Now that's what I call folk music!

The most influential record anthology of the century was born from one man's obsession. By John L Walters
Obsessive collectors have a special place in 20th-century culture. In the age of mechanical reproduction, the pursuit of ephemeral items such as comic books, paperbacks and records can be seen as pathetic, academic or even heroic, saving creative endeavours from the cruel ravages of indifference. One thinks of Clarence, the destitute collector of Evan Eisenberg's The Recording Angel, who urinates into a bucket because his record collection has taken over his bathroom, or the hapless hero of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, measuring his life in rare 45s, personalised cassette compilations and endless lists.

Harry Smith (1923-91) was an avant-garde film-maker, a record producer, an experimenter with drugs, a penniless scrounger, but he is best known, and celebrated this week with an all-star concert in London, as a tireless collector of folk music 78s recorded between 1926 and 1932. All kinds of grand claims are now made for the 84-track Anthology of American Folk Music Smith compiled for Moses Asch's Folkways label in the early 1950s.

Using the new medium of long-playing vinyl, he turned his heavy, breakable collection into three graceful double LPs, a depth charge dropped deep into 20th-century popular culture.

On Friday in a concert for the Meltdown festival at London's South Bank, the legendary producer Hal Willner has assembled a line-up to celebrate Smith's work which includes Beth Orton, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Eric Mingus, Elliott Sharp, Eliza Carthy, Jarvis Cocker and the enigmatic Van Dyke Parks.

Rani Singh, who runs the Harry Smith Archive, says: "Nick Cave had performed some of the songs on his Murder Ballads album, and Willner suggested that this would be a great idea for a concert. It's a match made in heaven. "We're also planning to do two shows at St Anne's Church in NYC in November with different performers." But why? Well, you know those dark, mysterious songs by the Band and Bob Dylan full of strange visions and memories of wrongdoing and endurance? Well it appears that Smith is the source. Elvis Costello described hearing the Anthology for the first time as like "discovering the secret script of so many familiar musical dramas". The oral tradition of folk music may have taken a beating, but this rich seam was magically transmuted, a generation later, by this eccentric little proto-beat, an obsessive, possibly asexual DJ/collector with a taste for the macabre. "What had been, to the people who originally recorded it, essentially the music of the poor, the isolated and the uneducated, the Anthology reframed as a kind of avant-garde art," wrote Robert Cantwell in When We Were Good. In Invisible Republic, rock writer Greil Marcus wrote: "Smith's definition of `American folk music' would have satisfied no one else. He ignored all field recordings, Library of Congress archives, anything validated only by scholarship or carrying the must of the museum." So Greenwich Village folkies didn't learn songs from their parents, but from Folkways, or from friends who had got it from the Anthology.

As Paul Oliver observed wryly in Jazz Monthly (February 1963), "there's many a folknik who has added "Willie Moore" and "Old Dog Blue" to his repertoire by lifting the words from the collection. With such a ready- made source of material, who needs to explore further?" The booklet of the reissued Anthology traces the myriad descendants, reflections and refractions of the 84 songs. The Carter family's "John Hardy was a Desperate Little Man" is shown to have spawned nearly 50 records, including versions by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Manfred Mann, Blackhands and Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. "Down On Penny's Farm" by the Bently Boys is a precursor to Dylan's "Maggie's Farm". Smith's Anthology handbook, now available in facsimile, gives a strong impression of the man and his interests. He explains the plot of "John Hardy" in the telegraphic language of American sub-editors: "John Hardy held without bail after gunplay. Girls in red and blue visit jail. Wife at scaffold." In addition we get the catalogue number, bibliographical and discographical references and details of the subject, hanged on 19 January 1894 for killing a man in a crap game over 25 cents. The index is full of eccentric entries such as: "Bible history quoted on record, 42, 48, 50, 51, 52, 53. Murders mentioned on record, 1, 2, 13, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 74. Tuba, records featuring, 41."

Volume III, "Songs", opens with Clarence Ashley's "The Coo Coo Bird", with its repetitive, mesmerising banjo accompaniment. Smith's bibliography traces this back to Sussex and Somerset, but its atmosphere is not far from 1960s Steve Reich or 1990s dance music. Lyrics such as "Jack O'Diamonds, Jack O'Diamonds, I've known you from old," sound as alienating and weirdly familiar as anything by Underworld's Karl Hyde.

In between the "Ballads" and the "Songs" come Volume II, what Smith calls "Social Music", a sequence of dances and hymns bordering on the atonal, abstract and surreal. There are also powerful gospel tracks such as "Judgement" by the Rev Sister Mary Nelson and "He Got Better Things For You" by the Memphis Sanctified Singers. The recording quality varies and Smith's annotations are minimal, compared with the better documented ballads, but what strikes you is how much energy and performance those early electric microphones picked up.

The keeper of Smith's flame, Rani Singh, is a film student who studied with Stan Brakhage at the University of Colorado: "In every film history class he would screen the Smith films," she recalls, "prefacing it by saying `you are about to see the films of one of the most extraordinary artists of all time,' and he would tell crazy stories about Harry - how he used to set off fireworks at the back of the room and store his semen in a freezer to store up energy and just weird stuff .

"Each of his films is unlike the one that had come before," says Singh. "Harry worked in different media, from the teenage hand-painted films to intricate collages culminating in Heaven and Earth Magic to the later multi-screen, superimposed work... One of the final films is Mahagonny, a four-screen film synchronised to the Kurt Weill opera of the same name. In the 55-minute Heaven and Earth Magic (1963), Smith's stop-frame animations look remarkably similar to Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations made a few years later. The work has a musique concrete score of water noises, clocks and sound effects records - the sort of soundtrack you could put together in a hotel room. Smith lived at the Chelsea Hotel, rent unpaid, for much of that time.

Singh recounts how she met Smith when "he was staying in Allen's [Ginsberg] New York apartment and driving him crazy. Allen brought him to Boulder, and when Allen left town he started paying me to take care of Harry." Singh regards Smith as a great 20th-century artist. "He had a very specific vision of how the Anthology should be put together, an alchemical process of sorts." Independent scholar and folklorist Ed O'Brien is less impressed: "Both the records and films were random assemblages. Harry forced this weird grid on a random collection - it's collection as a substitute for comprehension." He is amused by the "commodification" of Smith since the CD reissue. "I think the Anthology was a lucky accident, but it was tremendously influential - it brought those songs back to life and was a powerful stimulus for people to learn more." Performers such as Clarence Ashley, Mississippi John Hurt and Furry Lewis had second careers as a result of the renewed interest sparked by the Anthology.

We live in a time where the collector, the anthologist, the obsessive, can be a hero. Dance anthologies are plastered with DJs' names while the individual musicians remain anonymous. Eisenberg's Clarence was a sad destitute, yet John Zorn is a pivotal influence in contemporary music. A recent New Yorker article described Zorn's apartment, "in which every inch of wall space is covered by shelves, sagging with ... 25,000 LPs and 7,000 CDs ... once there was a kitchen, but it was ripped out to make room for more books and recordings".

"If you know how to edit, you know how to live," is a useful mantra in this era of cultural overload. Harry Smith wasn't too good at life, but he knew how to edit. His summary of "When That Great Ship Went Down", an account of the Titanic tragedy, has a brevity that James Cameron might envy: "Manufacturers' proud dream destroyed at shipwreck. Segregated poor die first."

Hal Wilner's Harry Smith Project, Royal Festival Hall, London,

2 July, 7.30pm, 0171-960 4242.