Aural History

By the early 50s the distance between Hank Williams and Muddy Waters was shrinking fast, and a few years later, if Ed Sullivan’s cameraman had dared shoot Elvis Presley below the belt, he would have captured the singer’s spread legs straddling the divide. But the musical miscegenation that would soon be writ large across the world, with Elvis as its apostle, had been thriving in the south for at least half a century. In 1952–two years before Elvis recorded both bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and bluegrass avatar Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in the style that came to define rock ‘n’ roll–an avant-garde filmmaker, self-styled anthropologist, and rabid record collector named Harry Smith realized this, and let it guide him in compiling his Anthology of American Folk Music, which he then convinced Moses Asch of Folkways Records to release.

The now-legendary collection, which has just been reissued by Smithsonian Folkways as a six-CD box set, is remarkable not just for the music but for the prescient way Smith presented it. The 84 songs, a mix of country blues, gospel, hillbilly, and Cajun music, were all recorded commercially between 1927, not long after the advent of electrical recording technology, and 1932, the year the Depression crippled the recording industry. Smith intentionally avoided the field recordings of people like Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress: despite a skewed anthropological mind-set, he had no interest in academic examinations of America’s folk tradition. He wanted to represent the stuff people were actually buying, and to draw connections based on style and content, not social condition. So he organized the anthology into three categories, not by genre but by function: “Ballads” encompassed the third-person tales, which were often as violent and bloody as anything you’ll hear in gangsta rap. “Social Music” covered dance and religious music, while “Songs” featured first-person ruminations, with often quirky, sometimes impenetrable narratives.

One of the anthology’s revelations was that, whether through repertoire (the stomping gospel gem “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” was recorded by both black preacher F.W. McGee and hillbilly legends the Carter Family) or formal traits (Appalachian folksinger Bascom Lamar Lunsford borrowed lyrical structures from the blues on his thrilling version of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”), black and white musicians had developed something of a common language. In a lengthy liner essay adapted for the reissue from his Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus notes that a good number of hillbilly singers, such as Frank Hutchison and Buell Kazee, say they were inspired by black performers, and that many of the tropes heard in the blues songs are derived from British folk tunes.

The beauty of Smith’s original package, however, was that he went to great lengths never to mention race in his discussion of the music. As he recalled with glee in a 1968 interview with archivist-musician John Cohen, “It took years before anybody discovered that Mississippi John Hurt wasn’t a hillbilly.” Smith had every right to gloat: the process of cultural intermarriage that he recognized and celebrated is at the root of virtually all distinctly American music, especially the pop music of the last several decades.

In the new booklet, testimonials by folk-influenced experimentalist John Fahey and experimental folkie Peter Stampfel, as well as various voices from Marcus’s book, elucidate just how much influence the music itself has had as well. Although it didn’t reach its peak until nearly a decade after the anthology’s release, the folk revival of the 60s was largely catalyzed by the collection, which conveyed a spirit and emotion that songbooks could never capture. Ralph Rinzler, a prime mover in the folk revival, referred to it as the “motherlode,” and Cohen and Mike Seeger’s New Lost City Ramblers built their repertoire from the six-record set. Many new folkies traveled south to find the mysterious musicians who had made the recordings, and suddenly artists like Hurt, Clarence Ashley, and Dock Boggs found their careers revived on the thriving college folk circuit.

These artists, as well as the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Charley Patton (in 1952 identified only as “the Masked Marvel”), are well-known today, but the anthology remains crammed with delightful surprises. There’s the pure rock ‘n’ roll energy of Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down the Old Plank Road”; the eerily gorgeous sounds of shape-note singing (a system devised to help rural illiterates read music) on tunes by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers; the humorous denouement of “The Mountaineer’s Courtship” by Mr. and Mrs. Ernest V. Stoneman (the latter most likely being the former employing a horrifying falsetto); and the lovely murder ballad “Henry Lee” by Dick Justice, most recently covered by Nick Cave and Polly Harvey.

It’s been difficult over the years for those deeply influenced by the anthology to refrain from trying to leave their mark on it: in the 60s, the Marxist contingent at the folk-revival magazine Sing Out! grafted manipulative WPA photos on the packaging of its reissue; and though the Smithsonian’s box comes close to recapturing the original aesthetic, inside it’s loaded with Marcus’s sociological hindsight. While it’s all admittedly very interesting, I have no doubt that in another 30 years it’ll again be the music, not the contextualization, that endures.


Never a label to do things half-assed, on Thursday at New York’s CMJ music-industry convention Chicago’s Drag City presented no fewer than 16 of its acts on one bill, among them Will Oldham, Mayo Thompson, Royal Trux, Smog, and Edith Frost. Many of the performers were backed by a “house band” that included Jim O’Rourke, David Grubbs, Dave Pajo, and Rian Murphy.


Last week I mistakenly described saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre as “late.” According to a source at Delmark Records, which last year reissued his Forces and Feelings (1970), McIntyre is alive and well and performs frequently for the benefit of New York’s subway patrons. I apologize for the error.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Alan Ginsburg, courtesy Fahey/ Klein Gallery, Los Angeles.