Uncertain, unfair and bloodthirsty

Mystic and record collector Harry Smith knew life was cruel, yet his folk "Anthology" promised a way to "see America changed by music."

Published June 14, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Various Artists, edited by Harry Smith
"Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4"

Andy Battaglia: Digging into Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music" means grappling with the shadowy realms of alchemy and black magic. If mindful folk music collided with mindless rock 'n' roll to form a sort of perfect storm in the '60s, then Smith was without a doubt the mystic rainmaker. When his original three-volume "Anthology" was released in 1952 it gave the folk scene a swift kick in the jeans by exposing strumming idealists to what Greil Marcus called the "old, weird America." From the collection of rural shakedowns, murder ballads and possessed hymns of the '20s and '30s came Bob Dylan, who tired of folk's insularity and traveled rockward to move the people, change the world, etc.

Back then, Smith said that there would be forthcoming volumes of the "Anthology." He never made good on his promise during his lifetime, but thanks to the active Harry Smith Archives and folk hero John Fahey's Revenant label, we now get to hear the songs he picked for "Volume 4." The meat of the new volume is similar to the first three -- old scratchy recordings pulled from 78s released between 1928 and 1940. But this volume also comes at an interesting time, following the Smithsonian Folkways CD reissue of the original set two years ago. Judging by the '90s swell of alt-country, or Moby sampling field hollers on "Play," or indie rockers discussing favorite Appalachian banjo players, the fallout after an explosion that happened 50 years ago has left some hot spots even today.

At the same time, listening to "Memphis Shakedown," which opens "Volume 4," it's hard to figure out why music ever evolved beyond jug bands. The sound of some guy blowing and humming into an empty jug backed by a bunch of guys in a hillbilly-boogie group may say just about all anyone needs to know about music's ability to move the soul. Of course, music has changed a bit since the song was recorded in 1934. And though I'm (sort of) kidding about the jug band thing, it's hard to conceive of that history without the songs Smith handpicked to "see America changed by music."

Rennie Sparks: The thing about the original "Anthology" that stunned '50s folkies and '90s alt-hipsters alike was its ability to transport us into a distant and seemingly unobtainable past, and to show us how little things have changed since then. What a comfort it was to listen to morbid songs like "Ommie Wise" by G.B. Grayson or "Fatal Flower Garden" by Nelstone's Hawaiians and see that life has always been uncertain, unfair and bloodthirsty. The recordings themselves were not all that ancient (most were from the '20s and '30s), but many of them were modern American mutations of ancient European hymns and ballads. The "Anthology" revealed a path of music leading back through time and across the world. It was this heartfelt connection to the distant past and the not-so-distant past that caused many people, myself included, to talk about before and after when speaking of the original "Anthology." Listening to it felt like waking up from a long sleep. It reminded me that music could be so much more than just background for a barn-dance reel or barroom brawl -- that music could teach, console and mourn the unchanging tragedy that we are all born to die.

So I don't think I'm alone in admitting that my hands shook when I heard there was a fourth volume. But sadly, I found no new revelations in this latest release. Of course it's a fine record. Smith, collector of found paper airplanes and arcane Native American dances, who once asked Sara Carter how her quilt patterns connected to the songs she sang, was always meticulous and visionary to the extreme. But this fourth anthology is far too familiar to my ears. Household names like the Carter Family, Leadbelly and Robert Johnson are here and more than once are represented by songs I've already heard elsewhere. Here are Black Jack David, John Henry and that old 9-pound hammer as well. Even the Carter Family's "No Depression in Heaven," which, via Uncle Tupelo, gave name to an entire musical movement, is included -- certainly no hidden treasure anymore.

Beyond ringers like the Carters, the Monroe Brothers and Blue Sky Boys, there is the quiet rage of Bukka White's "Parchman Farm Blues" and the nihilistic spiritualism of the Heavenly Gospel Singers' "Mean Old World." But ever since the first "Anthology" showed me how Ice Cube and Nick Cave connect to "Stackalee" and "The Butcher Boy," it takes far more than another jug band to make my heart skip a beat.

Battaglia: I agree that expecting infinite rewards from a finite history is problematic. So did Smith, who told interviewer John Cohen that he didn't "think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records -- it's better to switch on the radio." But that said, it's interesting how these songs bend and fold according to Smith's designs. Standing on its own, Blue Sky Boys' "Down on the Banks of the Ohio" is a creepy, cold story about a man murdering a girl because she refused to marry him. "I drew my knife across her throat, and to my breast she gently pressed," he sings. Then he mocks her response: "Oh please oh please, don't murder me, for I'm unprepared to die, you see." His voice sounds completely devoid of emotion. But after listening to the next song, the Arthur Smith Trio's shattering "Adieu, False Heart," I heard a distant sense of regret in the Blue Sky Boys that seemed to be missing the first time. The two songs are beautiful in their own right, but the way Smith leaned them against each other makes them resonate all the more. And I think the fact that we continue to be fascinated with all these artists owes a good bit to the endlessly navigable maps Smith drew so purposefully. After all, who was Smith if not a proto-DJ dropping a dope-ass mix collection?

Sparks: I may be the last one on earth who thinks songwriters should be paid more than DJs, but I can't help wishing there were more "songs" on this record, more material that gleams on its own merits without the help of evocative segues. The most puzzling and fresh song to my ears is "Dog and Gun (An Old English Ballad)" by Bradley Kincaid, in which a lady spying a cute farmer takes merrily after him with her dog and gun. Contrary to standard folk form, she isn't tossed in the river or buried alive; she happily weds the handsome hunk. Ultimately, though, if you know that a washboard doesn't have to be used to scrub socks you might pass on this record. A top-shelf folk collection it ain't, but it is certainly a fine starter set. Smith himself agreed; he told Cohen he felt that "great social changes would result from" the original "Anthology." But of the fourth and further installments, he said, "The real reason that it didn't come out was that I didn't have sufficient interest in it." Smith's job was done, with the folk revival in full swing. He moved on to hand-painting greeting cards with occult symbols and collecting Seminole Indian tapestry.

Which brings me to the real reason to have a look at this "Anthology" -- the accompanying essays, especially the reminiscences by the Fugs' Ed Sanders and John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, who both knew Smith personally and who beautifully conjure up Smith the obsessive-compulsive, the beatnik, the necromancer. Read how a fifth-grade Smith attempted to create his own written language to record the dance steps of Swinomish Indians, how he later meditated in a covered bathtub and took peyote within sight of Sara Carter's driveway, how he obsessively collected hand-painted Ukrainian Easter eggs and spent several hundred hours recording ambient sounds of Manhattan, even how he was surrounded by hacking coughs in a homeless shelter he was forced to briefly call home. Too bad, though, that he never wrote his own liner notes to "Volume 4." They surely would have been wonderful and wise in ways that only a cabalistic, wino folkie like Smith could muster.

Battaglia: Smith was a real metaphysician, no doubt. And it's fascinating how all his different obsessions and collecting habits worked together. The quilts, eggs, paper airplanes and records were all just singular words in a hidden language that he translated into elusive but intuitively clear terms. I'm thinking of this after trying in vain to type out the lyrics to Leadbelly's "Packin' Trunk." Most of it is a mess of slobbered words, but I don't think anybody has to strain too hard to feel what he's singing about. The same goes for Smith's own aims. The "Anthology" was created as a near-scientific experiment to exact change through alchemy and Enochian magic. Now, I'm not exactly boned up on obscure 16th century mystical texts, but I still can't help feeling Smith's magic fingers at work when I listen to this stuff. There are two great articles about Smith in British music magazine the Wire this month, and I can't think of a better way to articulate this than a line written by Philip Smith: "It continues to elude empirical study, being above all an experiential science." He was writing about the cabala, but the same goes for Smith and his "Anthology" -- and come to think of it, music too.

Sparks: Yes! Yes! And Smith was probably one of the first people to see folk music as worthy of serious study, to see that folk could be as complicated and chaotic as jazz (kudos again to the Memphis Jug Band!) or as rigid and ritualistic as a Native American rain dance. (Listen to a few murder ballads and you'll see that in "Banks of the Ohio" the girl must say "I'm unprepared to die" before any throat-slitting can begin.) What frustrates me is that folk, like country, has in recent years become somewhat of a dirty word. Many people still think of folk as a music with a very obvious agenda, i.e., political protest, singalongs for kids, etc. But "Rock-a-Bye Baby" has always been about a baby falling out of a tree -- even if somewhere along the way a lot of people stopped listening to the words. Harry Smith never did.

By Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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By Rennie Sparks

Rennie Sparks is a regular contributor to Salon.

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