Arts: Pop - Starry-eyed about Harry

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The Independent Culture
"HARRY SMITH wanted them all to go on without rehearsing," said my insider friend, talking about the multi-artist event at the South Bank. "But Harry Smith died in 1991(?)", I said. Of course, she meant Hal Willner, Smith's musical heir, who put more than 20 major egos together in a live compilation.

But who is Harry Smith, and why would Bryan Ferry, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, June Tabor and others want to pay tribute to him? The newspaper features and the video shown at the start of the evening show an old man in New York. But pictures from the Fifties, when he completed his Anthology of American Folk Music, show a young man in a hurry, sharply dressed with shades and a goatee, cooler and younger than many of the rock names who last night played many of the old songs he salvaged from 78rpm obscurity.

The dazzling line-up of creative talent included Elliott Sharp and Robyn Holcomb, Syd Straw and an A-team rhythm section with drummer Michael Blair, bassist Andrew Dorn and guitarist David Torn.

Beth Orton provided a reinterpretation of Mississippi John Hurt's "Frankie" and Eric Mingus delivered "Gonna Die With A Hammer In My Hand' accompanied only by his own upright electric bass before being joined by guitarist Gary Lucas for a storming "Judgement" by the obscure Rev. Sister Mary Nelson.

Jazz trombone giant Roswell Rudd played a chorus of Thelonious Monk's "Mysterioso" as an introduction to Harry Smith's 1950s animated film short of the same name. This was a humorous Dada-ist collage synchronised to an early Monk recording of the tune.

Gavin Friday contributed an epic version of "When That Great Ship Went Down" at the end of which veteran jazz crooner Jimmy Scott intoned "Nearer My God To Thee". Scott and his trio, resplendent in tuxedos, performed a devastating "Motherless Child".

Kate and Anna McGarrigle introduced some more recognisable "folkiness" but confounded expectations by playing a bizarre cover of a song from the first Fugs album - which Harry Smith produced in the Sixties. There was a spirit of mutual support throughout the gig but for me there was a special thrill in seeing Van Dyke Parks for the first time - providing a sensitive accompaniment to the gorgeous Eliza Carthy and, right at the beginning of the night, performing two numbers with harp and string quartet.

Nick Cave a lanky, curatorial presence throughout the Festival strode on to perform a terrifying "John The Revelator" with the McGarrigle's on stirring backing vocals