Thursday, 22 November 2012
Top 102 Albums. No 93 Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music
Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music - Various Artists
When I started this list of albums I laid out the two rules - no live albums and no compilations. I broke the rule on live albums early on and thought it was about time I broke the other. This various artists compliation is about as far from Now That's What I Call Music as you can go. Harry Smith was an eccentric, experimental filmmaker, artist and practitioner of magick who lived in the Chelsea Hotel where he was, late in his days, a friend of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. This neatly connects him to Lenny Kaye who was responsible for the similarly influential compilation, Nuggets.
Both compilations highlight music that was dismissed as ephemeral and, particularly in the case of Smith's Anthology, in real and present danger of being lost. The tracks on this anthology are mostly (if not all) transferred from Smith's vast collections of '78's, a collection he made in part because the army was melting down vast amounts of 78's to recover the shellac. Nobody placed any value on these folksy items.
These sides tell us that the past can be as strange as any science fiction future we can imagine. There is an ineffable weirdness about some of these tracks. I often find my mind wandering when I listen to this, imagining parlours where this music played. These tracks all come from the late twenties and the early thirties but they can act as a signpost into the deeper past, into the time before sound was recorded, a time when the poor and illiterate, those who didn't play the concert halls, disappeared before they even died.
It tempts me to cast my mind back to the music that would have entertained Shakespeare, music forgotten or transmuted by oral transferral over the centuries. Those who know their early Dylan will hear earlier versions of the melodies and/or the lyrics of some of Dylan's songs here. The folk tradition didn't frown on people reworking existing songs. That was the way it went. You can imagine musicians recreating songs from half remembered scraps so that a song's progeny are sometimes barely recognisable.
Here's an example of a song from the anthology and a much later folk song that shares a common ancestor.
This anthology always reminds me of Nick Tosches brilliant exploration of early recording star Emmett Miller in his brilliant Where Dead Voices Gather. He finds in Miller a precursor of the high lonesome style but he then finds in written records from hundreds of years before descriptions of minstrels singing and the descriptions sound like they too are describing the high lonesome style. Read Tosches' book and listen to Smith's gathering of dead voices. You'll know we only see the tip of the iceberg but without the ice buried beneath the waterline of time we wouldn't be afloat at all. (How mixed a metaphor is that?)
And for a bonus here's some Emmett Miller.