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The Nearly Lost World of American Folk Music

If not for two eccentrics, Harry Smith and Moses Asch, American popular music wouldn’t have so many roots in folk music and we’d all be the poorer for it.

Anthology of American Folk Music
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Amongst the pickers who roam the earth in search of lost items to add to whatever collection they garner, there is the rare breed whose preference is for the very uncommon. Harry Everett Smith was just such a person. A compulsive collector, Smith grew up in the Northwest in the 1930s. By the time the US entered World War II, he was studying anthropology at the University of Washington during the day and working nights at Boeing building war birds and using his earnings to feed an unusual habit. 

Harry was a proto-beatnik who loved exotica and everything mysterious, including the flotsam and jetsam of discarded American culture. He became an avid collector of old recordings, his weakness being for records that were either long forgotten or never really heard that much in the first place. He wasn’t a musician or even a musicologist. Instead, he seemed to be driven to discover lost worlds, hence, his studies in anthropology no doubt. He wasn’t interested so much in the lost tribes of the Amazon but more in the lost civilizations of America. He sought proof of worlds that once existed in our backyard, bygone cultures once briefly captured in recorded song and still manifest in short supply in these aural leavings.

Record collecting was hard work in those days, scavenging in stores for recorded curios that offered a revealing glimpse that shed light into the dusty tombs of forgotten funky Americana. Harry knew the treasure he sought wasn’t necessarily in the retail arena. The real trove sat in those dark, out-of-reach places in folks’ homes, their forgotten spaces: attics, basements, and garages, where castoff clutter sat quietly waiting, one step away from the trash bin. But how could one get to those private vaults of prime artifacts? Luckily for Smith, something wonderful happened during the war years that brought nearly every forlorn recording out of America’s nooks and crannies and seemingly dumped them at his feet for his perusal.

Before LPs or “long play” recordings came along, the primary medium used for music reproduction since the early 1900s had been short-play disks, or so-called “78s” in reference to the rotation speed at which they were played. Unlike LPs, they could contain only a few songs and were heavy, brittle disks, not made of the lighter, more flexible vinyl, but instead of a material called shellac. When the US entered World War II in the early ’40s, the government soon realized that shellac, which was also used in explosives and other critical war materials, was at a premium. At the time, the recording industry used 30 percent of the US’s shellac supply. Overnight, the War Production Board ordered a 70 percent cut in the production of new phonograph records to devote more of the nation’s supply of shellac to the war effort.

The music industry immediately pivoted to long-play vinyl since American popular music, mainly big band or ‘swing’ jazz, was still in demand. Not only did this make 78s almost immediately passé if not obsolete, but there was even a campaign by the government to collect 78s to recycle them for the war effort. It became everyone’s patriotic duty to offload their old records. Tons of these 78s were suddenly being grabbed from their resting places in people’s musty storage spaces and dumped unceremoniously to the curb and thus into the wider community. What normally would have gathered dust for years before slowly getting tossed over time into folks’ garbage was now piled high in the public square to the delight of the world’s maddest scavenger. For a brief moment, Harry Smith had a golden opportunity that put him in record-picking nirvana, and he did not squander that moment. His collection of old records grew into the thousands.

Musical recordings at the time were generally considered ephemeral by the recording industry and the buying public. What had before been a forgotten household relic was now viewed in even lesser terms: clutter with good reason to be immediately offloaded. Moreover, if records were generally viewed as having a short shelf life, the music Smith sought had a pull date that had long since passed. Being an early bohemian anthropologist and idiosyncratic artifact hunter, his taste ran to old country, blues, and other folk recordings from the ’20s and ‘30s.

These vanishing 78s were already considered exotic by the mid-’40s, featuring rural music mainly from the South that was mostly recorded by small regional labels catering to local musicians who were unknown outside the tiny communities where they played. For example, in the case of the blues, these were the recordings of itinerant musicians who traveled the South during the Great Depression, busking for a living. This was music by poor laborers recorded cheaply to be sold to other poor folks for a quick turn of slight profit. This music was never meant to be widely heard or have a broad or lasting impact. As such, they were not valued by the mainstream market of the time and were destined to quickly slip into obscurity and disappear from the known cultural universe. 

However, due to the unusual set of circumstances described above, good old Harry Smith was there to catch many of these heavy old platters before they slipped through the cracks to become ready fodder for the landfill of American musical history. His collection grew to ridiculous proportions, representing a vanished world and showcasing an unremembered time preserved not in amber but in shellac, a world that Smith likely thought only an eccentric like himself would appreciate.

By the late ’40s, Smith was evolving as an eccentric and branching into experimental films. He was moving to the East Coast to take advantage of a grant he had been awarded for such work. Now that he was looking to move his massive collection of records clear across the country, he began to question his habit of acquiring all those dusty 78s in the first place. But these were his babies, and he felt responsible to rehome them. He would have to find the right person to entrust them to.


While Smith was hoarding records by the pound on America’s West Coast, another man on the other side of the country was also marching to a different drummer in his pursuit of creating a record label unlike any other. Moses or “Moe” Asch started Folkway Records in 1948 to record and release traditional music from around the globe, including children’s songs and American folk, basically just the sort of stuff that had zero attraction to mainstream American audiences of the time. But Asch’s aim was true, and he wasn’t in it for the riches. (Moe’s unique recording pursuits began at the urging of a friend of the family, Albert Einstein, who told him he should do so because “Americans don’t appreciate their own culture.” 

Asch wasn’t intending to document this music just for posterity. He realized nobody was pursuing the commercial sale of American folk music of the type that had first been recorded in the ’30s by the likes of John and Alan Lomax, the field recording archivists working for the Library of Congress. He intended to sell this folk music from America and abroad. He devised a business model for his fledgling record label that early folk legend Pete Seeger described as buying recordings cheap from an anthropologist and then presenting them as if they were commercially viable to the public. Asch believed in marketing the most esoteric music because he was a visionary who saw the value in obscure art forms. He also had to be a pragmatic businessman; otherwise, he knew his venture would fail, and all this creativity from around the globe would go unappreciated by a wider audience.

Once Harry Smith set up camp on the East Coast, he was anxious to find a new home for his record collection, having schlepped the weighty results of his labor of love across the continent. Somehow, he heard of Moe Asch’s nascent venture and sought him out. Smith first tried to offload his entire collection into what he hoped would be the loving arms of Folkway Records, but Asch was smarter than that. Once he got to know Smith, he realized that, while not a musicologist, he was more than a mere junk dealer of American ephemera. Even Asch knew it would be impractical from a business standpoint for his record label to reissue a compendium of the entirety of Smith’s collection. Asch instead convinced Smith to act more as a partner on the project, asking him to curate his collection down to a reasonable number of salient recordings for re-issue by Folkways. Surely, no one else had the wherewithal to boil down to its essence this otherwise overwhelming mass of lost human creativity, culling the best for Folkways to release as an anthology.  

While perhaps resistant at first – and perhaps just wanting to be done with that whole phase in his life – Smith ultimately leaned into the task with alacrity and aplomb. Being an odd fellow, he imbued the selection process with his own droll style: He attached unique liner notes full of whimsical insight for each piece he had carefully chosen. For the song “Stackalee” by Frank Hutchison, his cataloging style summary of the tune was simply: “Theft of Stetson hat causes deadly dispute. Victim identifies self as family man”. The record-buying public reading Smith’s intriguing annotations were drawn into the experience of hearing voices from another realm, like a midway barker draws the reticent into a tent featuring sideshow oddities. Revealing his prescience, Smith later explained that he just chose a sample of songs from his massive collection that he thought would be the best for someone who might try to learn and sing the songs themselves. Whatever process he employed in this winnowing was highly successful, judging from his selections’ impact on those who first acquired the recordings Folkways issued. 

The release of the Anthology of American Folk Music, a series of three double albums on Folkway Records, occurred in August 1952. It comprised 84 recordings of folk, blues, and country music originally released during the late ’20s and early ’30s, hand-selected by the ultimate record picker. Some might compare Smith and Asch’s little venture to a team of archeologists digging up lost cultures. The rippling impact of releasing these artifacts spread as far and wide as the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the ’20s. The impact musically and in a broader cultural sense cannot be overstated. It’s been deemed “the most influential release in the history of recorded sound”, and more significant than the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indeed, Anthology of American Folk Music became the bible and inspiration for the emerging folkies who would later revolutionize rock in the mid-’60s.

The Anthology release arrived at the right moment. Post World War II consumerism and conformity were starting to sink their hooks into American culture, and an important slice of the country’s youth were questioning the world they were about to inherit. The music it featured revealed an America they had not known existed. For the first time, they heard music and voices centering on simple thoughts profoundly uttered, everyday folks singing with deep and revealing earnestness. The recordings taught a new generation of creative Americans that music could be authentic and thoughtful with raw emotional honesty. They heard truth in the music and how it was performed, lacking in the modern homogenized culture they were fed.

For one kid growing up in mid-century Minnesota, Harry Smith’s best ‘old time’ songs launched a personal journey of musical exploration that became an American cultural gift that just kept giving. Upon hearing the Anthology, a young Robert Zimmerman abandoned his passion for rock ‘n’ roll at the time, judging it as all attitude but no substance. There was much more depth to what he heard on the Folkways records. Changing his name to Bob Dylan in an all-consuming effort to match the poetic gravitas of what he was hearing and to look, sound, and be more meaningful, he traveled to the mecca of thoughtful alternative America, Greenwich Village, New York, where so many others were checking out of the shiny new America in search of a grittier authenticity. 

There might not have been a Greenwich Village scene without the release of the Folkways Anthology, at least as we know it, and its effect on the musical and cultural fabric of mid-century America. While Greenwich Village in the ’50s got the most attention, the folk revival played throughout the country in coffee houses, college campuses, and the like. It was the antidote to a plastic, vapid post-war culture. But that resistance movement needed a soundtrack or at least a common language. The music featured in the Folkways release provided the thoughtful creative fringe with a lingua franca for their new discourse of disgust and discouragement with the country’s direction. Folk guitarist John Fahey stated unequivocally, “There was no folk canon before Smith’s work.” Nearly every artist who led the field in the new direction that would become the musical revolution of the mid-’60s was pursuing folk and blues before that point. All of them were inspired or influenced by the reverberations of the Folkway release in the early ’50s.   

The impact of Anthology of American Folk Music continued reverberating as popular music developed exponentially during the remainder of the 20th century through the artists its release originally influenced. Dylan, for example, never really stopped exploring the American roots idiom throughout the remainder of his career. Like the Apostle Paul’s letters to the early churches, Dylan continued to proselytize his faith in the original teachings of The Anthology. Having circled back to rock music, much to the chagrin of the purest folkies in the mid-’60s, he showed the Beatles and others that one could blend rock’s attitude with folk’s substance, and the fires of the revolution were lit. After that scene got too hot even for Dylan, he retreated to his hideout in rural upstate New York. In 1967, he was joined by his old touring band, the Hawks, and Dylan began to reveal to its members their musical roots. The result of this schooling was that yet another musical wave of Americana was fast upon us. 

Dylan collaborated extensively with the Hawks that year, and much of their recorded material was informally released via bootleg recordings called the Dylan Basement Tape. Eventually becoming simply “The Band”, the members of the Hawks would release their own stuff the following year. By then, Dylan’s influence had once again made whatever was going on seem suddenly outdated. The Band’s Music from Big Pink, issued in 1968, influenced countless musicians to turn again to the rural template. The drug-influenced sound that was all the rage up to that moment was quickly abandoned for a more old-world back to basics direction anchored in Americana roots music. 

Everyone of note or promise seemed to suddenly move on from psychedelic rock to sounds more soulful, including the Stones, Pink Floyd, and the Grateful Dead, to name but a few heavy hitters that dramatically shifted their creative course as a consequence of The Band’s Dylan-influenced sound. All this laid the groundwork for what would become new genres such as Roots Rock, New Country, Southern Rock, and on and on. However, the influence of the Band was not so much another musical revolution as it was a reminder from the past, telling the popular music world through Dylan’s whisperings into their collective ears that they should not forget this stuff from way back when: the archetype’s already been firmly set, don’t stray too far from it, and speak in your own voice and you’ll do fine. 

It seems that as long as the music industry keeps pulling away from its natural orientation – its true north of authenticity – there will be a tendency for the long arch of the song to return to its roots firmly planted in the indisputable value of simply singing it like it is. It’s doubtful whether any of that would have happened if Harry Smith’s crazy record menagerie hadn’t been amassed in the first place. Anthology of American Folk Music arrived just in time to save American music. The idea that this all could have been lost in the dustbin of history, or at least lost to a whole generation, gives one pause.

Let us take stock of this odd turn of events: When Smith brought his mountain of shellac to Folkways, nobody saw its value. Even Smith had grown weary of carting his collection around by this time. His 78s were the detritus of decades past, discarded by the poor rural folks who had briefly seen their appeal. They are foisted onto a little-known record company devoted to peddling unwanted musical curios with zero apparent commercial worth or appeal. The whole thing is kind of pathetic up until this point. Then, this batch of forlorn oddities gets miraculously re-released, and the face of modern American music, commercially and otherwise, is changed forever – and for the better.