Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music

The history of recording has gone through several phases, including cylinders (the first commercial format) and early discs (a less expensive format that opened the market to a wider cross-section of people, perfected in 1888). Electronic recording, which enabled far more accurate reproduction of sound than earlier technologies, appeared in 1927.

According to Harry Smith, important recordings of folk songs were issued in both formats at the end of the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth. Shortly after the First World War, Ralph Peer of Okeh Records took some recording equipment from New York to Atlanta. There, a record dealer asked him to record a circus barker named “Fiddling John Carson” and promised to buy 1000 copies.

To Peer’s taste, the two songs he recorded were so bad that he figured no one else but that one store would ever be interested in it. Okeh Records didn’t even assign the disc a serial number. To his surprise, the day the dealer received his shipment, he called and ordered 15,000. When national sales hit half a million, the company decided there was a national market for similar music. It began issuing what it called “hillbilly records” and “race records. Thus the modern era of commercial folk recordings began.

Smith was an interesting character. An anthropology student at the University of Washington, he visited Berkeley, California, where he was introduced to Woody Guthrie, San Francisco’s artistic and intellectual community, and marijuana. After deciding not to return to college, he began to make experimental films and developed an excellent reputation in that field.

He also began collecting records. While most record buffs of the time specialized in either classical music or jazz, Smith immediately gravitated to “hillbilly” and “race” records, although he despised both terms. By 1950, when he moved to New York, he had thousands of 78s. He also needed money, so he approached Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, and offered to sell his entire collection.

Asch, a kindred spirit whose ambition was to produce an “encyclopedia of sound” from all over the world, instead asked Smith to select some of the highlights for an anthology. Smith chose 84 recordings, all issued between 1927, the beginning of modern recording techniques, and 1932, when the Great Depression killed sales of folk recordings. Asch issued the Anthology of American Folk Music in three volumes of two LPs each in 1952, along with explanatory material that highlighted both Smith’s scholarship and eccentricity.

By that time, Woodie Guthrie and others had been traveling and performing folk music and others for years. Alan Lomax had produced a significant quantity field recordings for the Library of Congress that had called many important folk musicians who had never recorded commercially to public attention.

But Smith offered something very different. A California hippie long before the hippie movement was born, he made his selection according to his own rather subversive view of what America ought to be. HIs was vision that ignored the rigid separation of black and white people in favor of  mutually influential black and white musical cultures.

Smith shed light on a world folk music stranger and more exciting than anything known before. Younger musicians seized on this new revelation and ran with it. Therefore the Anthology of American Folk Music directly inspired the “folk revival” that in turn launched the rock revolution, which broke completely from older popular music that had developed in a fairly orderly way since colonial times.

The Smithsonian Institution acquired the entire catalog of Folkways Records after Asch’s death and continues to make it available. Its reissue of the  Anthology of American Folk Music on CD in 1997, with pitch correction and elimination of surface noise, won two Grammy awards.

Smith’s foreword and some of his annotations can be found in Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 502-05.

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