In 1951, the record collector Harry Smith met with Moe Asch, a co-founder of Folkways Records, to see if Asch would buy all or part of his collection. Smith, who was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1923, and died in 1991, was an eccentric polymath. He painted, made experimental films, practiced occult alchemy (he was ordained in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, a spiritual group affiliated with the magician and self-appointed prophet Aleister Crowley), and believed that the careful accumulation and ordering of things could bring about new knowledge. “All my projects are only attempts to build up a series of objects that allow some sort of generalizations to be made,” he said, in 1968. Smith collected all sorts of stuff: paper airplanes, Ukrainian Easter eggs, figures he made by looping or weaving lengths of string, anything shaped like a hamburger, and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of 78-r.p.m. records, ten-inch platters introduced around the beginning of the twentieth century that contain about three minutes of music on each side. The first 78 Smith bought was by the Mississippi-born blues guitarist Tommy McClennan. “It sounded strange—and I looked for others,” he said.
Like many serious collectors of arcane but precious objects, Smith could be irascible, mean, and single-minded to the point of psychopathy. There are stories of his thieving, particularly when he believed that an item would be better off in his care. He never married, drank to unconsciousness, went absolutely nuts if anyone talked while he was playing a record, and, according to his friend Allen Ginsberg, kept “several years’ deposits of his semen” in the back of his freezer for “alchemical purposes.”
In addition to buying records from Smith, Asch tasked him with compiling “The Anthology of American Folk Music,” a six-LP compendium of vernacular songs recorded in the United States between 1926 and 1934. In an interview with the magazine Sing Out!, from 1972, Asch said that Smith “understood the content of the records. He knew their relationship to folk music, their relationship to English Literature, and their relationship to the world.” Smith’s “Anthology” was derived from his personal collection, and made up of eighty-four tracks, broken into three groups: social music, ballads, and songs. Within those categories, Smith relished the juxtaposition of regional styles. A single LP might contain an Acadian one-step, a Delta blues, a lonesome Appalachian ballad, and a Sacred Harp hymn. Each of the three sleeves was printed in a different color and featured a drawing of a celestial monochord—a single-stringed dulcimer, tuned by the hand of God—taken from “De Musica Mundana,” a book by the Elizabethan alchemist Robert Fludd, from 1618.
“The Anthology of American Folk Music” is probably the most significant example of how a particular collector’s preferences can guide (if not dictate) a historical canon. Obscure records tend to survive only when there are collectors willing to seek out and preserve them. Most early recording masters were either destroyed or melted down for reuse, so the pressed and sold records became the only material evidence of these performances. If a record is lost to time or circumstance—78s are made from a shellac compound that is brittle and shatters easily—the performance is effectively erased.
It makes many people anxious that record collectors have come to be the default custodians of this music. (The question of who owns the music, and how the descendants of the performers should be compensated if a reissue generates revenue, is also complicated. Many of these songs are variations on traditional compositions with no single author, and many rural musicians signed their rights over to the recording company or to the record executive who recruited them.) Yet Smith’s singular vision for the “Anthology”—his particular and irregular cosmology—is part of what makes it such a fascinating artifact.
The set ultimately became one of the central texts of the folk revival, guiding artists including Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. “I’d match the ‘Anthology’ up against any other single compendium of important information ever assembled,” the guitarist John Fahey once wrote. Despite its title, the “Anthology” is not comprehensive. It did not contain any music from Native Americans or recent European immigrants, and there are no Spanish-language songs, although they were popular along the southern border. Some folklorists and musicologists found the “Anthology” inherently faulty, because Smith used commercial recordings, and it was believed that only field recordings could represent authentic folk music. Yet the songs on the “Anthology” still work as a dizzying catalogue of human experience. Love, lust, rage, determination, malice, envy, heartache, exhaustion, joy—it’s hard to think of a feeling that is not represented here. Sixty-eight years on, the “Anthology” remains powerful evidence of the depth and fury of early American folk songs.
Serious fans of the set tend to discuss it in ecstatic terms. I’ve often cited it as foundational in the development of my own taste—a work that unlocks other works. Once, in a strange fury of obsession, I spent several months on the lower level of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, trying to track down Smith’s own 78s, some of which he had sold to the library before he died. Smith believed that objects have power; I thought there might be something to learn from holding those records in my hands. I came up short, in the end—they may have been pilfered from the archives, or simply been mixed in with the general collection.
During the 1991 Grammys telecast, the Recording Academy gave Smith a Chairman’s Merit Award, for his “ongoing insight into the relationship between artistry and society, and his deep commitment to presenting folk music as a vehicle for social change.” At the time, Smith was working as the “shaman-in-residence” at Naropa University, in Colorado. In a video of his short acceptance speech, his scraggly gray hair is gathered into a ponytail. He seems vaguely amused but happy. “My dreams came true,” Smith says. “I saw America changed through music.”
This fall, the “Anthology” is being revisited twice. Dust-to-Digital, an Atlanta-based label that specializes in the meticulous resuscitation and repackaging of historical recordings, is releasing “The Harry Smith B-Sides,” a boxed set containing the flip sides of every 78 Smith used for the “Anthology.” In addition, the Harry Smith Archives is rereleasing two films, both from 2006: “The Old, Weird America,” a documentary about the legacy of Smith’s work, and “The Harry Smith Project Live,” which includes highlights from five tribute concerts, featuring artists such as Beck, Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, all playing songs from the “Anthology.”
In a filmed introduction to “The Harry Smith Project Live,” the producer and curator Hal Willner, who died earlier this year of complications from covid-19, describes the five shows as “happenings,” an allusion to Fluxus and other avant-garde art movements that emphasized process above all else. Willner is sitting in a recording studio, holding a battered banjo and a marionette. “I’m sure you’ll love some of it, I’m sure you’ll hate some of it,” he says. “But you’ll be a different person once this is over.” One of my favorite appearances is by Lou Reed, who covers “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” a blues song recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1928. Many country-blues songs already have a mesmeric, almost ghostly quality; Reed adds dissonance and drone, turning the song into a meandering dirge. The performance lasts for more than seven minutes, growing deeper and more hypnotic as it goes on. By the time Reed arrives at Jefferson’s fifth verse—“Have you ever heard a coffin sound?”—I start to feel as if my own soul has departed my body. The release also contains a minute or so of footage of Smith, speaking on an enormous portable phone and declaring, in a nasal lilt, a kind of mission statement: “Perfection may be perfect, but to hell with it.”
“The Harry Smith B-Sides,” which was produced by Eli Smith, Lance Ledbetter, April Ledbetter, and John Cohen, was first conceived of by the collector Robert Nobley, who was known for his ability to revive cracked 78s with, as Lance Ledbetter writes in the set’s introduction, “nothing more than a tube of model airplane glue and a toothpick.” In 2004, Nobley self-released, on CD-R, two compilations of some of the B-sides from the “Anthology,” titled “Anthology of American Folk Music, Other Sides Vol. 1 and 2,” and sold them via mail order. Ledbetter was intrigued. “If the featured recordings are so remarkable, there’s an excellent chance that the song on the other side by the same artist probably isn’t half bad,” he writes.
Nobley died in 2005; in 2013, Eli Smith and Cohen got in touch with Ledbetter, the founder of Dust-to-Digital, about issuing a more complete version of the project. It took them several years to secure permissions from copyright holders, and even now the music can exist only on compact disk and vinyl—the licenses do not allow for streaming or downloads. In June, the producers chose to omit three tracks, because they use racist language. The set was already finished, and the decision required the remanufacturing of three of the four disks. “In our seventeen-year history, we have never published tracks with racist lyrics,” April Ledbetter, a co-director of Dust-to-Digital, told me. “Our intent to adhere to the concept for the project is what led to the recordings being included in the first place. I am thankful that we had the time to realize what a mistake that would have been, and the ability to do something about it.”
In a way, “The Harry Smith B-Sides” is a thought experiment. The “Anthology” is potent mostly because of Smith’s vision—his taste, his aesthetic, his fussy sequencing—which makes a mirror-image compilation of the sides he rejected a novelty of sorts. But I have found it to be just as moving, haunting, and profound as the original. In some cases, the producers were able to acquire cleaner source copies, resulting in especially rich audio. Smith chose Henry Thomas’s “Old Country Stomp” for the “Anthology,” but its flip side, “Bull Doze Blues,” is uncommonly beautiful—lonesome and giddy at the same time. Lance Ledbetter described it to me as “one of the very finest recordings ever made.” Most 78s exist in varying stages of degradation, but when a clean copy is properly engineered and transferred there’s something uncanny about how intimate it feels. I’ve never heard Thomas—who recorded twenty-four songs between 1927 and 1929, and who probably died in 1930—sound quite so close.
Some selections have changed the way I think about the original side. Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s rendition of the folk song “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” is one of the most confounding and fascinating tracks on the “Anthology.” Its narrator expresses a deep desire to be turned into a mole, or maybe a lizard. “He wants to be delivered from his life and to be changed into a creature insignificant and despised,” the critic Greil Marcus wrote, in “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century.” “He wants to see nothing and to be seen by no one. He wants to destroy the world and to survive it.” The record’s flip side, “Mountain Dew,” is an earnest appreciation of bootleg liquor. Lunsford—who was born in Mars Hill, North Carolina, in 1882, and performed in formal dress to combat stereotypes about Appalachia—also worked as a lawyer, and during Prohibition he frequently defended moonshiners. “They call it that old mountain dew, and those who refuse it are few,” Lunsford sings, strumming a banjo. There’s a narrative consonance between the two sides of the record—a hungering for oblivion. Smith loved these simple points of communion. He believed in interconnectedness—that every piece of art contains every piece of art.
Over the years, critics have famously described Smith’s collection as “old” and “weird,” which is not exactly inaccurate. Yet many of the performers included on the “Anthology” (Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs, the Carter Family) were still alive and working when it was released, and, although some of the tracks may initially be inscrutable to modern ears (the lyrics can be idiomatic, the recording technology imprecise), they open up over time. There’s a lot of bleating, croaking, hollering, screeching, and moaning, which might goad a new listener into reëxamining her notions of what constitutes professional singing. As Eli Smith writes, these performers “by necessity had a very different relationship to nature, family, work, play, food, consumerism, money, et cetera. . . . It does not feel alienated.” He goes on to describe the set as “an esoteric beacon, broadcasting outside of our dysfunctional culture system.”
The liner notes for the “Anthology,” written by Harry Smith, included punchy, all-caps summaries of each track’s narrative arc, presented as newspaper headlines. The notes can be as indecipherable and compelling as the songs themselves. For “The Harry Smith B-Sides,” the producers enlisted a crew of musicians and writers (including me) to compose similar notes. The set also includes an essay by Cohen, a folklorist, photographer, filmmaker, and member of the New Lost City Ramblers, who died of cancer in September, 2019. Cohen first met Harry Smith in 1962, at New York’s Folklore Center. In a conversation at the Chelsea Hotel, in 1968, Smith told Cohen, “I intuitively decided I wanted to collect records. After that had been determined, what was then decided to be good or bad was based on a comparison of that record to other records.” How many 78s did Smith listen to before he chose the eighty-four songs that make up the “Anthology”? Based on the enduring resonance of the collection—the way these songs, played in this order, still seem able to rearrange a person’s entire world view—one gets the sense that it was probably a lot.
Afew years before Moe Asch’s death, he asked the Smithsonian Institution if it might be interested in acquiring the Folkways catalogue. Asch’s best and most audacious requirement was that all of the label’s more than two thousand releases—which range from seminal albums by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly to a recording of insects chewing, walking, and flying—remain in print indefinitely. The Smithsonian agreed, and, in 1987, the Folkways archive became part of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, in Washington, D.C.
The “Anthology” was first released on compact disk in 1997. Prior to that, a person could mail a check to the Folkways office and request that an archivist transfer it to CD or cassette. Or one could attempt to hunt down the original LPs in used-record shops or at flea markets. The set’s rarity somehow felt congruous with its self-styled mythology. It was talismanic; you had to put in some work before you got to hear it. When I finally got my hands on a copy, in the late nineties, I found that listening to it was a metaphysical experience, insofar as it seemed to bend the rules of space and time. Discovering new music often feels like that—it’s as if you have come upon a secret room in a house that you have occupied for years.
Because the “Anthology” was literally encased in an occult symbol—the single string of the celestial monochord is meant to connect Heaven and earth—it seemed possible that others might feel the otherworldly trance I often fell into while listening to the collection. Maybe Smith was giving us permission to be rhapsodic about the experience—to finally submit to what Ginsberg once called “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo.” To accept music as magic.----->>>>