Harry Smith

Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music Volume 4

[Revenant Records]

For several months I've been on the trail of a guy called John Fahey, a legendary guitarist who defined the acoustic six-string over 40 years and, with his guitar excursions into the unknown, influenced everyone from the American Primitive movement to Sonic Youth, while being influenced himself by everyone from Charley Patton to German demolition merchants Einsturzende Neubauten. Unsurprisingly, John Peel is to blame, championing Fahey right from his Perfumed Garden show, which commenced broadcasting 40 years ago last month, by the way.

The pursuit of Fahey's intriguing tale, in the pipeline for Record Collector, led me to Harry Smith's 1952 three-volume compilation, The Anthology Of American Folk Music, which collates blues, country and folk 78s made in the 1920s and 1930s. 'Signals from a lost world', they've been called. A world I've only scratched the surface of in the past. The appearance of another volume brings that world a bit nearer.

The other epic I've been working on, this one for MOJO, marks 30-years since the Roxy club gave London its punk HQ for 100 days - and producer Mike Thorne made an album out of its group's first fumblings. He's most flattered when I tell him that album now ranks as a kind of 1977 equivalent to Harry Smith's Anthology. That's a world I know a whole lot more about - but it seems people's problems and song subjects haven't changed much: unemployment, drinking problems, women trouble and political shit.

Harry Smith was every bit as passionate, crusading and eccentric as more recent musical giants. He died in 1991 - but his spirit seems to loom larger as time goes by. As an original documenter of the people's music, he deserves a mention here, while the music he saved from being lost forever has played a vital role in what you listen to today.

Some history . . .

Born in 1923, Harry Smith grew up on an island north of Seatle which also happened to be an Indian reservation. His parents were involved in the occult [to the extent that he once claimed his father was actually Aleister Crowley]. Harry started recording the reservation while at school – then, at 16 - decided he wanted to make films. Not being able to afford a camera, he simply drew on film. Around this time, while at Seattle's University Of Washington, Harry started collecting records. Huge piles of 78s from the 1920s and 30s. When these started being melted down for use in the war effort, it fuelled Harry's passion - and soon he had amassed thousands of historic blues, folk and country 78s - which otherwise would have been wiped off the planet. After the war, he relocated to the burgeoning artistic community at Berkeley - before moving to San Francisco and immersing himself in the jazz scene.

Around 1950, Harry moved again - this time to the vibrant bebop and art hotbed that was New York City. Even back then, the Big Apple was no place to be skint, so Harry, still sitting on piles of historic 78s, went to the new Folkways records and sold the idea of compiling a set drawn from the cream of his collection. It became The Anthology Of American Folk Music, which Harry compiled, laid out and wrote notes for. It came in three volumes over six albums, mixing blues, folk and old time country gems from previously little-heard names like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Buell Kazee, Dock Boggs and Furry Lewis. 'I felt social changes would come from it,' said Harry. He was right. The set inspired an entire generation - kick-starting the whole US folk boom which started in the 50s before raging through the early 60s - throwing up names like Bob Dylan and the Greenwich Village scene. Harry also legitimised record collectors who, up until then, were considered to be oddballs.

There were supposed to be four volumes - but Harry argued with Folkways over the performance on one of the tracks - and, having sold the rest of his enormous collection to the New York Public Library and lost his customary exhaustive research notes - went back to making his unique films and hanging out with Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders. The way this lot were trying to make films and create things using minimal equipment foreshadows Don Letts being given a Super-8 and making the Punk Rock Movie by 15 years. In the early 60s, Harry lived with his booze problem in infamous artist magnet: the Chelsea Hotel.

By 1965, Ed Sanders had formed the Fugs, New York's first punk band, with Lower East Side poet Tuli Kupferberg. Harry recorded their debut Village Fugs album with East Village anthems like 'Slum Goddess' and 'I Couldn't Get High' [but that's another story]. He also found time to go to Oklahoma and record the Kiowa Indians' peyote ceremonies, which were released on Folkways in 1973. Harry spent the next 20-years in NYC pursuing his passions and projects but was always skint. He wanted to record an album of amphetamine-fired murderers babbling on the Lower East Side and, when forced to live in a homeless shelter on the Bowery, recorded the coughs and ramblings of the terminally sick. I was amazed to discover that Harry lived at Allen Ginsberg's 12th Street apartment in the mid-80s. Must've been just before I moved into the floor above. Shit.

Harry lived long enough to receive a lifetime achievement award at the 1991 Grammys. 'I'm glad to say that my dreams came true - that I saw America changed through music.' He died at the end of the year, back at the Chelsea Hotel, knowing that his Anthology had made a difference.

After plans for the fourth volume collapsed, the tapes went on a long, convoluted journey - while the notes were lost. Harry's friend and eventual nurse, Rani Singh, started the Harry Smith Archive after his death, acquired the tapes and brought them to John Fahey’s Revenant who, in 2000, released the two CDs with a hand-finished 94–page book containing vivid essays by names including Ed Sanders, Greil Marcus and Fahey himself. After winning a Grammy, it went out of print - but Revenant - possibly the coolest record label in the world - is re-releasing it.

Many of the country, folk and blues items date from Depression-era 30s. It's a snapshot of that time by people who were living in it. Some of the stuff is funny ['West Virginia Gals' by Al Hopkins & His Buckle Busters], some of it moving [Blind Alfred Reed's 'How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?'], quite a lot is odd and archaic [like the opening 'Memphis Shakedown' by the Memphis Jug Band]. Recurring blues figures pop up, like John Henry [and his nine-pound hammer] and Casey Jones, the driver who in 1900 ploughed his train into the rear of another. The blues stuff is unearthly - with gems like Leadbelly's 'Packin' Trunk' [which blueprinted Carl Perkins' 'Matchbox'], Joe Wiliams' Washboard Blues Singers roaring through garage standard 'Baby Please Don't Go' in 1935 and Robert Johnson's 'Last Fair Deal Gone Down', selected years before he became the hip blues name to drop and got covered by the Stones, etc. Sleepy John Estes, Memphis Minnie, Roosevelt Graves and Minnie Wallace are all captured shouting about the times. Meanwhile, Bukka White had been locked up in the notorious Parchman Farm jail and recorded 'Parchman Farm Blues' about the experience in 1940 [25 years later John Fahey tracked him down in a Mississippi tank factory and signed him up for his previous label, Takoma]. In 1928, bluegrass pioneer Uncle Dave Macon voiced his support for prospective New York Governor Al Smith because he promised to abolish Prohibition. The song was called 'Governor Al Smith'. Other styles covered include gospel - and even old English ballads!

It's a lost world - but a fascinating one - one where you can go as deep as you want. The social background, cast of characters, events being described and musical lineage contained here could fill this - or any other issue of trakMARX – ten times over. Suffice to say, like 30-years ago in the UK - this is mainly normal people singing, crying or talking about what's going in theirs - or the outside world - making some unique and startling music in the process. In fact the only real difference is that this gear was laid down nearly 80-years ago! Mike Thorne says the Roxy album now sounds like it could have been transcribed from 78s. This has - and it's great.

Kris Needs – tMx 29 – 04/07