When the Mask Cracks

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excerpt from Greil Marcus (www.space-age-bachelor.com):

It has proven very difficult for me to access Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music. There’s such distance between us and this music that any suspension of disbelief is fragile.  Once submitted to, the Anthology proves to be spellbinding.

To know that some of these songs were recorded in New York in the time of Tin Pan Alley is a fact irreconcilable with what you hear.  Even if the second track by Nelstone’s Hawaiians reminds me of Bing Crosby, this music is a long way from the slick Tin Pan Alley schmaltz that today fills the airwaves of chain bookstores and coffee shops to inspire purchases, by appealing to nostalgia.  Our favorite moments of popular music come when the mask cracks.

In the Anthology, all pretenses are absent, and all guards down, or so you’re led to believe — cause really anyone who knows how to guard themself will know also how to give the impression of being unguarded.  All I know is that no one sings in these strange voices any more.  Like “Le Vieux Soulard et Sa Femme,” which sounds like the sloppy, hilarious way you sing, when you think that no one is listening.  And then there’s Didier Hebert’s “I Woke Up One Morning In May,” which might be sung in French, but for all I know could be sung in tongues.

There’s such a spirit of anything goes to these songs, always teetering from one brink from another, from overflowing joy to callousness.  The opening notes of Ramblin’ Thomas’ “Poor Boy Blues” are such a mix of menace and woe.  And then there’s lyrics like the one in “James Alley Blues,” which goes,

“You’re my daily thought and my nightly dream,

Sometimes I think you’re too sweet to die,

And another time, I think you ought to be buried alive.”

 

This is music made by people with nowhere to go, but to the grave, whether dead or not.

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