A set of recordings called Anthology of American Folk Music appeared in 1952 and caused a sensation in the popular music world. It became one of the roots of a revolutionary new style of music, rock, and also helped pave the way for the Civil Rights movement. Harry Smith (1923-1991), a beatnik film maker and record collector, assembled it. Surely no one except perhaps Smith himself could have imagined that this eccentric young man would exert such a powerful influence.
By the time he moved to New York in 1950, Harry Smith (1923-1991), a beatnik film maker and record collector, had amassed thousands of recordings of folk music. Most record collectors of his generation gravitated either to classical music or jazz. Smith loved jazz, but with so many others also collecting it, he turned his attention elsewhere. A California hippie long before the hippie movement really got going, he preferred to collect music of marginalized people everyone else ignored, what the record industry called "hillbilly" and "race" records. Smith also despised both terms and the rigid separation of races that led to them as much as he appreciated the music and the people who performed it.
After five semesters as an anthropology student at the University of Washington, Smith paid a weekend visit to Berkeley, California in 1943, where he attended a Woody Guthrie concert and encountered San Francisco's artistic and intellectual community and marijuana. He dropped out of college, moved to California, and began painting, making experimental films, and collecting records. He immediately acquired an excellent reputation as a filmmaker.
In his creative endeavors, Smith was naturally heavily influenced by developments in abstract painting. A Museum of Non-Objective Painting (since renamed the Guggenheim Museum) had opened in New York, and its director arranged for Smith to receive a Solomon Guggenheim grant in 1950. At least partly for that reason, he moved to New York permanently. When he found himself short of money, he tried to sell his record collection to Moses Asch, owner of Folkways Records.
It was a natural fit. Asch, too, cared about music at the margins. Unlike most record executives, he had no interest in chasing the next pop star or best seller. He had a vision to collect nothing less than encyclopedia of sound. By his death in 1986, he had issued more than 2000 albums. These included music from all over the world(including Javanese gamelan music and African leaf orchestras), the spoken word from all over the world (including but hardly limited to political speeches), natural sounds (a wide variety of animal sounds, sounds of wind and water, and even sounds from outer space), and man made sounds (machines, traffic noises, computers, etc.)
Instead of buying Smith's collection, Asch challenged him to select music for an anthology. He issued the resulting Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 as three volumes of two LPs each. Although Folkways had already issued plenty of folk music (including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lucinda Williams) blues (including Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Elizabeth Cotton), and bluegrass (including Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens), Smith offered up something much different.
True to his countercultural instincts, Smith sought to destroy the rigid separation of races that had prevailed in America up to that time. To do so, he chose music that demonstrated black and white musicians as they influenced each other. As a result, his selections presented a stranger and more exciting view of folk music than anyone had brought to the public before.
The order Smith chose for each volume makes intuitive sense, but gives no more heed to chronology or geography than it does to maintaining racial distinctions. Songs in the first volume are all ballads, many imported from England or Scotland and many more concerned with current events like the assassination of President McKinley, the sinking of the Titanic, or strictly local stories and tragedies. Instead of thematic connections, the second volume features musical ones as country dances and African American spirituals following each other in a way that makes each song take up a phrase or other musical idea from the one before. The third volume betrays no sense of structure at all, moving nihilistically and exuberantly from one kind of music to another.
The names of the performers Smith chose would mean little to most listeners today, but the release of the Anthology of American Folk Music generated tremendous excitement when it first appeared. It directly inspired the folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s. Singers who performed and recorded music from the anthology constitute a who's who of post-war folk singers, including the Weavers, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan.
Smith's notes and foreword demonstrate both his eccentricity and scholarship. For each selection, he carefully recorded the name of the piece, the performer(s), the year of recording, and the original record label and catalog number. Then he wrote an explanatory note, which began with something like a newspaper headline. Sometimes he also added some kind of whimsical drawing. Here is one of the shorter notes, to "Frankie" as by recorded by Mississippi John Hurt:
"ALBERT DIES PREFERRING ALICE FRY, BUT JUDGE FINDS FRANKIE CHARMING AT LATTER'S TRIAL
Allen Britt shot Frankie Baker of 212 Targee Street, St. Louis, Missouri, October 25, 1899. this song was first sung by and probably written by, "Mammy Lou," a singer at Babe Conner's famous cabaret in that city."
The foreword briefly traces the history of sound recording in general and recording folk music in particular. Important recordings of folk music appeared on cylinders, the earliest format for commercial recordings. In 1888, the perfection of recording on less expensive discs enabled companies to expand the market to less affluent people than before, and still more folk recordings appeared. But only with the advent of electronic recording techniques in 1927 could sound be reproduced accurately enough for Smith to consider performances for inclusion in the Anthology of American Folk Music. The Great Depression put an end to folk music sales in 1932, so the entire contents of the anthology first appeared between those dates.
Although companies had issued folk music recordings in the late nineteenth century, Smith did not consider the modern era of folk music recording to begin until after the First World War. Ralph Peer of Okeh records went to Atlanta with portable recording equipment and a record dealer asked him to record "Fiddling John Carson," a circus barker. The dealer promised to buy a thousand copies, so Peer recorded two songs. The New Yorker thought they were so bad that no one but that one dealer would ever be interested. Okeh Records didn't even assign a serial number to the disc.
Much to Peer's surprise, the dealer called the very day the first thousand copies arrived and asked for another 15,000. National sales hit half a million copies, and Okeh Records decided there must be a market to exploit. Peer noted that the label already had German records, Polish records, Swedish records and other foreign records in its catalog but was afraid to advertise Negro records. Therefore he invented the "unpleasant terms" (in Smith's words) race records and hillbilly records. These became the industry's standard terms until after the Second World War.
Smith had wanted to sell his collection to Asch just to get some money. When he wound up editing an anthology instead, his avowed goal was to alter America's consciousness. The resulting folk music revival, and especially the political leanings of its leading exponents, helped set the stage for the Civil Rights movement.
It was also an important ingredient in the emergence of rock music. From the late nineteenth century and into the 1960s, a handful of song writers headquartered in New York City and collectively known as Tin Pan Alley had supplied the popular songs for the entire nation. That Peer had to invent the terms "race records" and "hillbilly records" amply demonstrates that outside of American cities and towns, not everyone was satisfied with or even interested in the urban sophistication of Tin Pan Alley.
After a short struggle, rock music completely supplanted Tin Pan Alley as the driving force in American popular music. Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music had a hand in turning both America's race relations and its popular music on their heads. Not a bad achievement for an eccentric drifter with a drug and drinking problem who eventually died penniless.
- Alex Abramovich's review of the Smithsonian's rerelease of the Anthology of American Folk Music
- Harry Smith Archives
- Smith's foreword and some of his annotations can be found in Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 502-05.
- For video clips of music from the anthology, see Michael Johnson, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music