Thursday 22 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 93 Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music

Top 102 Albums. No 93 
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.


  1. I'm afraid this is a beard too far for me!

  2. Interesting description of this collection Seamus; particularly interesting as a gathering of dead voices. The only modern equivalent of such cataloguing that I can think of might be Ry Cooder's gathering of Cuban ancients for the Buena Vista Social Club recordings. I often think of the glories that have never been recorded. Makes me ponder on unseen falling trees and the sound of one hand clapping... particularly brings to mind Milosz's heartbreaking line used by Tess Gallagher in the intro' to Carver's 'A New Path to the Waterfall": "To win. To lose. What for, if the world will forget us anyway?" which questions the sense of memory as an entrustment...
    Everything is recorded and preserved these days' data being the minuscule moment that... the moment is. They say that soon we'll all be gifted a tiny button at birth; something that we'll wear on our lapel that will record our life's every moment, so that, as we age we can review and recall any moment at will, in digital clarity; our first kiss, shag, marriage. Makes you wonder about the sanctity of memory; the self protecting filtering and re-editing we do with our own pasts; soon we'll have face that beast truly and squarely. No one would benefit but the shrinks... It's the memory of others that matters.

  3. Trev's comments make me feel a little sahmeful of my off hand flipancy! my only excuse I was in a bad mood that day

  4. Blimey; I did swallow the dictionary sideways this morning didn't I?
    Currently sporting a pathetically patch beard so beards of off limits...
    As for Movember?
    Not by the hair on my chiny chin chin etc...

  5. Hmmm, maybe I should just absent myself from the comments - it all seems to become so much more interesting without me.
    @FORW - I'm not a beard wearer myself and wouldn't think it necessary to have one to enjoy these songs, but no doubt they are favourites of some bearded cadres.
    @Trevor - I would think something like the Ethiopiques compilations and other similar collections from around the world do something similar to Smith.
    This compilation of early Irish electronic music rescues music that seemed destined to be forgotten by all but those who made it and a few others. http://open.spotify.com/album/1viXQp9VrfvrmL2GqvZxqJ
    Perhaps with the plethora of music on the internet etc it will become more and more like the visual arts where we rely on curators to point us towards interesting stuff - this being of course what we and other bloggers are doing, and (to undermine my own point) what djs have always done. However, all but a few dis have been and are hamstrung by commercial imperatives.

  6. If this is #93, the next 92 must be really amazing. This would likely be top 10 or certainly top 20 if I were making a list.

    The Ethiopiques series is a great modern example, even if it is not as consistently good as Harry Smith's anthology. The key is that it has a single compiler's personal touch, just like the Nigerian stuff on Soundways or the old Original Music comps from John Storm Roberts.

    I can imagine a version of Now That's What I Call Music with a similarly personal feel, but it would be a mix of big hits and misshapen chart duds, not just every single dumped into a heap.

    1. Tom - I'm basically writing about whichever album comes to mind, which may mean that this list is like an upside down cake, although I am keeping a few back that I feel have to be my top four or five. I was also breaking the 'rules' by including a compilation, not that I believe in rules. And yes, this is a top twenty album.