Revenant’s release of Volume Four of the Anthology of American Folk Music is—for the adherents of the other three volumes—the rough equivalent of the church quietly releasing a long-rumored extra book of the Bible that God never got around to polishing off himself.
From some of the glowing articles on Smith in the 100-page accompanying book of the 27 song, two CD set, you might wonder if some of the essayists (Griel Marcus and John Fahey among them) didn’t think he was a god. But too much has been said about the strange, somewhat sad life of Harry Smith; not nearly enough has been said about the music he compiled.
The original 1952 Anthology is a lovingly compiled collection of various American folk music—the stuff that might just disappear if someone isn’t careful. It happens. The great buildings get torn down, the old newspapers discarded, the pictures get brittle then turn to dust. We lose more history than we ever realize we possessed. Smith did his part and saved what he thought were the best. Appalachian mountain songs, the fine line between slave spirituals and church gospel, and the origins of western swing are all in here. And to get to know these songs is to take a dizzying trip through time.
This fourth volume was long planned by Smith, but never compiled, and 48 years later they’ve done it for him, and for us. It is simultaneously beautiful, depressing, enlightening, and engorssing.
Take The Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven.” It is completely unconvincing in its sentiments. You feel by listening that if the Depression ruined so many lives around them, it couldn’t possible have spared the Beyond, and it’s that resignation in the voice that gives it power. Another highlight is a string of two John Henry (the mighty man with the hammer) songs followed by a Casey Jones ballad. The man versus machine mythos is strong in America and the quiet pervasive role machines have in our lives now versus the loud menacing guise that faced John Henry and Casey Jones, can make you wonder if one is any less threatening than the other.
This new Anthology may even be a better introduction to older folk music than the first three volumes (available together in a six-CD set from Smithsonian/Folkways). Two discs are less overwhelming, and it’s easier to make distinctions and connections here than in the five hours of music on the larger set.
Both editions may still pale compared to a less talked about compilation on Columbia’s Legacy label called Roots ‘n’ Blues—The Retrospective (1925-1950). A four-CD set (a happy medium) with less elaborate packaging than the Folk Anthologies, but better photos, The Retrospective focuses more on “race” records, while the Anthology may offer more European descended styles, such as the French sung “Dans le Grand Bois” by The Hackberry Ramblers. Still, once you start to listen to this music, you may want to invest in them all. They’re worth it.
Something that strikes me about such compilations is the way so many of these singers and players, who may have spent decades making music, have their lives work represented by only a single song. The major artists—Leadbelly, Robert Johnson—are well documented. Others though, well, who knows how their music would come across in the context of the rest of their work. But making albums of this sort is expensive work, and not enough people buy them to keep the labels hunting and compiling. Thankfully labels like Revenant will take the time to make this Volume Four a reality after decades of rumors.
Two last notes: Revenant also has a wonderful collection of music by 1920’s banjo player Dock Boggs, one of the men who otherwise might only be heard on a single track in the Anthology. Two: To hear the creepiest of this kind of music by one of today’s best, check out Kristin Hersh’s Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight from 4AD mailorder, a fine collection of deadly acoustic folk songs.