Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Like Mystical Gods

In 1952 the long-playing album was still a very new concept, one that a young discographer, artist and historian named Harry Smith decided he could usefully exploit. He convinced Moses Asch, the owner of the Folkways label, to allow him to compile an Anthology Of American Folk Music; it eventually ran to 84 songs concentrated onto 6 LPs. For many listeners, in the 50s and ever since, this set represented the Holy Grail of America’s musical heritage. It contains many of the best of the pre-war Blues artists, as well as Country, hillbilly music, old-time songs and sermons. Carefully annotated by Harry Smith, the Anthology became the first step on a journey of discovery for historians of early music.

The Anthology introduced the American public at large to men like Dick Justice, a white coalminer from West Virginia, who had come under the influence of the Blues, as well as better known performers like the Carter Family and the Rev. J.M. Gates. Amongst the Blues artists it included were Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell, the Memphis Jug Band, Henry Thomas, Charley Patton (listed on the record as The Masked Marvel; Smith was unaware that it was really Patton), Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. In its own way this set is as important as the work undertaken by the more famous Lomaxes. At a time when America was at the dawning of the modern, consumer-driven age, Harry Smith put down a marker as to the value of the nations musical heritage.

The Anthology became a passport to a lost world of rare and unusual recordings. It helped some listeners to rediscover pre-war Blues and was one of the major influences on the birth of the 60s Folk Blues revival. John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers said that the Anthology introduced him and many others to performers “ who became like mystical Gods to us”. Folksinger Dave Van Ronk said the anthology became “our Bible”; “we all knew the words to every song on it, even the ones we hated.”

In 2000 The Anthology of American Folk Music was reissued on a boxed set of 3 double CDs by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Every (American) home should have one. It's culture in a box.

You can buy it HERE


Erin O'Brien said...

Please don't tell anyone that I had to come to Britain to learn about this.

It's on order. Can't wait. Thanks.

Richard Havers said...

I won't, as long don't tell anyone that I was a bit busy today and I recycled this out of an old book I'd written a few years ago.

Actually I shouldn't really apologise as this is truly one of the most remarkable collections of America's heritage. Every school should use this to teach musical history in America - it's that important