Where the weird things are

Harry Smith, photographed by his friend Allen Ginsberg in 1987

Time travel was simple in 1952: you bought, borrowed or stole a copy of the Anthology of American Folk Music and put the needle on the record. This three-volume, six-album compilation – edited by Harry Smith, a beatnik and sui generis anthropologist of no fixed abode – was a passport to what the writer Greil Marcus would later describe as “the old, weird America”, a hinterland of songs in traditional styles that lay beyond both the nascent pop charts and the college kids beginning to strum “Kumbaya”.

Sixty years on, the UK’s University of East Anglia is devoting an open conference, held at its London campus, to a collection that Newsweek magazine once hailed as “the missing link in rock’s official history”. Anthology’s influence on artists from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Gillian Welch has become a truism of pop scholarship – at least after its 1997 reissue on CD. But was its impact as crucial as all that? And how easy was it to buy when it first came out?

Neither answer is straightforward. Anthology was the YouTube of its day. It took a box-fresh technology – the LP format, launched in 1948 – and filled it with 84 tracks “ripped”, in 21st-century parlance, from forgotten 78rpm releases. They featured blues singers and jug bands, fiddlers and banjo players, the gospel-hollering Reverend JM Gates and even a bunch called Nelstone’s Hawaiians.

One of the original vinyl junkies, Smith was deliberate in making his selection from the period 1927-1932. Quite why this material went unremembered, or seemed so antiquated, barely three decades after it was on sale is hinted at by Smith’s liner notes: if 1927 was when “electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction”, the Depression year of 1932 was when the bottom fell out of the “hillbilly” and “race” markets, the politically incorrect terms for the forerunners of country and rhythm and blues. Many of these 78s just never got heard by urban ears. Smith wanted Anthology to capture echoes of an age before contemporary new media – “phonograph, radio and talking pictures” – started to “integrate local types” and consumer culture emerged.

Uncle Dave Macon

“The attention to people, places and things that the mainstream considered worthless is one particular way in which Anthology is revolutionary,” says Dr Thomas Ruys Smith, a lecturer at UEA and the co-organiser of the 60th anniversary conference. “It took songs hitherto heard in isolation and put them into a narrative, possibly for the first time. Each song is carefully programmed up against another, so there’s a sense of bringing an order to this disparate material. What exactly the meaning of that order might be, though, is not clear.”

Smith arranged the three volumes into “Ballads”, “Social Music” and “Songs”, in part to subvert the racial profiling of the “race” and “hillbilly” labels. Listen without prejudice. Fair enough. But what is really obscure about Anthology is its sleeve design. A friend of the poet Allen Ginsberg and himself an experimental film-maker who spent his final years as “shaman-in-residence” at a Buddhist-inspired university in Colorado, Smith was fascinated by the occult. Each volume of Anthology corresponds to an alchemical element – air, fire and water – while the album cover depicts the celestial monochord, a symbol of the ancient Greek astronomical notion of the music of the spheres. (The fourth volume, “Labor Songs”, mining the music of the Depression and the “earth” element, was never released in Smith’s lifetime after a disagreement with Folkways Records. It was eventually published by Revenant in 2000.)

“One of the enduring mysteries of the Anthology,” Ruys Smith says, “is exactly what his intent was in connecting it to whole realms of esoteric knowledge.” Interviewed in 1968, Smith, who died in 1991, the same year as he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, said he “felt social changes would result” from the release of the Anthology. What did he mean by social changes? “I don’t know if there’s any answer to that,” Ruys Smith replies. “It’s probably less politically revolutionary in aim and more cosmically revolutionary.” Not so much flower power per se, but something along consciousness-expanding lines.

What is certain is that Anthology was a pretty expensive package in the early 1950s. Each volume retailed for about $12. Yet for most of the remainder of that decade, it was out of print after its copyright infringements came to light and the legal niceties were wrangled over. By the 1960s, the celestial monochord image had been dropped in favour of a photograph of a Depression-era farmer. “For all that it’s pronounced to be a key document of the mid-20th century, it didn’t actually sell many copies in the mid-20th century – hundreds, maybe, but nowhere near a thousand, although it did go to libraries and people made their own bootlegs,” says Ruys Smith.

Tom Paley photographed this year

Somebody who did purchase volumes one and three is Tom Paley. Now 84 and having released his latest album, Roll On, Roll On, in June, Paley was then a 24-year-old veteran of the Greenwich Village folk scene before it became the Greenwich Village folk scene. He had grown up in leftwing summer camps where the adults sang Paul Robeson songs, and had got into square-dances held by American Youth for Democracy. Two months before turning 17 he bought a guitar, inspired by “the countryish music” he heard on a radio show called The Hometown Frolic. Hanging out with Woody Guthrie, whom he accompanied at the Lead Belly memorial concert in January 1950, he remembers enjoying Smoky Mountain Ballads, a set of 78s compiled by John Lomax, whose son Alan was also a distinguished folklorist and song collector for the Library of Congress.

Paley, who went on to form the New Lost City Ramblers, a pivotal group in the folk revival, with John Cohen and Mike Seeger in 1958, is the ideal person to tell it like it was. “The impact [of the Anthology] on the general public was negligible but in terms of people already interested in folk music it had a big effect,” he says. “It did a terrific service to the folk movement, because while people may have heard Pete [Seeger] and Woody or even me doing some of this stuff, they hadn’t heard many of the originals.

“I was already familiar with the work of a number of those on the Anthology, but there was also new material I hadn’t heard. It wasn’t exactly a revelation to me so much as a reinforcement of things I liked, and a new supply of available songs.”

If anything, Anthology’s aura is even stronger today. “The Harry Smith archive is a portal to a whole other world and, once you get into it, it just blooms out,” says Sean Breadin, the male half of English folk duo Rapunzel & Sedayne, who will perform at the UEA conference.

Nowhere does it bloom more than online, where blogs such as Where Dead Voices Gather and oldweirdamerica.wordpress turn up more tracks by artists on Anthology and join the dots of what is known about them.

Blind Lemon Jefferson

Rapunzel & Sedayne, meanwhile, explore the “incredible transatlantic cross-pollinations”, evident in Anthology, between folk songs in America and the British Isles. “We’re not trying to breathe life into old material,” says Breadin. “The life is already there. What we’re doing is acknowledging the vibrancy of it.”

Perhaps we should think about Anthology like the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. Countless people claim they were there but the venue only held 150 and no more than 40 were present that night – many of them, however, decided to form bands. In the same way, only a handful of people initially bought Anthology but they taught its songs to others and so, through a 1950s version of the oral tradition, its influence grew.

Had there been no Harry Smith and thus no Anthology, what then? The folk revival would certainly still have happened. Yet the changes that followed would surely have been less surprising, the detours into Americana not so far from the well-trodden path, because the wormholes into the past would have been less apparent. As Ruys Smith, pointing to Anthology’s “liberating quality”, concludes, “There would have been a Bob Dylan, but perhaps there wouldn’t have been a Basement Tapes.”

In short, things would have been less weird. And, in case you haven’t realised by now, weird means good.

America Changed Through Music: Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ at 60 is at UEA London on September 15, www.americachangedthroughmusic.com; Tom Paley’s album ‘Roll On, Roll On’ is out now on Hornbeam Recordings; Rapunzel & Sedayne play the 40th Fylde Folk Festival, in Lancashire, August 31-September 2; www.fylde-folk-festival.com

Five ‘Anthology’ artists

Banjos and blues

The best-known acts on Anthology are probably harmony group The Carter Family, bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and Dixie banjoist Uncle Dave Macon. If you like them – or the soundtrack to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie – then have a listen to:

Buell Kazee – pin-sharp banjo player and trained singer, who enjoyed success as a Kentucky balladeer and later became a Baptist preacher

Charlie Poole – boy wonder on the banjo, who died an early, alcohol-induced death: as rock ’n’ roll as it got while also working in a North Carolina textile mill

Cannon’s Jug Stompers – led by Gus Cannon, rowdy stalwarts of Beale Street in Memphis, with Noah Lewis blowing a mean harmonica

The Masked Marvel – not a superhero, but a pseudonym for Charley Patton, widely held to be the father of the Delta blues

Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – choral group led by the Denson family, whose “shape-note” style of sight singing is being revived today (see the film Awake, My Soul).

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