VARIOUS Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music Volume One: Ballads (Doxy)
Originally released in 1952 as a six album set, the importance of Harry Smith's "Anthology Of American Folk Music" cannot be overstated. It was compiled from the 78rpm collection of the titular Smith, an experimental filmmaker whose selections were bookended by the years 1927, when, as he wrote, "electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Depression halted folk music sales". Preserving recordings that might otherwise have been lost to history, the songs on this set have influenced and inspired musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Lambchop, Nick Cave and Judee Sill, arguably becoming the catalyst for the folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s.
As the issuing label, Folkways, did not possess the rights to these recordings, technically the anthology was a bootleg; that soothes some of the sting of the Doxy label's current repackaging of the set as three separate coloured vinyl double albums, shorn of Smith's own artwork and liner notes that were partly responsible for the seminal status of the original. Effectively that only leaves the music; fortunately, it's sufficiently entertaining, and its influence so all-pervading, as to stand tall without the aid of documentation.
What it sounds like, then, is a shrill, sparse, witty, scratchy, distorted, compelling, chaotic proto-"Basement Tapes", fiddles and banjos, blues and country, English folk and industrial revolution laments all squashed and squeezed together to form the substance of 20th century American popular music like organic matter being crushed into oil, nursery rhyme simplicity refracted through the prism of old, weird America. There are some famous names here - The Carter Family, Furry Lewis, Charley Patton performing pseudonymously as The Masked Marvel - and there are some ensembles, such as The Bently Boys, whose identities are unknown. It's claimed that Smith sequenced the album as a historical narrative, beginning with versions of English folk songs and ending with a trio of tunes recounting the hardships suffered by Depression-era farmers - perhaps thereby establishing the concept album template ahead of the likes of Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra. Although much of what's collated here remains brilliant, even 80 years after the fact, every listener will inevitably find their own highlights. For me they are the aforementioned Bently Boys' "Down On Penny's Farm", later urbanised by Dylan as "Hard Times In New York" (and maybe also, at a stretch, as "Maggie's Farm"), Kelly Harrell and the Virginia String Band's acerbic "My Name Is John Johanna" (what passes for a big production number in this company, featuring fiddle, banjo and guitar), Coley Jones' "Drunkard's Special", a distant relative of the traditional English ballad "Our Goodman", and The Carolina Tar Heels' "Peg And Awl", lamenting the encroaching industrialisation of the shoemaker's trade.
Historically important and musically vital, Smith's anthology is a must-listen for anyone interested in where modern music came from. Unfortunately, though, there are better ways of acquiring it than Doxy's hairshirt reissues, unless, like me, you simply must own it on factory-fresh vinyl.
VARIOUS Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music Volume Two: Social Music (Doxy)
Perhaps not as riveting as the first volume of Doxy's plundering of the Harry Smith archives, a title like that might have you justifiably expecting rousing anthems celebrating the power of unions and suchlike. Instead, the "Social Music" covered is of the Saturday night and Sunday morning variety.
The first, predominately instrumental, disc explores the dance music of the late 1920s and early 1930s. You can just about determine the foot-tapping timekeeping of fiddler "Uncle Bunt" Stephens during "Sail Away Lady", and there's what sounds like square dance calling during Andrew & Jim Baxter's "Georgia Stomp". The fiddle tone might at times put more sensitive listeners in mind of a rusty nail scraping down a blackboard, but this is nevertheless grittily authentic; artifice had not yet been invented at the time these sides were recorded. "Old Country Stomp" sounds almost like the handiwork of antecedents of "The Fast Show"'s panpipe troupe but, preceding Dylan and his harmonica rack by at least 30 years, it's all the handiwork of one (man band) Henry Thomas on vocal, guitar and quills. Jim Jackson's "Old Dog Blue" is the precursor of the dead pet genre that runs through "Old Shep" all the way up to the near-present with Laura Veirs "Through December" and Joseph Falcon's "Acadian One-Step" is an unruly accordion stomp with virtuoso triangle work by an unnamed percussionist. The Breaux Freres' "Home Sweet Home" (yes, that one) is so weepy its positively soaking, and Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra's "Moonshiner's Dance, Part One", with its oompah brass, sounds like a circus on shellac; one can but imagine the kind of ribaldry that might have occurred during Part Two, sadly not preserved here.
The second disc, almost in penitence, gathers together gospel and other biblical recordings. Alabama Sacred Harp Singers display their bizarre but endearing rhythmic vocal style, and The Middle Georgia Singing Convention No. 1 exhibit their rather more sophisticated approach to harmony. It has to be said, though, that the recording technology of the time doesn't appear to have been overly flattering to unaccompanied voices, several efforts here sounding like the work of a munchkin choir. The guttural holler of Rev. Sister Mary Nelson's "Judgement" suffers no such shortcomings, however. Rev. Moses Mason performs "John The Baptist" from behind a torrent of surface noise, rendering the booming clarity of Bascom Lamar Lansford's "Dry Bones", which follows it, even more shocking, especially considering they were recorded only a month apart in early 1928. The album closes with two of its most lavish productions: Rev F.W. McGee's "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" is a rousing singalong and Rev D.C. Rice and His Sanctified Congregation's "I'm In The Battlefield For My Lord" borders on ragtime, instrumented by piano, trumpet, trombone, bass, drums and of course that all-important triangle, a shining beacon in the murk of these archaic recordings.