It’s a good time to be a fan of “the old, weird America”. That is rock writer Greil Marcus’s unforgettable coinage for the sound of the blues singers, banjoists and string bands, recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, who impressed Bob Dylan and the 1960s Greenwich Village scene as well as more recent roots musicians. Sixty years after Harry Smith’s magisterial Anthology of American Folk Music, this material is increasingly accessible online – at the very least to sample, sometimes to buy. Here are two tracks from back then and two under the influence.
“Kassie Jones” by Furry Lewis
The pioneering Folkways label, which originally released the Anthology of American Folk Music, is now owned by the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the US, which only adds to its historical cachet. Its website – www.folkways.si.edu – is a gateway to a vast archive. Tasters of all the tracks on the Anthology are there, but you can’t, alas, download them. One artist easily downloaded elsewhere is bluesman Furry Lewis. “Kassie Jones”, the tale of a railroad disaster, is his signature track.
“Country Blues” by Dock Boggs
The authentic snarl of a surly mountain man comes across on this song about a gambler down on his luck. Dock Boggs, a Virginia coal miner for much of his life, has two numbers on the Anthology, the other being the lovelorn “Sugar Baby”. Having been rediscovered, he cut three LPs for Folkways in the 1960s.
“Old Joe Clark” by The New Lost City Ramblers
This ballad about a murdered man is believed to originate in Kentucky. It’s a frantic blur of fiddle, guitar and banjo, and judging from the antique croon of the vocals in this version, you’d think it’s a vintage 78rpm record. Wrong. It’s by those purists of the 1950s folk revival Tom Paley, John Cohen and the late Mike Seeger, a “trio of insidious crusaders for ‘old-timey’ music”, as Sing Out! magazine once raved – in complimentary fashion, one hopes.
“Waggoner Lad” by Rapunzel & Sedayne
The influence of the Anthology is also felt in Britain. After all, many of its songs exist in earlier forms in the traditional music of the British Isles. The Lancashire-based duo Rapunzel & Sedayne (aka Rachel McCarron and Sean Breadin) continue to explore this material, presenting it in a way that is both ancient and modern. Their gorgeous, courtly take on “The Waggoner Lad”, a ballad played by artists from Cisco Houston to Bert Jansch, and by Buell Kazee on the Anthology, is available to hear at soundcloud.com/rapunzel-and-sedayne. The pair are also fascinated by the Max Hunter archive, recordings from the Ozark Mountains that are freely available at www.maxhunter.missouristate.edu. Do investigate.