by David Keenan (http://www.thewire.co.uk)
When Harry Smith compiled the first three volumes of his Anthology Of American Folk Music back in 1952 he set out to cast a spell over America. “I felt social changes would result from it,”he explained. “I’d been reading Plato’s Republic. He’s jabbering on about music, how you have to be careful about changing the music because it might upset or destroy the government.” On 20 February 1991 he received a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys in New York. “I’m glad to say that my dreams came true,”he told the audience. “I saw America changed through music.”
The resonant historical power that the Anthology still holds is mostly attributable to Smith’s idiosyncratic terms of inclusion. He had a magical way of simply intuiting deep inter-relations between specific recordings of hillbilly holler, ecstatic gospel and plantation blues; dividing his first volumes into “Ballads”, “Social Music”and “Songs”and alchemically colour-coding them green, red and blue to represent the elements of Water, Fire and Air.
The covers were dominated by an etching by Theodore de Bry (lifted by Smith from a book on mysticism by Robert Fludd) of ‘the celestial monochord’, a divinely harmonious instrument tuned by the hand of God. Smith treated this primitive music existentially, as though it would reveal all of its encrypted mystery and meaning if its codes could be deciphered through their placement in the proper context. He spent many years analysing the base phonetics at the heart of these inspired performances, noting repeated phrases and the recurrence of certain archetypes under certain historical conditions like how many times the word ‘railroad’ was used during the Depression as opposed to during the war.
Smith took this approach to all of his various obsessions: his beautiful hand-painted films, his collections of patchwork quilts and Ukranian Easter eggs, his boxes filled with paper aeroplanes with cards noting where each of them was discovered. As he saw it: “I’m sure that if you could collect sufficient patchwork quilts from the same people who made the records, like Uncle Dave Macon or Sara Carter’s houses, you could figure out just about anything you can from the music.
“Smith had always intended a fourth volume: the Earth element was needed to stabilise the other three, and had it compiled and ready to go when a dispute arose over Folkways’ insistence on the inclusion of a song by The Delmore Brothers about the re-election of Franklin D Roosevelt. “I didn’t like it,”Smith said. “So they decided not to issue the album, because it was the immovable object meeting the irresistible force.”
Now Revenant, the new home to the wild esoterica of ‘American Primitive’, have stepped in and finally released Smith’s compilation complete with copious liner notes by the likes of Beat poet and Fug Ed Sanders, John Fahey and, inevitably, Greil Marcus. Sanders’s notes are a particular joy as he relates tales of Smith claiming Aleister Crowley as his father, tossing rare books into urinals and rolling in the gutter pretending to have an alcoholic fit in the hope of bumming a free drink – apparently he even “got along well with women.
“There’s been an upsurge of interest in primitive folk music over the past five years, and the CD reissue of the original Anthology certainly helped to flame it. Indeed, many consumers of self-consciously avant garde music are drawn to these rough-edged recordings as much for the sonic experience as for historical perspective or any notion of authenticity. Decades of crackle and fuzz have become inextricable parts of these songs, ghost channels that seem to be calling directly over time, a little ruptured window onto another world. We can literally hear the sound of a world that’s slowly retreating into the murk of history.
The music on Volume 4 doesn’t seem anywhere near as thematically linked as the previous volumes and, with the absence of Smith’s sleevenotes, we can only guess at his grand scheme. There are less group performances here, more family outfits (Carter Family, Monroe Brothers) and solo performers (Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, John Estes) – perhaps a reflection of the conditions of the Depression and the accompanying rise of an ‘every man for himself’ attitude as traditional support systems began to collapse.
Many of the performances sound damaged, almost shellshocked. The Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger” feels so drained of genuine empathy that it conjures up images of the walking wounded, dead-eyed and staring straight through you, offering up their hand out of sheer force of habit. There are some curious inclusions: Bradley Kincaid’s beautiful, but comparatively mannered, 1933 recording of the English ballad “Dog And Gun”; The Hackberry Ramblers’ “Dans Le Grand Bois (In The Forest)”; and The Four Aces’ “Aces Breakdown”, both Western swing-styled Cajun tracks from New Orleans. Their placement begs the question: what was Smith trying to tells us?
In his notes, John Fahey makes a good stab: “Perhaps that here and there, hidden from the scrutiny of the intelligentsia and the stock market, a folk society still exists in many ways undisturbed?” Or, perhaps, as Woody Guthrie wrote: “One day we’ll all find out that all of our songs was just little notes in a great big song.”