Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 2 of 3: Social Music

Before we get started on the second volume of the Anthology of American Folk Music, some information about the image above. When Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology was reissued in the 1960s, no doubt to capitalize on the burgeoning folk music revival, the albums were plastered this Depression-era photograph, taken by social realist artist Ben Shahn, famous for his portraits of Sacco & Vanzetti. Harry Smith was furious about the cover. His intent was to preserve lost recordings, and to compile them in such a way that highlighted their regional differences but underlined their emotive similarities, not to lend them a vague political charge that, in retrospect, seems more fashionable than political.

The third and fourth discs of the six-disc Anthology contain what Harry Smith termed Social Music — dance songs on disc 3, church and religious songs on disc 4. The dance music is fascinating, in part because most of it is so off-kilter; it’s hard to imagine people dancing to the melancholy fiddle warbles that dominate disc 3. The religious music on the fourth disc is my favorite on the Anthology — it has a spiritual authority I’ll discuss a bit later.

Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra – “Moonshiner’s Dance Part 1” (1927)

One of the few full-band tunes on the Anthology, this dance song is a crazed medley of popular and ragtime tunes, none of which I recognize, but some of the titles, apparently, are “Over the Waves,” “At the Cross,” “When You Wore a Tulip,” and “Maggie.” And can any of y’all make out the exchange at 1:19? To me it sounds like:

“What’re you gonna do with that towel, Herbert?”
“Kill somebody, Chucky!”

There’s no way that can be right.

Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – “Rocky Road” (1928)

Sacred Harp singing, or shape note singing, has been a choral style of sacred music in New England and the South since Revolutionary times, and seems to be making some inroads into the mainstream as of late. As far as I can tell, shape note singing is based on simple solfeggio scales, with individual notes notated by both shape and position on the clef, so that it is easier to sight read. The term “Sacred Harp” comes from the name of one of the prominent songbooks, The Sacred Harp, from 1844 (though many of the songs date back further). These songs, including “Rocky Road,” are characterized by four-part a capella harmony, usually quite raw, and can be sung by hundreds of people at a time. The effect is staggering. Listen for yourself, and find out more here.

Rev. Sister Mary Nelson – “Judgement” (1927)

This song exemplifies the power of the religious songs on the Social Music set. Nelson cajoles and exhorts and and warns, at one point accusing her congregation of hypocrisy, but the performance contains such pure joy that it’s kind of hard to take. Listen closely to the background singing: doesn’t it sound like a 10-year-old boy is shouting along? Not much is known of Sister Nelson, but she seems to have been born late in the 19th century and to have led a Pentecostal church in Memphis.

Stray thought (WARNING: IDLE THINKING AHEAD): It occurs to me that old-time religious music is so exciting for two reasons. First, it is dead serious. Serious about divine inspiration, about justice, about emotion, about humility, about this life and the next. The religious impulse, the will toward God, whatever you want to call it, is an unavoidable part of human experience, but is hard to capture successfully in art, and many of these old-time religious songs seem to do just that.

But secondly, maybe more importantly, old-time religious music is free of the culture-war baggage that present-day religious music hauls along. We’ve mentioned Sufjan Stevens at this blog before, one of the few musicians today tackling religious themes without lapsing into evangelicalism or fundamentalism. (In our old mate Jordy’s parlance, Sufjan “helps make Christianity hip,” a funny thought.) But he’s the exception rather than the rule. The good music I can think of that does tackle Christianity is either intellectualized to the point that it can’t convey religious ectasy (Pedro the Lion, Danielson) or is one-dimensional about the religious life (The Hold Steady — I love ’em, but sometimes doesn’t it seem like their redemption is a bit trite?). So…..I don’t know. But the religious music on the Anthology hits on at least ten different emotions that accompany religious feeling and religious life, and I wonder whether that kind of range, a propos of religion, is even possible in music these (secular) days.

Check in tomorrow for Part 3 of this series on the Anthology of American Folk Music!

Buy the Anthology

Posted by Glenn



Filed under 1920s, Acoustic, Americana, Folk, Gospel, Traditional

8 responses to “Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 2 of 3: Social Music

  1. Once again, great post
    I’m into the second volume now, I’ve listened to the fiddle dances but not the gospel music, not yet.
    I’ll do that tomorrow : looks exciting !
    I know a few “guitar evangelists” (my fav is Rev Gary Davis) but the country part of gospel is kinda new to me.
    I think harp singing influenced the Fleet Foxes (especially the very first vocal part in their album’s opening song.
    So I’ll read you tomorrow
    (btw I’ll post about “Mole In The Ground” tomorrow

  2. Jordy

    The truth and passion of old-time religious music is so clear probably because, when Smith (or whoever) decided to record it, it wasn’t meant for broader consumption or even to be recorded in the first place. Although, whatever spirit possessed Sister Mary Nelson probably helped fill the collection plate nonetheless.

    To add to the discussion, religious ecstasy has probably inspired more beautiful melodies than anything short of wistful, teenage love. Indeed, if the inspiration is real to the songwriter, it doesn’t matter much how trite or fundamentalist the message is. Take the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan is Real” record for example (see my earlier post): its pretty hokey stuff (just look at the cover photo) but it is also some of the most wonderful songwriting of the century, not to mention its FLAWLESS close harmonies and mandolin playing.

  3. You make several good points, Jordy. Besides, ecstasy is ecstasy, whether it happens in a church or not–so chalk up all the best jazz as embodying religious ecstasy.

    In the US, seems to me, religion has become politically divisive in the past 20 years, so it makes sense that beautiful smart music with/about religious feeling would disappear or become marginalized.

    And, possibly, a lot of these old-time religious songs ARE imbued with fundamentalist sentiment, in that they were probably made for a specific Christian audience, to build a separatist Christian community while also raising money for “the church,” not to evangelize or “make art.”

  4. Jeff Wheeler

    crap, I guess we have the 60s reissue. disregard previous post.

  5. Phil

    In re: serious religious music, be sure to check out 16 horsepower, which will get some more love from me on the blog soon, I’m sure.

    As soon as I can stop listening to the Constantines.

  6. “Soon Enough” gives me goosebumps.

  7. Jeff Wheeler

    No–I just found the originals (at the music library). It seems we have both pressings–all three volumes. I’m looking at them now in my hands.


  8. Thanks for these in-depth pages. I think somethings wrong with your links, though as I tried to go to some and they didn’t work. As I said in my post on your previous page, (and forgive me for getting the html wrong–I saw it after I posted) on my Squidoo lense, , I try to give a brief thoug thorough treatment of American Folk Music and it’s various boosts and drops in popularity from the 1900’s to today and beyond.

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