America's Folk Music Anthology
50 Years Later, Harry Smith's Music Collection Still Rings True
Listen to Bob Edwards' report.
Listen to songs from the Anthology of American Folk Music.
July 17, 2002 -- Fifty years ago, Folkways Records released a six-album set of recordings that had a profound influence on the folk music revival just beginning in America. The Anthology of American Folk Music was drawn from the collection of Harry Smith, a 29-year-old music lover, poet and filmmaker living in New York City.
"Certain musicians got a hold of this record and became a sort of cult following... they just took it to heart. It was the thing for them," Jeff Place, an archivist at the Smithsonian Institution, tells Morning Edition host Bob Edwards.
Smith had purchased thousands of 78 rpm recordings prior to World War II. Young folk singers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the New Lost City Ramblers would later include many of the songs in their performances. The songs were later adopted by numerous rock musicians, including Dylan and the Grateful Dead.
The buzz about the 1952 collection built up slowly at first, says Place, who worked on the 1997 CD reissue of Smith's Anthology. Initially, musicians and folk enthusiasts realized that the set offered them a raw version, instead of the stylized folk offerings by mainstream artists like Burl Ives.
"A lot of the songs on this record -- 'The Butcher Boy', 'Wagoner's Lad', 'House Carpenter'... -- they were in the repertoire of all these folk groups during the great popularity of folk music," Place says.
Place says he's amazed at the reverence in which the artists featured in collection were held by contemporary musicians and audiences. The 84 tracks on the set were recorded between 1926 and 1934. "Recordings from 1934 are less than 20 years old at this point, and these people are treating these songs like they were something from another century..." Place says.
Fans of the anthology -- musicians and folklorists alike -- started going down South to see if they could locate the artists. Place says that when organizers of the Newport Folk Festival and other venues brought Mississippi John Hurt and Dock Boggs to perform, the audiences thought, "These are people from the Anthology. My gosh, they're still alive!"
Place notes that Smith purposely left out specific biographical information about the artists in the original package, details which Place added for the re-issue. Smith "wanted the music to stand on its own," Place says. "He didn't want anybody to have prejudice or to think of these people in certain categories. The song is really what it was about more than the person to Harry."
In his album notes, Smith did provide humorous newspaper-like headlines that summarized most of the songs. Some examples, complete with spellings of the day:
"Drunkard's Special" by Coley Jones: "Wife's Logic Fails to Explain Strange Bedfellow to Drunkard"
"King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" by Chubby Parker: "Zoologic Miscegeny Achieved Mouse Frog Nuptuals, Relatives Approve"
"Stackalee" by Frank Hutchison: "Theft of Stetson Hat Causes Deadly Dispute, Victim Identifies Self as Family Man"
"Got the Farm Land Blues" by the Carolina Tar Heels: "Discouraging Acts of God and Man Convince Farmer of Positive Benefits in Urban Life"
Hear a 1998 interview with rock critic Greil Marcus about how Bob Dylan absorbed the anthology's music.
The Carters, Country Music's First Family
Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey
The Smithsonian Folkways Records Web site offers track listings, song samples and supplemental information on the artists in the Anthology of American Folk Music.
Visit the Harry Smith Archives to read a biography of Smith and see examples of his artwork.
Read an article by Greil Marcus about Harry Smith and the anthology.
Read about the anthology's influence on Bob Dylan.
Read about efforts to locate and catalog Harry Smith's artwork.
Read an essay about coal miner-musician Dock Boggs.
Learn about Memphis blues guitarist/singer Furry Lewis.
The Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provided materials for the anthology's 1997 reissue.