Anthology of American Folk Music
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 6xCD
Cornerstone folk collection
The release of the famous Anthology as a CD box last year was
widely hailed as a watershed event. One Grammy award later, I finally got
around to buying the set. I suppose I had resisted in part because of the price
of a six-CD set, but more to the point was a reluctance to plod through six
sides of musty, creaky folk chestnuts. When the set arrived, there was a
palpable sense of dread as I opened the shipping carton. Inside was a red
pasteboard LP-sized box, with a simple label in a familiar, dated typeface.
Inside was a funky "handbook," crudely typeset and loaded with
misspelling and weird graphics. There was also a somber-looking thick booklet,
with the same schoolbook type. The set reminded me of the Scrabble game
Id played as a kid, orno that was it! Sixth grade music class with
Mrs. Horowitz, where we glumly sat in rows droning on about "Little Liza
So it took a bit of dedication to pop the first disk into the player. Three
short tracks later I was hooked! In addition to its unquestioned significance,
this is a work of entertainment. There are reasons why folk songs get passed
downtheyre fun, they tell compelling stories and occasionally, they
The Anthology was first released in 1952, compiled by a
twenty-nine-year-old Northwestern eccentric with the deceptively inconspicuous
name of Harry Smith. It is a carefully edited compendium of one mans view
of American folk music, drawing exclusively from commercial recordings
originally released from 1927 to 1932. Although there are recording cylinders
containing folk songs from as early as 1888, the period captured here dates
from the beginning of electronic recording to the general shutdown of the folk
music industry due to the Great Depression.
The original Anthology was released as a true album of six LPs,
along with the idiosyncratic "handbook."
What a very strange beast it is. Produced with a seemingly deliberate
cheesiness, it contains a brief, paragraph-sized graphic for each song. There
is basic information regarding the artist, original recording date and label.
For ballads, theres also an odd, often funny synopsis of the song,
written as a headline. For example, the song Mrs. Horowitz taught as "Frog
Went A-Courtin" ("King Kong Kitchie" here) is described as
"Zoologic Miscegeny Achieved in Mouse Frog Nuptuals (sic), Relatives
Approve." Similarly, the summary of Stackalee is "Theft of Stetson
Hat Causes Deadly Dispute, Victim Identifies Self As Family Man."
The Anthology had a huge impact on the emerging folk movement of
the early 1950s. If everyone that bought a Velvet Underground album formed a
band, then everyone that bought the Anthology must have recorded a
cover of at least one of its tunes. The extent of this influence is partially
documented in the accompanying modern booklet, which attempts to list some of
the covers of each song, divided into folk, rock, British, bluegrass, etc.
Its rare that a song has fewer than a dozen covers listed.
Being folk music, theres also an implied freedom to rewrite the songs
when theyre re-recorded. One example is "Down On Pennys
Farm," a light banjo blues about the misery of working on Pennys
farm. The obvious rewrite is Dylans "Maggies Farm," where
old Mr. Zimmerman declares he just aint gonna work anymore. Then
theres the Specials ska anti-Thatcher protest rewrite of Dylan. Ten years
from now, theres bound to be another evolutionary step or three.
The Anthology is divided into three double-CD volumes: Ballads,
Social Music and Songs. Volumes 4 and 5 were in the works at some point, but by
then Harry Smith had sold his collection, half to a private collector and half
to the New York Public Library. Everyone had a favorite volume, and then
favorite songs within that volume album.
Volume 1 ( Ballads) contains an amazing number of familiar tunes,
mostly twisted into unfamiliar patterns. "Stackalee," or course, has
had numerous incarnations, including a top ten hit for Lloyd Price and a
ska-like version by the Clash. "Kassie Jones" manages to wreck the
train in this volume without the benefit of a snoutful of cocaine. For
Titanic fans, theres "When That Great Ship Went
Down." For me, there are two previously unknown standouts.
The first, "Peg and Awl" by the Carolina Tar Heels, is a mournful
tune about the loss of shoe construction jobs to a newly invented machine in
the Year of 18 and 4. The tone of the singer is so distraught (the
liner notes say "pathetic") that at first I thought this was a song
of lost love Peg and All. Instead, its protest music,
crying against the onslaught of machinery, as is "John Henry," which
follows in a few tracks.
My second favorite, "Drunkards Special," is a shaggy dog tale
of a man stumbling home and discovering a series of incriminating clues of his
wife has been up to in his absence. First off, theres another mule,
"where my mule ought to be." No honey, youre too drunk,
thats a milk cow. Hmm, never seen a saddle on a milk cow. Next night,
theres another coat on the coat rack. No honey, youre too drunk,
thats a bed quilt. Hmm, never saw pockets in a bed quilt. Third night,
theres another head on the pillow, where my head ought to be. No honey,
thats a cabbage head. Funny, never saw a cap on a cabbage head. Then the
song stops cold. No resolution. Raymond Carver had nothing on these birds when
it came to succinct story telling.
Volume 2 ( Social Music) is perhaps the least accessible,
containing a lot of rather bizarre gospel music. There are two tunes by a Rev.
J.M. Gates that are particularly haunting. Its a scary, barely
comprehensible ranting chant, part reverie and part warning. Byrne and
Enos My Life in the Bush of Ghosts could have been made from
this side alone. Another highlight is Blind Willie Johnsons "John
the Revelator," with Johnsons lead vocal playing a call and response
with a frail sounding woman.
Volume 3 ( Songs) features a few more famous artists, like the
Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and John Hurt. Still, many of the
standouts are by less known performers, like Clarence Ashleys "Coo
Coo Bird" and Bascom Lunsfords "I Wish I Was A Mole."
Theres also a bit of Cajun sing-song stomp. The entire set finishes up
with one of the odder highlights, Henry Thomas singing "Fishing
Blues." Its a direct line from this pan-piped delight to "Goin
Up Country." Both are mindless, bouncy numbers that are infectiously
Besides the great fun to be had listening to this set, theres also a lot
to think about. Much of this music, although only 25 years old when
Anthology was originally released, was nearly lost for all time.
The shellac it was recorded on was coveted by the war effort, and the
government was buying record collections for 20 cents a disk. It was really the
efforts of a few dedicated collectors that kept this music alive. Imagine if we
were in danger of losing "Stairway to Heaven." Stop smiling.
I was also stunned to recognize how many of these songs I learned, in
bowdlerized form, back in grade school in the early 1960s. The album had such
an impact that within ten years its songs had been institutionalized into
The sound quality throughout this set is remarkable. The master tapes of the
original Anthology were only partly usable, and through the
resources of the Smithsonian Institution (which owns the Folkways label),
original versions of the records were scrounged up and re-recorded. Which
brings me to a final note. The Smithsonian recently announced it was shutting
down it flagship label, known for sets like Classic Jazz, but
pledged to keep Folkways in print. That is essential, and the
Smithsonians flagship label must be revived. Let your congressional
representative know how important these labels are to our cultural heritage.
Please. Bill Kuhn