as a work of art. Designed to be heard precisely in the order laid down, it anticipates the sort of musical collage which is now perhaps the most widely practiced American art form: the personal mix tape of favorite songs that serves as self-portrait, gesture of friendship, prescription for an ideal party, or simply as an environment consisting solely of what is most ardently loved.

Smith’s concept was vaster but equally personal. The songs did not so much refer back to an earlier America as reconstitute it. A single person was here mapping a lost or at least forgotten domain, not in the name of tradition or collective will or social or musicological theory, but merely out of his inexplicable sense of how everything falls into place. The elements were together because they belonged together; he knew. The Anthology resonated with the demiurgic thrill of holding all those elements in hand; it registered a search for hidden correspondences and occulted communications, and Smith moved as easily among its implications as a shaman rapidly switching voices during a dialogue with spirits.

That was pretty much what it seemed like to its listeners, even (in my own case) a decade after its first appearance: the soundtrack of a resurrection, an unbottling of hidden identities. After ten years, however, a whole culture had taken shape along the lines indicated by the Anthology. The dead, it turned out, weren’t all dead. Lost singers (Clarence Ashley, Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs, Furry Lewis) were found, lost careers revived in the form of albums and appearances at nightclubs and folk festivals. Ancient became contemporary in albums like Mountain Music Bluegrass Style (1959) or Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s (1961-1963); the emergence of young stars like Dylan and Joan Baez helped prompt an explosion of youthful guitar and banjo and harmonica players; and at the triumphant Newport Folk Festival of 1963, in which the joining of old (Ashley, Boggs, Hurt, Bill Monroe, Mother Maybelle Carter) and new (Dylan, Baez, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Ian and Sylvia) seemed to augur the formation of a new culture.

The implications of that rebirth remain for many unresolved, inseparable from all that came next. For both Marcus and Cantwell the old music remains a source of disquiet, like a nagging unanswered question; they circle around it, sifting through its codes and exceptions, weighing the varying responses of those who listened to it at different times and places. Cantwell in particular brings obvious passion to bear on his account, so that When We Were Good becomes a veiled autobiography, the story of what music did to him. The 1997 reappearance of the Anthology inevitably raises as many questions about the late Fifties and early Sixties as it does about the late Twenties and early Thirties, evoking nostalgia for what was already a displaced nostalgia, as if the music were a treasured memento of an alternate life.

2.

The newly reissued CD box set of the Anthology is an advanced specimen of the form, featuring a video and photographic appendix on CD-ROM, a book-length collection of essays and interviews, and detailed notes to each track (supplementing, updating, and sometimes correcting Smith’s own notes, reproduced here in facsimile), which together constitute a study guide to the field. The entry for Charley Patton’s “Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” for instance, identifies fifteen other sources for Patton recordings and thirty-five other recordings of this and other boll weevil-related ballads, by artists ranging from Blind Willie McTell to Brook Benton. Each song becomes an entryway into a potentially endless research project.

  1. 1

    The full range of Smith’s work, and the extravagance of his personality, can be sampled in American Magus: Harry Smith—A Modern Alchemist, edited by Paola Igliori (New York: Inanout Press, 1996.)

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