OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC - "Edited by Harry Smith Smithsonian Folkways"
Six CDs, eighty-four songs, covering four and a quarter hours of music, and with CD-Rom access on the sixth it's a truly magnificent piece of work.
Today, we have the internet and web sites at our finger tips. When the majority of the cuts featured (1928 - 1931) were recorded, such innovations weren't available - people of America's rural eastern states/south had their own network; music being handed down from one generation to another. Had not the acts made these recordings when they did - a year or so before and into the great depression - there's a great possibility this Harry Smith 1952 original would never have appeared. Lost, forever.
After the great depression - we had of course, World War 2. America and the world were changing rapidly and many of those involved weren't to be around the next time a concerted interest was shown in traditional music. Music living deep in the rural environs of the Appalachians, Mississippi Delta, Georgia, Alabama and neighbouring states rich in black influences of religious African/American, blues guitar and banjo. Rich in folk culture, having travelled far, the journey wasn't over - for after travelling on the backs of medicine shows, miners, railroad workers, chain-gangs, storytellers, travelling minstrels, riverboats and migrant workers, modern day folkies (among others) were to adapt the melodies - and themes.
Harry Smith in his wisdom collected music from some diverse sources of interrelating qualities - Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, Doc Watson, Pete and Mike Seeger among the luminaries garnering much from the collection. Like an acorn or mustard seed, many branches were to spread forth - folk music's late '50s and the more lauded early 60s boom not the least. It also proved a watershed for a blues revival, bringing about a re-birth for many. Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis bluesman, Furry Lewis and people discovered past masters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, who, like Robert Johnson enjoyed an all too brief duration on this earth.
Country music families. Many renowned for taking British Isles ballads, and making them their own - the Carter Family, (their recordings like one or two more slicker, and less rippled yet nevertheless still imbued in rich backwoodsy affection) the Stoneman Family, plus groups The Carolina Tar Heels (with Clarence Tom Ashley, later to play the folk scene with Doc Watson) and Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers. A distinctive pioneering feel unfurls.
Waxing tales of hardship, tragic happenings, murders and subsequent hangings and a great affinity towards the land of adventure. Tales "Charles Giteau", "Henry Lee", "John Hardy", "Kassie Jones", "Frankie (& Johnny)", "Engine 143", "Omie Wise" and "Down On Penny's Farm" - later adapted by Dylan to become, "Maggie's Farm".
As remarked in Greil Marcus's text, Smith, through this pivotal collection, formed his own folk haven of Smithsville. Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes contributes much to the 68 page text - an addition to Smith's colourful network of original, meticulous detailed notes. No stone is left unturned as both origins and future covers are noted. Fiddle and banjo alongside guitar appear throughout with accordion on the Arcadian tunes. Of the banjo numbers, Dock Boggs and equally enthusiastic enthusiast Uncle Dave Macon deliver a music high on energy - the latter's, "Buddy Won't You Roll On Down Line" telling much on folklore of America's south.
Rustic, sure, some are - but, never is a tale spoilt through some un-invited set of strings or new fangled instrument under-mining the plot. Some gospel cuts are even sparser - done a cappella fashion.
Grouped into three categories it's most accessible fare. You not only become on first name terms with the performers, but the characters portrayed. Supplementary to Smith's cheery track jottings Jeff Place adds much detail - which are updated on the internet. As an additional treat, (but not one to put off non CD Rom users) access to artist interviews, historic video footage, and rare photos is available via the enhanced sixth CD of the superbly presented box-set. Maurice Hope
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