For the next three days I will be discussing the Anthology of American Folk Music, which I have recently acquired in a handsome-as-hell reissue package. These 6 CDs have been called “the holy grail of folk music,” but I prefer to think of them not as an impossible gleaming cup floating in a shaft of light in some far-flung castle, but as a chipped hand-thrown clay mug we mere mortals can drink from whenever we’d like, whether we are worthy like Parsifal or not (and we’re probably not).
Harry Smith, a beatnik and experimental filmmaker, spent years combing through commercially recorded music of the late 1920s and early 1930s to compile the Anthology. Smith wanted to put together a truly populist anthology of old-time music, which is why he used commercial recordings on gramophone disc rather than earlier wax cylinder recordings or the field recordings of Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and the like. Smith’s assumption is an interesting prospect. Folk culture by definition is both populist and extremely localized, and quality commerical recordings are able to account for both strands of folk culture: popularity and particularity. As Smith put it, these recordings, many of which sold tens of thousands of copies when first released, made available “the rhythmically and verbally specialized musics of groups living in mutual social and cultural isolation.”
The anthology is divvied up into three sets: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. Today I will focus on three of my favorites from the Ballads disc. By the way, narrowing twenty-seven ballads down to three is very, very difficult, so I have tried to include my favorites while also giving you faithful readers an accurate representation of what is included.
Clarence Ashley – “The House Carpenter” (1930)
Also known as “Tom,” Ashley was from the East Tennessee mountains, and his high lonesome voice and banjo picking sounds like the shadowed hollows and mysterious grassy balds. During the 1960s folk music revival, he began playing the college and festival circuit with the likes of Doc Watson. One of the odd pleasures of the Anthology is the goofy notes that Harry Smith wrote for each selection. For the songs on the “Ballads” discs, these notes take the form of lurid headlines: “Wife and Mother Follows Carpenter to Sea; Mourns Babe as Ship Goes Down.” It is absolutely chilling when the narrator of the song, after convincing the house carpenter’s wife to board his ship and set sail, says, casually, as she weeps for her lost child: “Well, we hadn’t been on ship but about two weeks. I’m sure that it was not three.” And, according to Wikipedia, this song is based on the Child ballad “The Daemon Lover.”
Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers – “White House Blues” (1926)
Many of the songs on the Ballads discs concern news items of previous years: boll weevils, Casey Jones, the Titantic, automated cobbling machines. There’s even a song supposedly written by Charles Giteau, James A. Garfield’s assassin. My favorite is this assassination lament sung by Charlie Poole, a hard-drinking moonshining textile worker from my area of the country, the NC Piedmont. “Roosevelt’s in the White House, he’s doing his best. McKinley’s in the graveyard, taking his rest.”
Mississippi John Hurt – “Frankie” (1928)
John Hurt’s name is one of the few I recognized when I first began listening to the Anthology. It’s clear that Bob Dylan modeled some of his early singing after Hurt’s low-pitched, buzzing voice. For me, Hurt’s vocal performance embodies the weird allure of the Anthology: the promise of a palpable past, more genius songs than even the 84 included here. Plus, John Fahey said this version of “Frankie & Johnny” featured some of the best guitar-playing ever, and who am I to disagree?
Coincidentally, music blog River’s Invitation is posting folk songs this week. Do check them out. Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo-Coo Bird” is absolutely essential.
UPDATE: Please check out The Old, Weird America for an in-depth analysis of the Harry Smith Anthology.
Buy the Anthology
Posted by Glenn