Welcome to the third and final installment of our humble series on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. For those of you who’ve missed the previous installments, please scroll down to our two previous posts.
Volume 3 of the Anthology, Songs, features blues and non-narrative songs, many mysterious in origin. The strangest and most otherworldly tunes are found on the Songs discs. More importantly, Songs is where Harry Smith’s skill as an editor and compiler is to be admired. Essentially, Smith was putting together a mixtape. So Dock Boggs’s cackling, bitter “Sugar Baby” is followed up by Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s sweet but inexplicable “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” — one kind of world-weariness matched up against another. Elsewhere, Uncle Dave Macon’s rollicking celebration of the Coal Creek Rebellion is followed up by Mississippi John Hurt’s mellow rejection of an oppressive job which itself leads into a jug band’s version of a railroad work song. That mixtape-quality is what gives the Anthology much of its mystique.
By the way, “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” is one of the classics. Listen to it here.
Buell Kazee – “East Virginia” (1927)
Buell Kazee, a Baptist minister from Kentucky, is responsible for many of my favorites on the Anthology. This song resembles a blues and features spare banjo and high-lonesome style of singing, similar to Clarence Ashley. “East Virgina” is the second track on the first Songs disc, following up Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird.” Note how these two songs work together to call forth an image of a mysterious mountain landscape, full of “dark hollers where the sun refuse to shine.”
Blind Lemon Jefferson – “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” (1928)
Texan and sometime-professional-wrestler Blind Lemon Jefferson was a nationally popular blues artist in the 1920s and an associate of Leadbelly who froze to death on the streets of Chicago. It’s not hard to tell why Jefferson garnered popularity when he did — his introspective singing is nuanced and his guitar playing has a seductive groove. This song is reportedly the last Jefferson recorded before his early and awful death. As such, he must be mentioned along with those artists we’ve examined in previous months whose early deaths give their music a romantic and possibily morbid allure. To that end, be sure to check Jefferson’s spine-chilling bell tolls at 2:30. They toll for thee.
Henry Thomas – “Fishing Blues” (1928)
SWR spiritual advisor Jeff Wheeler’s fave, Henry Thomas, contributes the perfect closing song to the Anthology. This tune will make you smile, grab your rod-and-reel, and head to the nearest fishin’ hole. In his notes, Harry Smith claims that “references to fishing, other than as sexual symbolism, are rare in American folk music.” At any rate, “Fishing Blues” is the perfect song to open your weekend with, and the perfect song to close this series with.
Posted by Glenn