Harry Smith and the Anthology of American Folk Music

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Sixty-five years ago this year an event occcured which changed the course of American music.  A unassuming man, unknown, with no professional expertise other than his devotion to old 78s of American vernacular music, released to the public the Anthology of American Folk Music.

“Had he never done anything with his life but this Anthology, Harry Smith would still have borne the mark of genius across his forehead. I’d match the Anthology up against any other single compendium of important information ever assembled. Dead Sea Scrolls? Nah. I’ll take the Anthology.” – John Fahey

51X1mQc-MJL._SY300_Archivist, experimental filmmaker, visual artist, ethnomusicologist and eccentric visionary, Smith was born in Portland in 1923 and raised in Bellingham and Anacortes by eccentric parents who lived in separate houses and believed in the occult. He seems to have been a compulsive collector. (He later amassed archives of Seminole patchwork textiles, paper airplanes, Ukranian Easter eggs and string figures.) He found the records for the anthology in second-hand stores where, during World War II, record shops bankrupted by shortages sometimes just gave them away.

As a student at Bellingham High School, Smith collected field recordings on the Lummi Reservation, where his mother was a teacher, and in 1943 started studying anthropology at the University of Washington. But after a trip to Berkeley, Calif., introduced him to marijuana and Bay Area bohemia, he dropped out. After a brief stint at Boeing, Smith left Washington in 1947. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Smith made experimental films, but in the early ’50s, down on his luck in New York, he tried to sell his enormous record collection to Folkways Records. Owner Moe Asch suggested the anthology as an alternative.

“[The] Anthology was our bible…. We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated. They say that in the 19th-century British Parliament, when a member would begin to quote a classical author in Latin the entire House would rise in a body and finish the quote along with him. It was like that.” – Dave Van Ronk

The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith (1923–1991), is one of the most influential releases in the history of recorded sound. Originally issued by Folkways Records in 1952, the Anthology brought virtually unknown parts of America’s musical landscape recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s to the public’s attention. For more than half a century, the collection has profoundly influenced fans, ethnomusicologists, music historians, and cultural critics; it has inspired generations of popular musicians, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, and countless others. Many of the songs included in the Anthology have now become classics, as has Harry Smith’s unique “scientific/aesthetic handbook” of song notes and drawings. Reissued by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1997, this deluxe 6-CD collector’s boxed set contains a 96-page book featuring Harry Smith’s original liner notes and essays by Greil Marcus and other noted writers, musicians, and scholars.

Smith, who died in 1991, a perennially poor denizen of New York’s bohemian Chelsea Hotel, predicted that his anthology would foment social change, and he was right. By confirming dignity on work that had been marginalized as “race” (black) or “hillbilly” (Appalachian) music, the anthology laid the foundation for rock ’n’ roll and the social revolt that came with it.

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