Anthology of American Folk Music

By Shapiro, Bruce | The Nation, August 25, 1997 | Go to article overview

Anthology of American Folk Music


Shapiro, Bruce, The Nation


Edited by Harry Smith. Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings. 6 CDs. $79.

Not long ago I heard a performance by the Irish fiddle player Martin Hayes. Hayes is a master of the long-phrased, lyrical style of eastern County Clare, where he grew up in a family of musicians; he has also played electric violin in a Chicago rock band. On this occasion in a New York nightclub, Hayes and his guitar-playing partner Dennis Cahill stretched and syncopated the dance-hall bounce of reels, jigs and hornpipes into arching, lonesome meditations and wild jazz-inflected flights, without ever losing a quiet pulse that seemed to rise up out of the earth.

I thought of Martin Hayes as I was sitting down to write about Greil Marcus's new book, because Hayes, who is in his 30s, shows how very much alive is the dilemma of the musician who is bracketed as "traditional"--a folk artist--even while pursuing an intensely personal, decidedly nonpurist path that can provoke shudders among some bottle-it-in-formaldehyde folklorists. Today the whole debate over folk music authenticity versus innovation may seem academic, but Marcus's Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes hinges on a moment when this "academic" question exploded across the American cultural landscape: the notorious cataclysm at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when Dylan mounted the stage with leather jacket and Stratocaster, leaned back on his boot heel and launched into "Maggie's Farm." The audience erupted in howls of betrayal. Pete Seeger and the great ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who had been collecting front-porch music since the thirties, fried to cut the band's backstage power cables with an ax. Confrontations continued over the next twelve months, in Forest Hills, Berkeley, London and Cardiff, ending only with Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident near his Woodstock home.

Invisible Republic is ostensibly a reflection on Dylan's private recording sessions in the exhausted aftermath of those events with the quintet later known as The Band, ranging over terrain from reworked Child ballads to originals like "I Shall Be Released." But at the book's heart is a different album: the Anthology of American FolkMusic, a multidisc compilation of pre-Depression "hillbilly" and "race" records assembled by one Harry Smith for Folkways fifteen years earlier, a touchstone of the early-sixties folk scene.

Marcus declares that "Smithville," as he calls the community of several dozen white and black musicians who populate the Anthology, holds the key to the Basement Tapes. This assessment may or may not be accurate, but it serves as a welcome pretext for Marcus's critical reconsideration of the Anthology. The set, unavailable for years but remastered and reissued on CD this August, remains a gateway to some of the most haunting and influential American musicians ever recorded: the sweetness and grace of Mississippi John Hurt, the archetypal country harmony of the Carter Family, the death-knell blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson, among many others.

The Anthology blasted open the ears of quite a few young musicians in the fifties, much as "Howl" did for poets at the same time. Smith assembled eighty-four ballads, blues and breakdowns, sacred music and secular, according to his own free-associative scheme, and annotated with unforgettable tabloid summaries: JOHN HARDY HELD WITHOUT BAIL AFTER GUNPLAY...WIFE AT SCAFFOLD. Like Ginsberg's poetry, the whole package seemed to speak of an unofficial, undocumented America at sharp odds with the reigning notion of Americanism.

A record-collecting bohemian shaman with an anthropological sensibility, Smith intended his 1952 Anthology to raise prickly questions about the meaning of folk music. It still does: For while the Anthology may be, in today's parlance, "roots" music, mostly it is not front-porch or kitchen music. The difference mattered to Smith and it matters to Marcus. In the late twenties, record-company scouts sent Southern musicians like Hurt and the Carters, most of them already playing medicine shows, juke joints and other venues, to New York for a few days of studio time. …

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