Graham Reid | | 2 min read
In 1952, the 29-year old Harry Smith -- an archivist and film-maker whose innovative work bears comparison with the genius of Elsewhere favourite Norman McLaren -- selected 84 songs from his collection of thousands of fragile 78rpm discs and -- through Moses Asch of Folkways Records -- released them as three double albums on the then-new LP format.
Those albums -- of folk, blues, gospel and hillbilly America -- became The Anthology of American Folk Music, and are a legendary cornerstone in popular music.
The songs were subsequently sung and recorded by hundreds of artists in the folk boom of the late 50s and early 60s, provided the template for Bob Dylan (who recorded a number of them as late as the early 90s), and in 97 they were reissued on a six CD box set which has sold over half a million copies.
A six CD set selling 500,000? That’s star-status.
These astonishing songs -- mostly by people who had never heard themselves sing so they just opened their mouths and delivered -- were chosen by Smith for their eccentricity, rawness, emotional depth, odd lyrics and distinctive voices. They tell of death, murder, rural life, a vanished America, and dark myth.
Inspired by the CD reissue arranger Hal Willner pulled together a diverse selection of artists (Dylan notably absent) and staged a series of concerts to celebrate the life and work of Smith (who was also a film-maker in the Norman McLaren/Len Lye manner of hand painting each frame, see video below).
This four-disc box set of that Willner project -- two CDs, a DVD concert film, and a doco DVD about Smith who died in 91 -- has the customary failings of such a concept in that not every artist seems matched to the material, like Lou Reed’s See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (a track only elevated by his grimy guitar work).
Elsewhere Elvis Costello’s vibrato on The Butcher’s Boy and Marianne Faithfull on Spike Driver Blues will be down to personal taste.
But among the best are David Johansen once of the New York Dolls reinvented as a tobacco-cured, growling bluesman on Old Dog Blue, Beck persuasive on Last Fair Deal Gone Down, Wilco’s heartfelt James Alley Blues, Sonic Youth and avant-jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd grabbing Dry Bones by the throat, and David Thomas of Pere Ubu murdering Fishing Blues in his inimitable style.
Fans of A Mighty Wind will be pleased to know the Folksmen are here too.
And Phillip Glass, Mocean Worker and DJ Spooky provide sympathetic soundtracks for the three short Smith films on the DVD.
With an informative booklet which outlines the on-going impact of these songs -- heard recently on albums by Kelly Joe Phelps, Shawn Colvin, the Duhks, the Kills, and Lambchop -- this project will doubtless bring further attention to this important and malleable body of work.
And also to the eccentric and scholarly Smith who once said, “My dream came true, I saw American music change through music”.