Listen to Some American Folk Music Today

HarrySmith.jpg…to celebrate the birthday of Harry Smith.

Harry was known as a filmmaker, a visual artist and, at least to some, “the greatest living magician”. I first learned about him as a record-collector and producer of The Anthology of American Folk Music. The Anthology was a compilation of American music released on 78s between 1927 and 1932 that Harry had collected from old barns, dusty attics and flea markets.

Smith’s compilation had a powerful influence on American music in the late ’50s and early ’60s, first helping to fuel a resurgence of folk music and then helping to shape pop music. Bob Dylan is said to have “borrowed” a friend’s copy of the Anthology when he was living in Dinkytown.

So listen to Clarence Ashley do “The Coo Coo Bird”, Furry Lewis do “Kassie Jones”, Bascom Lunsford do “I Wish I Was a Mole”, Blind Lemon Jefferson do “Rabbit Foot Blues”, Breaux Freres do “Home Sweet Home”, or Uncle Dave Macon do “Roll Down the Line”…

…and appreciate the results of Harry Smith’s somewhat peculiar but perhaps brilliant efforts.

4 thoughts on “Listen to Some American Folk Music Today”

  1. My mother gave me a set of cassettes of the Harry Smith collection about 10 years ago. I was unimpressed, because I’d already heard lots of music from most of the musicians involved. But at the time it was assembled, these artists represented the great unknown background of Am. Folk being exposed to a broader audience, so it was indeed ground breaking.
    I just don’t care much for compilations–I’d rather listen to a whole album of Uncle Dave Macon songs than a sprinkling of him in a compilation, even though admittedly the albums are compilations of original 2 sided 78s…
    Compilations are mostly good for newbies…

  2. About seven or eight years ago I went into a giant kick and spent paycheck after paycheck on music from the 20s and 30s. Although I never did purchase the Harry Smith collection or the numerous Alan Lomax collections out there, the legendary status of the these collections are cemented forever. In the late 50s, early 60s rock N’ Roll had gone stagnant and saccharine and the British invasion was a few years away. Thus in the late 50s/early 60s bastardized folk and old-timey music and its real influences were very prevelent in mainstream and (of course) hootenanny culture. Today one can look up the labels of Folkways/Smithsonian, Shanachie (Yazoo), County, and others (like Bear, Proper, and the occasional major label box set or comp) and find a goldmine of material. Some of these labels offer vinyl, but most can be found on CD, and probably as a digital download (an odd thought). It is this revival of the 50s and 60s that we can thank for keeping much of the material from the 20s and 30s still on the radar. Harry Smith’s anthology is a major reason for this and served as the Bible of the resurgent folk and blues scene. A big RIP to No Depression magazine, the only music magazine worth a damn.
    FYI – I believe it was avant-garde weirdo and filmmaker Kenneth Anger that called Smith the greatest magician, which if I am correct, was quite an endorsement

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