Music: Eccentric who gave folk its voice

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Painter, film-maker, collector of Ukrainian Easter eggs, occultist, friend of Allan Ginsberg, Harry Smith's collection of folk music influenced generations of singers.

Simon Broughton reviews an extraordinary life and a memorable anthology.

"I'd match the Anthology up against any other single compendium of important information ever published. Dead Sea Scrolls? Nah. I'll take the Anthology." It's like someone on Desert Island Discs saying they'd rather not have the Bible and Shakespeare.

The anthology to which the guitarist John Fahey refers is The Anthology of American Folk Music, just reissued on CD by Smithsonian Folkways. If you already know the Anthology, then none of the above will surprise you and, like thousands of other devotees, you've probably worn out your vinyl copies.

If you don't know the set, as I didn't, then its reissue is a chance to discover another world and see how it became a sort of biblical text for the American folk revival. John Cohen, a founding member of the seminal revival band the New Lost City Ramblers, describes it as "the most prophetic and influential set of recordings at that time."

Naturally, songs from the Anthology fuelled their music, but they also resonate through the works of Mike and Pete Seeger, Bill Monroe, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, as well as artists not readily associated with the folk revival, such as James Brown, Manfred Mann and the Grateful Dead.

The Anthology was first released on Moses Asch's pioneering Folkways label in 1952. It was made up of 84 tracks on six LPs, selected and annotated by Harry Smith (1923-1991) from his collection of thousands of 78s.

Smith was physically small, stunted by rickets, but, as if to make up for it, had a personality larger than life. He began by studying and recording the music of American Indians, but became a painter, film-maker, collector of Ukrainian Easter eggs, occultist, friend of Allan Ginsberg and professional eccentric. In the large booklet that comes with the CD reissues there is an account of Smith setting up one of his paintings on an easel, putting a record on the phonograph and then pointing at areas of the painting as the music progressed. This, he announced, was a new art form.

It is Smith's vision, as well as his extraordinary personality, comments and artwork, that give the Anthology its character. He ignored field recordings and the Library of Congress Archives and chose commercial releases from the late Twenties by labels such as Brunswick, Victor, Columbia and Okeh. He wanted music that people had been prepared to pay good money for.

The cover that Smith designed for the collection depicts what he called "the Celestial Monochord", a simple one-stringed instrument being tuned by the hand of God. It is overlaid with Pythagorean musical diagrams, as if to relate this extraordinary music, from characters with outlandish names such as Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Bogtrotters Band, to the eternal music of the spheres. Smith divided the Anthology into three categories: ballads, social music and songs.

It includes traditional songs, topical ballads, dance tunes, rural gospel and evangelical music, black music, white music, French cajun music, but none of the music of the other American minorities. With the hindsight of 70 years, we can now see that these recordings came from an astonishing period in the history of American music. They date from 1926 to 1932 - a brief window from the advent of electrical recording to the Depression, which halted all but mainstream recordings.

What we hear through this window is an era when local performers were part of a vernacular tradition, when songs were still close to newspapers chronicling everything from major events in American history to the tribulations of working-class life. In Harry Smith's "handbook" to the original edition, he writes short, epigrammatic headlines outlining the content of each song: ASSASSIN OF PRESIDENT GARFIELD RECALLS EXPLOIT IN SCAFFOLD PERORATION; DITCH DIGGER SHOCKED BY EMPLOYMENT AGENTS' GROTESQUE DECEPTIONS.

Some are so surreal you wonder whether Harry Smith isn't sending himself up: ZOOLOGIC MISCEGENY ACHIEVED IN MOUSE-FROG NUPTIALS, RELATIVES APPROVE, for "Chubby Parker and His Old Time Banjo" singing a version of "Froggy Went a-Courtin' ". It's the earthiness, rawness and humanity that make these recordings so arresting.

Listening to the high, lonesome vocals of Clarence Ashley, the bird-quill playing of Henry Thomas, the swinging violin of Eck Robertson and the best-selling blues singer, guitarist and wrestler Blind Lemon Jefferson is like listening to field recordings of a distant culture at the end of the Earth. At the same time it is unmistakably American.

As one initiate remembers from hearing the recordings in 1959: "These lost, archaic, savage sounds seemed to carry some peculiarly American meaning for us, albeit in a syntax we couldn't yet decipher." But now, as then, perhaps we shouldn't see the concerns of these songs as belonging solely to another age. For instance, MANUFACTURERS' PROUD DREAM DESTROYED AT SHIPWRECK. SEGREGATED POOR DIE FIRST tells the Titanic story.

In 1929 it was a vocal duet with William and Versey Smith. Today it's $250m, and a Hollywood credit lasting several minutes. With two songs in the collection about American presidents, can there be other points of topicality given the barrage of cameras on the White House lawn? Harry Smith helpfully points out in his notes to "Fishing Blues", the Anthology's last track, that fishing was commonly used as a symbol for sex. YOU BEEN FISHING ALL TIME, I'M GOING FISHING TOO. BET LIFE, LOVING WIFE, CATCH MORE THAN YOU. ANY FISH BITE, I'M GOING FISHING TOO.

Smith's "handbook" is laid out like an old mail-order catalogue, with illustrations of instruments, old record labels and a box containing "a few quotations from various authors that have been useful to the editor in preparing the notes for this handbook". These include an epigraph from the English occultist Aleister Crowley (who Smith occasionally claimed to be his father): "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." It's amazing the insights that crazy Harry Smith and some scratchy old recordings can bring into American life.

`Anthology of American Folk Music', edited by Harry Smith, is released by Smithsonian Folkways SFW40090 (six CDs).