HARRY SMITH'S Anthology of American Folk Music, reissued with additional notes by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997, is an award winning (Grammies for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes) 6-CD documentary sound recording set from America's intellectual and artistic past. It uses as its primary materials recordings originally made by and for working-class people. When Harry Smith created the Anthology in 1952 he constructed a document for middle-class popular culture. Originally published by Folkways Records of New York as three two-LP boxed sets, it became an icon of the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.
No folksong intellectual of that era was more influenced by the Anthology than the late Ralph Rinzler, the man who brought Folkways to America's national museum, the Smithsonian. Hired as a field researcher for the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, Rinzler tracked down performers like those who had made the sounds on the Anthology, recording them and bringing them to the Festival. In the late 1960s Rinzler, disaffected with the commercialism of Newport and the folk scene, sold the Smithsonian on his idea for a Festival of American Folklife (FAF). Originally planned as an annual event building to the 1976 Bicentennial, it proved a tremendous success and remains a popular summer fixture in Washington. Just as Marius Barbeau's popular books and lectures on folklore and music led to the creation of a separate division -- now the Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies -- at the National Museum, Rinzler's success with the FAF led to a permanent Office of Folklife Programs at the Smithsonian. When Folkways owner Moe Asch died in 1986, Rinzler had the vision and influence to bring the company with its amazing catalog to the Smithsonian.
This costly undertaking was supported in part from revenue generated by a hit album, Folkways: The Vision Shared, that featured re-creations by pop stars like Bob Dylan of original folkways recordings from the 1940s by folksingers like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. A PBS documentary publicized the process. In essence the whole record company was successfully marketed as a living museum of American "roots" -- roots of rock, America's dominant popular form. The success of Smith's Anthology reflects this perception of it and of Folkways. When the Smithsonian hosted a symposium on Smith and the Anthology in Washington last fall, it was co-sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The notes to the 1997 reissue open with a chapter from rock critic Greil Marcus' book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes that is an attempt by this influential writer, long indifferent (at best) to the folk movement's cultural influences, to come to terms with Dylan's folk side. It is appropriate that Dylan won three Grammies at the same ceremony that the Anthology won two. The American popular music industry, long dominated intellectually by people for whom jazz, as the source of pop, was the essential hip form, is now being taken over by a younger generation for whom folk, as the roots of rock, is the essential hip form.
The Anthology reproduces 84 recordings made between 1927 and 1932, originally published on 78 rpm discs. Harry Smith (1923-1991), the polymath who assembled and edited it, has been variously described as an artist, film maker, record collector, folklorist, alchemist, "beat" movement member (the reissue notes include a piece on Smith by Allen Ginsberg), and more. He was also a student of phonograph recordings -- a discographer. Discographers can be described as aural historians but that does not fully capture the lure of this work; they are also aural voyeurs. The discographer establishes the date and place of recording and the identity of the people producing the sound so that the listener can become a fly on the wall on a time trip: you are there hearing it as it was at that point in time and you know where, when, and by whom that music was being made. …