DVD reviewed by Amanda Petrusich; November 6, 2006
Between 1999 and 2000, producer Hal Willner and Meltdown Festival artist-in-residence Nick Cave staged a series of epic five-hour-plus concerts in London, New York, and Los Angeles, intending to celebrate Smith’s work as an experimental filmmaker and musicologist by pairing contemporary artists with bits of Smith’s films and The Anthology‘s ancient folksongs: Beck, Beth Orton, Phillip Glass, Van Dyke Parks, Elvis Costello, Wilco, Steve Earle, Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull, and a mess of other artists agreed to participate. The Harry Smith Project documents the concerts, pairing two CDs of live cuts with a DVD of concert footage (some featuring the legendary camera-stylings of D.A. Pennebaker and his team) and The Old, Weird America, a documentary about the global endeavor.
Working musicians cover The Anthology‘s songs all the time, and The Harry Smith Projectisn’t the first time modern stabs have been documented in deference– Smithsonian Folkways released The Harry Smith Connection in 1997, the soundtrack to a pair of tribute concerts held in Vienna, Virginia to celebrate The Anthology‘s CD reissue (featuring tracks by Dave Van Ronk, Jeff Tweedy, The New Lost City Ramblers, and others.) Still, many of these songs are so specific to their time and place– Beale Street, dusty Delta crossroads, southern chain gangs, Appalachian cabins, Tennessee coal mines– that a contemporary re-creation, no matter how well-intentioned or well-rendered, still feels a little ridiculous, like stomping through Colonial Williamsburg eating a hot dog and wearing a baseball cap. And while plenty of the cuts on The Anthology were “covers” to begin with (most early country and folksongs were re-workings of traditional gospel songs), they were captured at a time when folk music functioned a little bit differently– when it was a vital and necessary method of documenting and lamenting the daily struggles of the poor, and not yet a political tool or floppy, coffeehouse luxury. Consequently, The Harry Smith Project works best as homage: These songs are buried treasure, beloved not only for their melody and performance, but for what they indicate about an America long obliterated. It’s always nice to hear them honored (and to appreciate their songcraft without being distracted by rudimentary production techniques), but plenty is lost in translation.
Howling the Carter Family hit “Single Girl, Married Girl”, Petra Haden never quite captures Sara Carter’s strained desperation (Sara’s husband, Carter patriarch A.P., was notoriously absent; Sara later left him for his cousin, quit the band, and moved to California), sounding weirdly jubilant instead. Wilco’s take on Richard Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues” is rich and convincing, with Jeff Tweedy grumbling on point, all sad-faced and earnest: “Towns right now ain’t nothing like they used to be/ I’ll tell you all the truth/ Won’t you take my word from me/ I seen better days and I ain’t putting up with these.” Beck’s version of Robert Johnson’s “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” features loads of sloppy slide and haphazard, soulful yelps, while the box’s highlight is traditional cut “Sail Away Lady”, performed by Uncle Bunt Stephens on the original Anthology, and rendered beautifully here by Van Dyke Parks and the Mondrian String Quartet.
The Harry Smith Project inadvertently asks big questions about the state of contemporary blues and folk, and works as an honest, loving tribute to the songs that informed the musical sensibilities of countless performers– and, hopefully, will lead its listeners straight back to the big, red box every American music fan should own.