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Expecting Rain

Karl Erik Andersen
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Anthology Of American Folk Music
NY Times -- August 24, 1997

Occasionally a single artifact, document or exhibition manages both to
recast the way in which artists see their tradition and to reanimate their
sense of what is possible within that tradition. Such cultural moments act
as prisms, gathering together work from different ends of a genre's
spectrum and allowing them to blend in a new way. 

One such document was Edmund Wilson's 1943 anthology "The Shock of
Recognition," which assembled two centuries of American writers talking
about one another's work. 

In the process, it illuminated the grand sweep and vigor of American

Last week, Smithsonian Folkways records re-released another such document,
the "Anthology of American Folk Music," originally issued by Folkways
Records in 1952. The brainchild of the avant-garde filmmaker, folklorist
and anthropologist Harry Smith, the anthology comprised three boxed two-LP
sets that contained 84 performances recorded between 1926 and 1933.
Included were early black blues and white country music, Cajun recordings,
hymns and sacred music, and more, thrown together under a loose framework
that almost single-handedly redefined folk music. 

In doing so, the anthology became the single most important source of
material and inspiration for many young singers in the 1950's and 60's and
the touchstone of the early-60's "folk revival." Such performers as Bob
Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and the New Lost City Ramblers, as well as
later offshoots like the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen and Jerry Garcia, owe not
just repertory and techniques but, in a real sense, a large portion of
their world view to the anthology's conflation of such seemingly different

The package appeared on the small but important Folkways label, run by
Moses Asch, who had recorded performers like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and
Pete Seeger, and thought of his label as a great aural museum. Before
issuing Harry Smith's Anthology, Folkways had released a series of
compilations of various ethnic musics as well as early jazz music. But
Smith's project was different. 

The anthology itself seemed to have a personality, much like that of its
compiler: erudite, hermetic, witty in a deadpan way. The cover of each
boxed volume was plain black cardboard, with the selections and performers
listed plainly on a label affixed to the front. Volume 1 contained ballads
(songs with a narrative content), Volume 2 was titled Social Music (dance
music and religious music) and Volume 3 was a catchall called Songs,
offering vocal selections with no real narrative aspect. 

(The six-disk reissue wisely follows the exact format and sequence of the

Each box contained a copy of a booklet written, designed and laid out by
Smith himself, an idiosyncratic compendium of discographical information,
bibliographical references and summaries of the songs, all set in various
type fonts and illustrated with photographs, advertisements from old record
catalogues and other ephemera. 

The music itself on the anthology opens a door to a world that will be just
as strange to most listeners of today as it was in 1952, and perhaps more
so. The lyrics offer a panorama of murders, religious visions, hangings,
agrarian complaints, heroic exploits, swindles, assassinations and endless
traveling. The extraordinary range of vocal sounds in which these marvels
are expressed is no less wondrous. The nasal timbre of the coal miner and
banjoist Dock Boggs on his two 1927 recordings included here, or the
rasping throat tones of the religious street singer Blind Willie Johnson,
so different from each other, both still carry the power to shock 70 years
after they were recorded. 

The vitality and variety of the music are staggering, from the country
singer Uncle Dave Macon's hollering, headlong vocal and banjo on "Down the
Old Plank Road" to the inwardness of the New Orleans songster Rabbit Brown
on his "James Alley Blues" to the pinched, wry, tall-tale quality of Kelly
Harrell's small 1927 masterpiece "My Name Is John Johanna," a song about a
laborer's disastrous trip to Arkansas in search of work. Several pieces,
like Buell Kazee's "East Virginia," have the odd-sounding modal harmonic
quality of English ballads; elsewhere one finds Anglo-Irish fiddle tunes,
Cajun dance music from Louisiana and collective ensemble gospel singing by
black and white groups that rivet you to your spot by their intensity and
commitment. Many of the performers remain obscure even to this day. ╩╩ ╩╩ 

he performances were originally recorded commercially by
companies that were trying to compete with radio in the 1920's by finding
new markets among the people of the rural South. The 78 rpm records were
often designated as "hillbilly" or "old time" (euphemisms for rural white)
and "race" (euphemism for black). What Harry Smith did that was new was to
throw these recordings together, with no regard for the commercial
categories for which they had initially been recorded. 

The booklet resolutely avoided mentioning the race or ethnicity of
performers, and many of the songs that were included cropped up in both
black and white traditions. The rationale for listening to a performance on
the anthology's terms was not that it represented the voice of a specific
ethnic group; rather, strangeness, passion and mystery, the anthology
seemed to proclaim, are universal human traits. 

It was a revolutionary message and is still so today, when so many claims
of identity are staked along ethnic lines. 

Smith's cultural Trojan horse rolled into public view at the beginning of
the Eisenhower 1950's, in the wake of World War II, as America was asking
itself in many ways, not all of them healthy, what it meant to be American.
Powerful currents of standardization were all around; anxiety about fitting
in, assimilating, returning to normalcy after the war and a residual sense
of threat from outside quickened the impulse to locate a common denominator
in behaviors and values. It was the period in which Levittown was born. 

Into these currents strode the anthology, implicitly asserting the
multifarious, the odd, the local as being somehow definitively American.
That apparent paradox appealed to those who wanted to see behind the
conformist scrim of the Eisenhower era. To them, the anthology was a sort
of palimpsest wherein they read a secret cultural history of the nation. 

Among these were the young men and women who made up the folk revival. Many
of them, like the members of the New Lost City Ramblers, a traditionalist
group, strove to recreate the original performances in as faithful a manner
as possible; others used the anthology as a trove of material to mine, and
transmute. Bob Dylan is certainly the best example of this; his earliest
performances were full of material taken from the anthology. Echoes of
lyrics from anthology songs continued to appear in Mr. Dylan's later works.
On his most recent disk, "World Gone Wrong" (1993), he performs several
tunes that appear on the anthology. 

If the anthology energized a new generation of performers it did the same
for a new generation of folklorists, mostly white and mostly male -- among
them Mike Seeger, Ralph Rinzler and Paul Clayton -- who traveled south in
hopes of finding the original performers. An amazing number of them turned
out to still be alive; the Newport Folk Festivals of the early 1960's
offered a procession of them -- Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, Mississippi
John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Buell Kazee and others -- in one of the great
reclamation projects in American cultural history. 

The re-issue of the anthology is the most significant event yet in
Smithsonian Folkways' superb reactivation of the original Folkways
catalogue, which the Smithsonian Institution acquired in 1987, after Mr.
Asch's death. Smithsonian Folkways has taken care to allude repeatedly to
the original anthology in its repackaging. 

Included is a reproduction of the original booklet as well as invaluable
supplemental notes, an expanded bibliography and references to other
recordings of the same material by other artists. 

There are essays on the anthology's effect at the time, including a
wonderfully pointed one by the folklorist Jon Pankake, as well as
reminiscences of Harry Smith, who died in 1991, by those who knew him. 

The re-issue also features a long essay by the writer Greil Marcus
excerpted from his recent book "Invisible Republic," which offers insights
into the anthology's place in American culture. Not included in the
package, but worth reading, is a chapter in Robert Cantwell's recent book
on the folk revival entitled "When We Were Good," which puts Smith's
achievement in lucid historical and cultural context. The current set's
sixth disk is an enhanced CD offering photographs, biographical material
about Smith, video footage and linkage to an Anthology Web site. 

Somehow, in the process of gathering all its voices together, the anthology
became not just a loose confederation but an integral unit, a whole made up
of the most disparate parts, like some ideal America of its own. It was a
gauntlet thrown down, in a sense, a challenge to ponder: what kind of unity
could possibly underlie this diversity? It is a question we still ask, and
the re-issue of this milestone set helps us ask it in appreciative wonder.

More info at the Smithsonian Folkways Web site.

Also at bobdylan.com.

This CD box is available from amazon.com .ca - .uk - .de.

Expecting Rain