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

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.”

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 …

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