Posts Tagged ‘Harry Smith’

The Harry Smith Project Live (DVD)

August 30, 2015

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.


Lomax and Smith

July 10, 2012

Harry Smith accepting a Grammy award in 1991

from “Collecting, Collage, and Alchemy: The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music as Art and Cultural Intervention” by Kevin M. Moist

Whether intentionally or not, Harry Smith’s approach was distinctly different from that of most other contemporary proponents of folk music. The public image of folk that held sway at the time, consciously developed since the 1930s by public advocates such as the Lomaxes, was based in what scholar Benjamin Filene refers to as a “cult of authenticity” that tended to tame the music by exoticizing it.

Music writer Eric Weisbard describes the hallmarks of the Lomax approach as “romanticization of the primitive” and a “fear of modern contamination,” paradoxically coupled with “slick packaging” designed to appeal to middle-class mainstream culture. There was more than a bit of Popular Front politics in the mix as well, with the romanticized performers representing an idealized cultural or racial purity.However well-meaning, the overall effect of such an approach was to domesticate the music, casting it as a dying vestige of an authentic past in need of preservation rather than as a living.

By comparison, in Weisbard’s words, Smith’s “unruly, paradigm-busting set” effectively “pulls off an anti-Lomax: his work leaves the folk seeming more mysterious, not less so”. The Anthology made the music alive and complex, opening a window into subterranean cultural currents that called into question all kinds of taken-for-granted truths.

Folk music scholar Jon Pankake said that “these lost, archaic, savage sounds seemed to carry some peculiarly American meaning for us, albeit in a syntax we couldn’t yet decipher”, evoking what Greil Marcus famously called the “old, weird America”.

Cultural historian Robert Cantwell argues that, while the Anthology “recognizes the association between folksong and particular cultural communities” (racial, geographical, etc.), it also erases “the popular categories, and the stereotypes grown up around them,” and in the process it “confuses the classifying impulse” and finally signifies the “complete breakdown of the old cultural geography.”

Moonshiner’s Dance

July 5, 2012

edited from and

Many questions arise when we get to the last number of Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music “dance set” on volume 2. Musically and geograpically, Frank Cloutier and The Victoria Café Orchestra are  far removed from all the other tracks on the Anthology. While all the other Anthology artists comes from The South and their repertoire drawn mostly from Southern folk musical traditions, The Victoria Café Orchestra was a Saint-Paul Minnesota dance band who played old-fashioned popular music  with a Polka/Novelty Jazz flavor.

The Moonshiner’s Dance is a medley of old popular songs in a jazzy, polka style, punctuated by talks, laughts and the shouting “One, two, three, four” between each tune:

1. (0:11) – When You and I Were Young, Maggie
2. (0:35) – How Dry I Am
3. (1:00) – Turkey in the Straw
4. (1:25) – At the Cross
5. (1:50) – Jenny Lind Polka
6. (2:06) – When You Wore A Tulip

Why did Harry Smith chose this particular record to close his dance set? It sure gives a kind of epiphanical, exuberant final and “Moonshiner’s dance” has a great feeling of booziness and hilarity all the way through. But who were Frank Cloutier and The Victoria Café Orchestra anyway? From which world did they come from?

“Moonshiner’s Dance” is listed as “Part One” on the 78’s original label, which suggests that the song is continued on the B-side of the record. Why did Smith choose to include only one side of the disc? When Furry Lewis’s version of “Kassie Jones” spans two sides, Smith included both. Why only one side here?

The reason, I think, is because of the way the song incorporates the spiritual tune “At The Cross” (a fact that Smith draws the listener’s attention to in his notes). The second disc of  Smith’s “Social Music”  is made up of religious music. As we have seen throughout the Anthology, Smith delighted in making connections and drawing parallels between selections. By closing the first disc of “Social Music,” which is made up of songs for dancing, with a song that parodies a spiritual, could Smith be suggesting that he doesn’t take the religious songs on the next disc entirely seriously? Smith’s biography suggests that while he was a spiritual man, he did not subscribe to a Judeo-Christian world view. Smith might also be deliberately undercutting the solemnity that so often accompanies traditional observances of Christianity, while setting the stage for the far more ecstatic traditions of Southern Christian sects such as the black Baptists and the Pentecostals.

For more reading about “The Moonshiner’s Dance” and Frank Cloutier & His Victoria Café Orchestra, I urge you to go to “The Celestial Monochord” and check Kurt Gegenhuber’s fine articles.

Harry Smith Accepts a Grammy

July 3, 2012

In 1991 Harry Smith received a Chairman’s Merit Award at the Grammy Awards ceremony for his contribution to American Folk Music. Upon receiving the award, he proclaimed, “I’m glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by music.”

from “Collecting, Collage, and Alchemy: The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music as Art and Cultural Intervention,” by Kevin M. Moist:

Smith’s goals went well beyond mere preservation, and the Anthology was more than just a group of songs—it represented a whole way of looking at culture, one aimed at nothing less than wholesale cultural change. In a 1968 interview, Smith referred to Plato’s ideas about music, specifically that changing the music might have the power to change the entire society. “I had the feeling that the essence that was heard in those types of music would become something that was really large and fantastic,” he said. “In a sense, it did in rock and roll. I imagine it having some kind of a social force for good.”

Gone to the Country

May 26, 2012

“Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival” by Ray Allen (University of Illinois Press, 2010)

[After the publication of The Anthology of American Folk Music, Harry Smith donated his collection of 78 rpm records to the New York City Public Library.  Here is part of the story of how the New Lost City Ramblers heard all those records.]

Invisible Republic

April 25, 2012

“Invisible Republic,” by Greil Marcus (Holt, 1998)


edited excerpt from Greil Marcus’ commentary on Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird”:


“Oh, the coo coo, she’s a pretty bird, she wobbles as she flies,

She never hollers cuckoo, ’til the fourth day of July.”

“We Americans are all cuckoos,”  Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1872.  “We make our homes in the nests of other birds.”  The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.  Depositing its orphans, leaving its progeny to be raised by others, to grow up as imposters in another’s house, as America filled itself up with slaves, indentured servants, convicts, hustlers, adventurers, the ambitious and the greedy, the fleeing and the hated, who took or were given new, imposters’ names.

If this is the theme of the song, what is present in Clarence Ashley’s performance — the axis on which Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music seems to turn, or maybe the proud anthem of Smithville, sung every night at sundown — is a master narrative of American willfullness and fatedness, a narrative implied but altogether missing, replaced instead buy hints and gestures, code words and winks, a whole music of secret handshakes.

What is Smithville? It is a small town whose citizens are not recognizable by race.  There are no masters and no slaves. The prison population is large, and most are part of it at one time or another. Here, both murders and suicide are rituals, acts instantly transformed into legend. The town is simultaneously a seamless web of connections and an anarchy of separations:  who would ever shake hands with Dock Boggs, who sounds as if his bones are coming through his skin every time he opens his mouth?  And yet who can turn away from the dissatisfaction in his voice, the refusal ever to be satisfied with the things of this world or the promises of the next?

This is Smithville.  It’s limbo, but it’s not bad; on the fourth day of July you get to holler.

Clarence Ashley

Moe Asch and Harry Smith

April 11, 2012


edited from “Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records,” by Peter D. Goldsmith (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998)

Sometime in 1950 Harry Smith was making his way across country from California to New York with several hundred vintage 78 records in tow.  Arriving penniless at Penn Station, his first thought was to sell some of his records in order to secure food and shelter.  It was suggested to him that he approach Moe Asch (owner of Folkways Records), who might have some interest in buying some of them.  A meeting was arranged.

Smith was a small, hunched man with a high, pinched voice whose extraordinary intelligence and creativity could be both highly disciplined and hopelessly broad-ranging.  Due to his stature he was employed through much of the Second World War at a Boeing plant near Seattle, installing radar parts in the narrow tail sections of bombers.  He spent a considerable portion of his earnings buying up 78s during the shellac shortage.

In May 1952 Smith signed a formal contract with Folkways for the production of a three-volume anthology.  A small work space was cleared for Smith in the tiny two-room office at 117 West 46th St., and he began the work that would consume him for the next several months.  Smith recalled that Asch supervised his work daily.  Asch would later claim that his supervision consisted of providing Smith with a peyote button every few hours, from which Smith would draw some degree of his inspiration.  Apocryphal or not, devotees of Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music have detected a visionary, dreamlike quality in the booklet of almost thirty pages that Smith produced to accompany the records.

Moe Asch

Harry Smith’s Volume 4 (#2)

April 5, 2012

by David Keenan (

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.” (more…)

“Think of the Self Speaking”: Harry Smith Interviews

February 9, 2012




Harry Smith’s Volume 4 (#1)

January 11, 2012

Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four

Released: 2000
Contents: 2 CD’s, 96 pg. hardbound book
Revenant No. 211

From an interview by John Cohen, discussing why Volume 4 of The Anthology of American Folk Music wasn’t released (then):

Harry Smith On the Selection of Songs for the Anthology

December 30, 2011


Harry Smith, from an interview with John Cohen:

Meeting Harry Smith

December 7, 2011

Thanks to Greg Vandy’s American Standard Time blog for this wonderful tribute to Harry Smith.

Lectures by The Shaman-in-Residence

September 12, 2011

Harry Smith

The Harry Smith Archive offers a number of audio links for lectures given by Harry Smith in the last years of his life.  These appear to have been recorded while Smith served as the Shaman-in-Residence at the Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics from 1988-1991.

In the lecture linked below, Harry Smith describes two Native American ceremonies he witnessed in the early 1940’s in the Pacific Northwest. Interspersed with his account of the ceremonies, he discusses tangentially various related topics, including Native American health before the European invasion, Native American sign language, the migration of symbols, misogyny in anthropological accounts of Native American peoples, creation myths, and cosmology.  (from

Sound quality improves after about 1 minute.

Blogs dedicated to Harry Smith

August 23, 2011

Harry Smith transforming milk into milk.

There are several blogs dedicated to Harry Smith.

“The Old, Weird America:”  The author uses Harry Smith’s numerical order starting from the number one performance in the Anthology, “Henry Lee” by Dick Justice and will end (someday…) with “Fishing Blues” by Henry Thomas. Each time, he posts multiple downloadable versions of the song, and interesting links on the artist and on the song performed.

Where Dead Voices Gather:”  Another in-depth, track-by-track examination of Harry Smith’s “Anthology Of American Folk Music”.

The Celestial Monochord:”  An eclectic analysis of The Amthology, including the map below.

Google Map showing the geographical origin of each cut on Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music.