Although I have professed to be a lover of all types of music over the years, frankly folk music has never really done much for me. Aging urban hipsters around during the late '50s/early '60s always wax nostalgic for the times they visited their downtown hootenanny and 'discovered' the latest hillbilly band sensation (although more times then not, these so-called rural ensembles hailed not from the backwoods of Tennessee or some clapboard shack in West Virginia, but from no further than the city's suburbs). One of my favorite writers, Hunter S. Thompson, is guilty of this misty-eyed memorializing too; he has written about jugband throwdowns he attended at the "hungry i" (yes, it was spelled out in lower case on the marquee) in San Francisco, and about travelling into the outback of Kentucky to hear 'authentic' mountain music.
That might have been fine for him, back then. But I think that few of today's music lovers can relate to or appreciate that real folk sound. After the initial explosion, some of the early sixties folk musicians, like Joan Baez, Peter Paul & Mary, and especially Bob Dylan, tried to keep the authentic feeling alive. But as the decade progressed, folk music got commercialized and bastardized, becoming poppier and thus losing much of its original potency. The Mamas & The Papas, The Stone Poneys, The Grass Roots, The Hollies - all of those groups started out with folk intentions, but evolved into pop groups. However, today, when people think about 'folk music', these are the bands (and many others like them) that immediately spring to mind. In considering these groups to be 'folk' groups, it cheapens the actual genre. The sound of the Hollies, Mamas & Papas, etc., is of a certain time and place, and while that sound may have appeal to Sixties revivalists, it serves to limit the more widespread appeal of authentic folk.
Like I said, that music didn't do anything for me - 1960s folk/pop wasn't a sound that I could get into.
A few years ago, during one of those periodic Dylan revivals that seem to happen every so often, I was watching some TV documentary about Dylan's early years. They interviewed a guy named Dave Van Ronk, who was one of the young Dylan's mentors in New York. Van Ronk spoke about the early days of the folk revival in Greenwich Village, where he was a leading light, and his influences in those days, which included the blues legend Odetta and the recording artists and music associated with Folkways Records (where Van Ronk recorded his first folk album in 1959). I thought to myself, "Ah - there was something before Dylan," and filed the names "Van Ronk" and "Folkways" away for later.
A few days later, I was over at my buddy Ed's house, sitting around while he played Dylan on his stereo. I mentioned the show I had seen earlier, and asked him if he knew anything about Van Ronk or Folkways. He was unfamiliar with the former, but in answer to the latter part of the question, he reached up onto the bookshelf holding his CDs and came down with a large red square box, which he handed to me. It was a CD box set, the Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 1-3, compiled by a guy named Harry Smith and put out on Folkways Records way back in 1952 (released on CD in 1997). Ed told me that the source of nearly everything Dylan, Baez, and all of the other '60s folk groups did was in this set, which compiled original blues, folk and country tunes recorded during the Depression Era. When I reminded Ed of my dislike of folk music, he responded by grabbing one of the set's CDs and putting on "Single Girl, Married Girl" by The Carter Family, a simple song with finger-picked chords and countrified singing, but undoubtedly full of power and heart:
I was pretty well blown away, and asked to borrow the Anthology for a while to fully absorb it.
Over the next week or so, I got to know the Anthology pretty well, and with it, I discovered a new appreciation for folk music. From what I read, Harry Smith was a California artist and eccentric who in 1940 began collecting old blues, gospel and country 78s as a hobby, at a time when most people didn't take that type of music seriously. By the end of the 1940s, Smith had amassed several thousand of these records in his collection. He met with Moses Asch, the head of Folkways Records, in 1947 in the hope of selling or licensing his records to the label. Instead, Asch gave Smith the chance to put together an album of his favorites. According to Smith, he selected recordings from between "1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Depression halted folk music sales." The Anthology of American Folk, Vol. 1-3, divided into three themes (Ballads, Social Music, and Songs), was a sensation in certain quarters when first released. The set is directly responsible for the folk music revival of the 1950s, and all that came later. Most of the folkies at that time, including Van Ronk and Dylan, considered the Anthology to be the Bible of Folk, and many of the once-obscure songs on it became folk music standards after being played at those urban coffeehouses and hootenannies.
In the original liner notes to the Anthology (themselves celebrated for their wittiness and design), Smith mentions that there were to be three more volumes in his folk music series, which would compile music up to 1950. However, none of these following volumes would be released in Smith's lifetime (he died in 1991). Eventually, in 2000, Revenant Records released Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4, consisting of songs released on 78rpm records between 1927 and 1940, and compiled using notes that Smith left behind. Just as the first three volumes of this series had a theme, the theme of Volume 4 is Labor Songs. This two-disc set is just as superb as the original three volumes, and just as essential. With that being said, I have no idea why Revenant would let this album go out of print.
From what I understand, the final two albums in Smith's planned series of six were taped, and have been sitting in the Folkways (now Smithsonian Folkways) archives for decades, although they lack the documentation required to fully license the music and complete the liner notes. Let's hope that someday they get around to doing that, and fully realize Harry Smith's dream. Until then, enjoy this sublime and currently unavailable collection of classic folk music. This is damn near impossible to find online, so . . . Enjoy:
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