New Adventures in Antiquity

[2 November 2006]

By Zeth Lundy

New Adventures in Antiquity

I saw America change through music.
—Harry Smith

I’m sure you’ll love some of it, I’m sure you’ll hate some of it, but you will be a different person once this is over.
—Hal Wilner’s introduction to The Harry Smith Project Live DVD

For a guy who realized his greatest notoriety via the musical oddities he rescued and repackaged as the Anthology of American Folk Music, Harry Smith sure had a regular name.  And though that regular name was a flagrant misrepresentation of both the unusual art Smith collected and his own singular demeanor, it was somewhat indicative of the anonymous presence he was inevitably required to manufacture, smack-dab in the middle of this great cultural wilderness he had assembled.

The Anthology, released in 1952 by Folkways Records and later reissued as an award-winning six-CD set in 1997, was Smith’s handpicked chronicle of that personal wilderness, a succinct illustration of one musicologist’s very particular obsession that became a universal yardstick of genre and style.  The compilation is comprised of songs commercially released between 1927 and 1934; in many cases, the selections that made it to the set’s final running order were granted clemency from oblivion, as the fate of many 78s was as melted-down materials for WWII efforts.  Smith assembled the 84-track compilation with an emphasis on strangeness, even favoring bizarre renditions of otherwise familiar tunes.  As a set divided into “ballads” (narratives), “social music” (instrumental and spiritual group performances), and “songs”, the Anthology depicts an “old, weird America”, to quote Greil Marcus’s oft-quoted description, a picture that’s eerily familiar only when it’s not just plain eerie.  (Marcus’s liner notes that accompany the reissued set serve as the definitive word on Smith and what is, in essence, his record collection, bankrolled by Folkways and disseminated to the masses.)

Between 1999 and 2001, Hal Wilner staged three separate concerts in London, New York, and Los Angeles—“happenings”, as he calls them—to pay tribute to Smith and his influential collection of American song.  Wilner, a record producer and music supervisor for Saturday Night Live, is best known for the tribute albums and shows he organizes that salute (amongst other things) off-kilter Americana, including tributes to Thelonious Monk (That’s the Way I Feel Now) and Charles Mingus (Weird Nightmare).  The Harry Smith Project may have been Wilner’s most ambitious undertaking to date; not only did it span years and the Atlantic, but this music is truly cluttered with voluminous artistic visions, from sermons to murder ballads and every bit of mutable humanity in between.  For each stage, Wilner assembled an eclectic batch of singer/interpreters (more on them in a moment) and a revolving casts of supporting musicians, including many usual suspects from the NYC and LA rock and jazz scenes: guitarists Bill Frisell and Smokey Hormel, bassist Larry Taylor, drummer DJ Bonebrake, and clarinetist Don Byron, to name a few.

The entire three-city celebration is being commemorated by Shout! Factory’s new box set, The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited, a two-CD/two-DVD set.  Thirty-two performances are spread across the two CDs, many of which are also viewable on one of the accompanying DVDs.  The second DVD contains The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a documentary which serves as a biography of Smith and the story of his most famous project, led mostly by interviews with Marcus and the musicians involved.  Marcus, in particular, gives an inspired oral presentation on how the Anthology‘s “secret culture” reflects American culture, an auditory manifestation of his original liner notes.  His testimony is, along with archival footage of Smith and glimpses of some of the set’s original performers, the most notable feature of the documentary, which relies too heavily on recycling performance clips from the live DVD.

Many of the “eccentric” performers sharing The Harry Smith Project‘s three stages—e.g., Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, Van Dyke Parks, Sonic Youth, the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, Beck—are the kind who deviate from the norm in varying degrees of severity and therefore are the kind that Smith would undoubtedly approve of.  (The lineup is just one Robyn Hitchcock short of a purposely “peculiar” deck, so to speak.)  Their collective courtship of idiosyncrasy is no coincidence; it is a byproduct of the Anthology‘s continuing influence in both musical and cultural circles.  Artists like Beck, who covers Robert Johnson’s “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, and Wilco, who covers Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues”, have inherited the Anthology‘s strewn bits of junkyard consciousness; others, like Kate & Anna McGarrigle, who perform Dock Boggs’s “Sugar Baby”, and Beth Orton, who moves ghostly through Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie”, emit the chilling economy of acts like the Carter Family.

The folk music that the Anthology champions (songs of bitter, chilly necessity; of consequential truth; of frogs and dogs and blues and death), along with the bond that so many contemporary artists have to the stuff, really puts sanitized, coffeehouse “folk” and its leftist protest ilk on the cornered defensive.  What exactly is “normal” when it comes to populist representations in song?  Front-porch recounts of localized life or inconsequential pandering to sentimentality and respectable volume?  Smith’s Anthology and its more famous followers argue that what is now classified as normal is merely middle-of-the-road safeness, a complete fabrication of homogenized utopia that eclipses what this real folk music is: shifty, difficult, sometimes hard to gaze upon but intoxicating in its sincerity, collaborative yet fiercely disloyal to a pack mentality. 

There is, then, an inescapably disingenuous air to the proceedings documented in The Harry Smith Project, a feeling of awkwardness roused by the spectacle of famous, well-to-do performers with state-of-the-art equipment interpreting songs by (largely) unknown, destitute musicians with less than half of the technological opportunity.  This is more or less alluded to by Elvis Costello before his vein-popping run through Buell Kazee’s “The Butcher’s Boy”; in the documentary, Beck’s half-joking suggestion to guitarist Smokey Hormel to play out of tune would have yielded a more genuine reconstruction of 1930s blues.  Some pairings of artist and song, on the other hand, suggest an attempt to authenticate the event: Steve Earle, who has experience with incarceration, gets Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Prison Cell Blues”; and Nick Cave, whose stage act incorporates the fire-and-brimstone theatrics of a zealous preacher, performs Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator”. 

Still, any crisis of genuineness must be set aside, for Wilner’s concert celebrations aren’t tailored to serve as counterfeit approximations of the real thing.  The artists who contribute to The Harry Smith Project are those who have made their own music, in part, from the Anthology‘s trickledown stimulus.  They stand on stage as manifestations of what they have become, in part, from the scratchy old country and blues 78s that alternately haunted, provoked, and exasperated them, as listeners and absorbers and interpreters.  Now, they present large cross-sections of Smith’s universe in their own image, offering up not impressions of past life, but rather reflections of stylistic kin.

While this excuses the quandary of realism, it creates a problem of merit: none of the performances scattered throughout The Harry Smith Project‘s two CDs and DVD are more essential or even more telling than the originals.  Some are definitely the stuff of fascination (free-jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd annihilates Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Dry Bones” with the destructive help of Sonic Youth), but most reinforce the conclusion that you simply had to be there, as part of the live audience being taken through a five-to-six-hour journey of in-the-flesh spectacle.  This is a wilderness, after all, and wildernesses are most impressive when you put your feet on their floor and let them surround you.

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