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Harry Smith
Anthology Of American Folk Music Jody Beth , April 11th, 2014 08:11

In the early 1950s, a young filmmaker, painter, and musicologist named Harry Smith came to Folkways Records president Moses Asch with a proposal to sell Asch his massive collection of American vernacular folk recordings. Asch's rejoinder was an offer to anthologise the best of those songs, and in 1952, Folkways released Smith's music as The Anthology Of American Folk Music. A 1997 CD reissue met high regard and won two Grammy awards, but the 2014 200-gram vinyl reproduction by Portland, Oregon's Mississippi Records is, to date, the most faithful rendering of Smith's vision for his original set.

1952's Anthology comprised three volumes; Smith never finished his fourth installment, Rhythmic Changes (an examination of the rhythmic evolution of folk music between the 1920s and the 1940s). While Revenant Records reissued the fourth volume in the late 1990s with liner notes, Mississippi has decided to exclude any liner notes and superfluous packaging for its issue of Rhythmic Changes.

Robert Christgau's 1997 Spin review of the CD set, which came with a rave rating of 10 out of 10, spoke of how Anthology was a subjective view of American folk rather than "the Rosetta stone." As inclusive as it is with regard to bridging the significant racial and class divides in the U.S., Christgau noted that it still leaves out various underrepresented ethnicities' contributions to the genre, and perhaps focuses on the "weird" (eccentric, funny) songs to the exclusion of other narratives. Christgau would certainly agree, though, that Harry Smith was simply an obsessive music nerd and not a monolithic institution such as National Geographic — Anthology is Smith's personal favorites from one aspect of his record collection, making it more of a fun mixtape than an unimpeachable history book.

One wonders, though, listening to seminal works like 'Stackalee' (on the Ballads volume) or The Carter Family's 'No Depression In Heaven' and 'Black Jack David' (on Rhythmic Changes), how the folk landscape would have differed in the '50s and '60s if Anthology wasn't the most accepted-as-gospel account of Depression-era American vernacular music. Imagine Bob Dylan, admittedly chameleonic as he is, having adopted an entirely un-Smith-like set of tropes. He'd still have vaudeville and Delta blues, but an absence of Anthology material would change Dylan's vocabulary in immeasurable ways, creating a domino effect that would, for better or worse, alter the course of American music in the 1960s. That's how influential Anthology is.

Ironically, that tremendous influence also comes with the ability to alienate potential listeners. Mississippi's 2014 reproduction, though beautiful in its execution, is probably relegated to be a collector's item for the affluent and devoted. At a limited run of 2,000 copies, only specialty record stores and eBay sellers are carrying it, while its hefty price tag (retailers are charging upward of $160 USD) almost guarantees that those in the same economic classes Harry Smith showcased on Anthology will never hear this music the way Folkways intended it. In one form or another, every household should have a copy, if one can still find the CDs at a discounted price.

While the Mississippi version does reward those with state-of-the-art stereo systems, the vinyl sounds crisp and warm even coming through the lesser setups many less-wealthy fans make do with. For those with the financial resources to splurge, Mississippi's Anthology is the best investment piece of 2014. It was put together with a surfeit of love and generosity that exceeds anything slated for Record Store Day, and such tireless dedication is worth supporting whenever possible.