An Anthology of American Folk Music

Various performers

Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40090

In all the years that I have written about music I have not come across an album that is so beautiful and complete as The Anthology of American Folk Music.  It is a re-issue of a series of LPs from 1952, compiled at the time from recordings that were then some twenty years old.

The six CDs are packaged in a tastefully designed box, sized as if intended for an LP-set.  Information and stories related to this album have been printed in a book of the same size.  Inserted in the middle of this book you'll find another - a facsimile of the original liner notes to this collection written and laid out by its compiler Harry Smith, artist, anthropologist and record collector.

The Anthology can be approached from different angles.  You can listen to the CDs as historical documents, branching out from 1952 to the past and the future.  All recordings date from the period between 1926 and 1934, but most of them were recorded in the 1920s.  It was a time of prosperity, in which the record industry was rapidly expanding, trying to extend its markets to the countryside.  In order to get people from rural communities buy these records, the music should be in some way characteristic of their own region.

The playing styles breathed the character of their place of origin.  Because electric amplification was yet unknown, the singers had to try and reach their audience through the power of their voice and its timbre.  Texts often referred to contemporary events, but could also hark back in time.  In the early 1930s the companies ceased releasing this kind of music - the demand for this luxury collapsed when the economic depression hit.  When the second World War caused shellac, the material of which these discs were made, to become scarce, large numbers of records were melted.  Some rare individuals, Harry Smith among them, bought thousands of titles before they were destroyed.  Except for that they might have disappeared from memory.

When these six LPs came out in the 1950s they made a tremendous impression on American music lovers who bought them.  For them, the fact that a vernacular folk music existed was a first rate discovery.  Their influence came to fruition in the 1960s.  They were a source of inspiration for Bob Dylan.  The distinctive whistle in Goin' up the Country, the song that brought world fame to the band Canned Heat, was copied from Old Country Stomp on the third disc of the collection.  A nun with the grittiest voice you've ever heard, sounds like a larger than life ancestor of the white soul singer Janis Joplin.

Because Smith arranged the songs along associative lines you can also listen to the CDs (covering three themes - ballads, music with a social function and 'songs') as a concept album.  You can make a whole trip of that, along the road of Smith's concise notes and the hilarious-poetic summaries he made of the texts, or letting yourself be guided by the detailed complementary information in the book or by the audiovisual clips on the last disc, which can be accessed as a CD-ROM.

But you can also lean back and enjoy the deeply felt and catching renditions of these songs and dances.  Some are overwhelming and virtuosic, others are intimate and touching.  We elected this superb album 'CD of the Month', but we are convinced that it is the CD of the year.

René van Peer
First published in Wereldmuziek Update, Amsterdam, Autumn 1998

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