An anthology of music is a mirror of the world. It says something about a specific time, a place, a genre, a label, or the life story of an artist. But in a few rare cases, an anthology can also help shape a musical landscape. In that sense, it becomes a musical map that not only draws the lines of the past, but also leads the way into the future. Released in 1952, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
(Folkways) did just that. It paved the way for the American folk music revival whose super stars, Bob Dylan
and Johnny Cash
, were immensely influenced by the music.
Today, when old time compilations are a dime a dozen, and every kind of obscure music seems available in internet archives, it's hard to imagine how precious the six volumes of music that made up the anthology were. It spans a period from 1926 to 1933 and includes a wide range of styles, from gospel, Cajun and blues to country and mountain music. However, Smith didn't care much about genres. On the contrary, he wanted to blur the boundaries and rebel against exclusive definitions. With a blindfold test, he teased a jazz critic who mistook the blues legend, Mississippi John Hurt
, for a country musician. The point to Smith was clear: Music matters, but genres don't.
Smith's legacy is celebrated with a collection of music that acts as a mirror image of the original anthology. The Harry Smith B-sides
, released on Dust-to- Digital, presenting every flipside of the 78s Smith presented, except three songs that were removed because of racist language. What remains is a collection that is rich, but not as groundbreaking as the original. It is a bit like repeating a canonic list of musicians that by now will be familiar to most listeners of old-time music and blues. That doesn't make the music of the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson
and Bascom Lamar Lunsford less appealing, but it means that The Harry Smith B-sides
doesn't tell a new story, but repeats a story that has already been told.
A big part of the attraction of this set lies in the digressions, the names that Smith presented that have remained obscure or less celebrated and now get a second chance to shine, like the haunting blues of Henry Thomas on "Texas Worried Blues" or songster Jim Jackson's humorous take on personification when he gives voice to a pork chop on "I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop."
Another plus about this package is the book conceived in the spirit of Smith with several short texts by scholars and musicians, who contribute quirky and insightful track-by-track notes. There are also essays by Eli Smith and the late John Cohen, who brought the complete project of the B-sides to the head of Dust-To-Digital, Lance Ledbetter. In his introduction, Ledbetter also tells the fascinating story of the late collector Robert Nobley, who first brought the idea of the B-sides to his attention and presented an incomplete first version to him.
The life-long fascination of Nobley, Cohen and Eli Smith with Anthology of American Folk Music
says a lot about the status of this collection. The meticulous recreation of Smith's universe in packaging, sound and text keeps the legend alive, but also addresses issues of inclusion and exclusion that have come up in our own time, for instance the lack of Native American music in the anthology. In that way, the B-sides have become a metatext to the A-sides. A rare example of the anthology as folklore examined by itself. Heraclitus famously said that you can't step into the same river twice, and in a way the paradox of this collection is that it brings the original closer to our time and yet further away. In spite of this, it is still refreshing to dive into the waters of the music that speaks with a human voice as flawed and complex as we are today.
Dick Justice – “One Cold December Day”; Nelstone's Hawaiians – “Village School”; Clarence Ashley – “Old
Hardy”; Coley Jones – “The Elder He’s My Man”;*Bill & Belle Reed – “You Shall Be Free”; Buell Kazee – "The
Wagoner's Lad"; Buell Kazee – "The Butcher's Boy"; Chubby Parker & His Old-Time Banjo – “Down on the
Uncle Eck Dunford – “Angeline, the Baker”; Burnett and Rutherford – “All Night Long Blues”; Buster Carter
Preston Young – “It Won’t Hurt No More”Carolina Tar Heels – “You Are a Little Too Small”; Grayson & Whitter
“Rose Conley”; Kelly Harrell – “My Wife, She Has Gone and Left Me”; Edward L. Crain – “Cowboy’s Home
Home”; Kelly Harrell – “Henry Clay Beattie”; Carter Family – “Bring Me Back My Blue-Eyed Boy”; Williamson
Brothers & Curry – “Warfield”; Frank Hutchison – “Stackalee”; Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers
“Monkey on a String”; Mississippi John Hurt – “Nobody’s Dirty Business” ; William & Versey Smith –
Help the Boys Come Home”; Carter Family – “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes”; Furry Lewis – “Kassie
The Bentley Boys – “Henhouse Blues”; The Masked Marvel – “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues”; Carolina Tar
Heels – “Back to Mexico”; Uncle Bunt Stephens – “Louisburg Blues”; J.W. Day – “Marthis Campbell”; Prince
Hunt's Texas Ramblers – “Waltz of Roses”; Delma Lachney and Blind Uncle Gaspard – “Le Bebe et le
(The Baby and the Gambler)”; Andrew & Jim Baxter – “Forty Drops”; A.C. “Eck” Robertson and Family –
Waltz”; Hoyt Ming and His Pep-Steppers – “Old Red”; Henry Thomas – “Bull-Doze Blues”; Jim Jackson – “I
the Voice of a Pork Chop”; Columbus Fruge – “Bayou Teche”; Joseph Falcon – “Aimer et Perdre (To Love and
Breaux Freres – “T’As Vole Mon Chapeau (You Have Stolen My Hat)”; Cincinnati Jug Band – “George Street
Stomp”; Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra – “Moonshiner's Dance Part Two”; Rev. J. M. Gates –
Death Where Is Thy Sting”; Rev. J. M. Gates – “Must Be Born Again”; Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – “Present
Joys”; Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – “Rocky Road”; Middle Georgia Singing Convention No. 1 – “I Am Going
Home”; Sister Mary Nelson – “The Royal Telephone”; Memphis Sanctified Singers – “The Great Reaping Day”;
Elders McIntorsh and Edwards –“The Latter Rain Is Fall”; Rev. Moses Mason – “Go Wash in the Beautiful
Bascom Lamar Lunsford – “Stepstone”; Blind Willie Johnson – “You’re Going to Need Someone on Your Bond”;
Carter Family – “God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign”; Ernest Phipps & His Holiness Singers – “A Little Talk with
Jesus”; Rev. F.W. McGee – “Nothing to Do in Hell”; Rev. D.C. Rice and His Sanctified Congregation –“He’s Got
Eyes on You”; Clarence Ashley – “Dark Holler Blues”; Buell Kazee – “Darling Cora”; Cannon's Jug Stompers –
“Madison Street Rag”; E. Segura & D. Herbert – “Far Away from Home Blues”; Richard "Rabbit" Brown – “I’m
Jealous”; Dock Boggs – “Down South Blues”; Bascom Lamar Lunsford – “Mountain Dew”; Mr. & Mrs. Ernest V.
Stoneman – “The Road to Washington”; Stoneman Family – “Too Late”; Memphis Jug Band – “I Packed My
Suitcase, Started to the Train”; Carter Family – “The Storms Are on the Ocean”; Joseph Falcon & Cleoma
“Fe Fe Ponchaux”; Blind Lemon Jefferson – “Shuckin’ Sugar Blues”; Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell –
Mama”; Ramblin' Thomas – “Ramblin’ Man”; Cannon's Jug Stompers – “Riley’s Wagon”; Dock Boggs –
Where Have You Been So Long”; Julius Daniels – “My Mamma Was a Sailor”; Blind Lemon Jefferson –
Worried Blues”; Blind Lemon Jefferson – “’Lectric Chair Blues”; Joseph Falcon & Cleoma Breaux – “Elle M’A
(She Has Forgotten Me)”; Uncle Dave Macon – “Rise When the Rooster Crows”; *Uncle Dave Macon – “I’m the
Child to Fight”; Mississippi John Hurt – “Blue Harvest Blues”; Memphis Jug Band – “Memphis Yo Yo Blues”; J.P.
Nestor – “Black-Eyed Susie”; Ken Maynard – “The Cowboy’s Lament”; Henry Thomas – “Texas Worried Blues.”
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