Released in 1952, the Anthology of American Folk Music was the singular vision of the enigmatic artist, musicologist, and collector Harry Smith (1923–1991). A collection of eighty-four commercial recordings of American vernacular and folk music originally issued between 1927 and 1932, the Anthology featured an eclectic and idiosyncratic mixture of blues and hillbilly songs, ballads old and new, dance music, gospel, and numerous other performances less easy to classify.
Where previous collections of folk music, both printed and recorded, had privileged field recordings and oral transmission, Smith purposefully shaped his collection from previously released commercial records, pointedly blurring established racial boundaries in his selection and organisation of performances. Indeed, more than just a ground-breaking collection of old recordings, the Anthology was itself a kind of performance on the part of its creator.
Over the six decades of its existence, however, it has continued to exert considerable influence on generations of musicians, artists, and writers. It has been credited with inspiring the North American folk revival—"The Anthology was our bible", asserted Dave Van Ronk in 1991, "We all knew every word of every song on it"—and with profoundly influencing Bob Dylan. After its 1997 release on CD by Smithsonian Folkways, it came to be closely associated with the so-called Americana and Alt-Country movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Following its sixtieth birthday, and now available as a digital download and rereleased on vinyl, it is once again a prominent icon in numerous musical currents and popular culture more generally.
This is the first book devoted to such a vital piece of the large and complex story of American music and its enduring value in American life. Reflecting the intrinsic interdisciplinarity of Smith’s original project, this collection contains a variety of new perspectives on all aspects of the Anthology.
Table of Contents
Part 1: Introductions
1. Introduction: America Changed Through Music Ross Hair and Thomas Ruys Smith
2. ‘spun in a wheel of vertigo’: Harry Smith and the Magic of History Geoff Ward
3. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music: The Critical Heritage Rory Crutchfield
Interlude 1. "This Unknown Body of Americana": Alan Lomax’s List of American Folk Songs on Commercial Records and the Anthology of American Folk Music Nathan Salsburg
Part 2: "The whole bizarre package"
4. Harry Smith, the Anthology, and the Artist as Collector Justin Parks
5. Collage, Politics, and Narrative Approaches to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music Dan Blim
6. Harry Smith: Collecting Thought-Forms and Programming the Aerial Computer R. Bruce Elder
Part 3: Deep Cuts
7. "Fatal Flower Garden": The Execution of a Child Ballad Robin Purves
8. Smith’s Amnesia Theater: "Moonshiner’s Dance" in Minnesota Kurt Gegenhuber
9. Dead Presidents: "Charles Guiteau", "White House Blues", and the Histories of Smithville Thomas Ruys Smith
Interlude 2. How Weird is Folk? Sharron Kraus
Part 4: "Other Lives"
10. "Volk Roots and Hiart Leaves": John Fahey and the Anthology of American Folk Music Ross Hair
11. Recycling the South: Contemporary Literature and the Anthology of American Folk Music Phil Langran
12. The "Other Lives" of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music Paola Ferrero
Afterword Rani Singh.
Ross Hair is Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Culture at the University of East Anglia, UK. He is the author of Ronald Johnson’s Modernist Collage Poetry (2010) and Avant-Folk: Small Press Poetry Networks from 1950 to the Present (2016). His essays on modern American and British poetry have appeared in, among other publications, the Journal of Modern Literature, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, and Texas Studies in Literature and Language.
Thomas Ruys Smith is Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Culture at the University of East Anglia, UK. He is the author of River of Dreams: Imagining the Mississippi Before Mark Twain (2007), and Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century (2011). He is also the editor of Blacklegs, Card Sharps and Confidence Men: Nineteenth-Century Mississippi River Gambling Stories (2010), and, with Sarah Churchwell, Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers, from Charlotte Temple to The Kite Runner (2012).
‘The Anthology of American Folk Music is an extraordinary cultural entity, one that has assumed mythical status. And Ross Hair and Thomas Ruys Smith’s fascinating collection manages to preserve our wonder at the music and at the eccentricity of its curator, while bringing new insights and fresh arguments to its history. Just as the Anthology is full of strange delights, so too is this book.'
John Street, University of East Anglia
'The Anthology of American Folk Music is a talismanic casket of musical treasures, containing the key to decoding the tangled patterns of Harry Smith’s interests in multiple art forms. This valuable essay collection offers invigorating and learned perspectives on the Anthology and its connections with folklore, magic, and hidden histories of America. It’s a celebration of Smith’s maverick verve and shamanic energy, reinstating him as a wonder-working polymath whose occult activities rippled out widely into 20th century culture.'
Rob Young, The Wire