America's Secrets revealed

Aug 20, 1997 at 12:00 am
At the crossroads where America's popular culture meets its margins, just off the beaten path of the mainstream, an old wild wind is rattling the leaves on the trees. Connections are being made, projects are being undertaken, and, unconsciously, a search has been initiated by musicians, writers and artists all looking for various elements of the same thing: the traces of an America that disappeared without ever being fully noticed -- let alone understood.

At this writing, in a Newport, Rhode Island recording studio, former Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh is recording covers of songs and folk ballads from the Deep South and West she first encountered in the music her father played and sang at home. Former Ann Arborite and current New York chanteuse Anna Domino has formed a band to perform nothing but Appalachian murder ballads.

On the West Coast, critic Greil Marcus has just returned from a tour in support of Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, a book which explores the mystery of American music in an age of disappearing democracy.

Finally, PW Long, former frontman of Ann Arbor band, Mule, has issued his debut solo LP of strange, warped blues, broken country wails and failed homages to a past he can't even approach let alone touch. But he can smell its musty odor.

But there's even more evidence to suggest that the ghosts of America's forgotten cultural past have come home to roost and ask their own questions. One of the most influential and curious collections in the history of recorded sound has now been reissued by Smithsonian Folkways for the first time in a decade and for the first time ever on compact disc: The Anthology of American Folk Music. Edited by the late Harry Smith -- a legendary experimental filmmaker, collector of folklore and recordings, dope fiend, drunk, painter, polymath, bum, scrounger, occultist and "Shaman In Residence" at the Naropa Institute -- the Anthology is the hinge-piece of Marcus' book, the place, in a sense, from which his fine and maddening argument springs.

Originally issued in 1952 as three volumes of two LPs each, subtitled sequentially, "Ballads," "Social Music" and "Songs," the Anthology of American Folk Music is regarded as the document that commenced the folk revival of the '50s and '60s. Its original 12 sides and 84 selections were all recorded -- and forgotten by -- music companies such as Columbia, Brunswick, Victor, Edison and Decca between 1927 and 1932. Smith chose this time span because 1927 was the first year he deemed accurate sound reproduction possible and 1932 was the year the deepening Depression ended the market for folk music.

With its three colored covers -- green (air), red (fire) and blue (water), based on a compendium of mysticism by Robert Fludd -- the collection included blues, country, gospel, Cajun and folk tunes by now-revered performers such as the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Frank Hutchison, Charlie Poole and Charlie Patton, as well as dozens of others. These artists in 1952 were new to a generation which, near the end of the McCarthy era, could not see the glory of the American present with the same wide-eyed materiality as its parents.

Smith's anthology resonated with everyone from Dave Van Ronk and Tom Paxton to Joan Baez, John Fahey, Bob Dylan (who recorded four of the anthology's songs on his last two albums) and Phil Ochs. It was studied by college kids and folk enthusiasts from coast to coast who pored over its odd-looking booklet for clues as to the whereabouts of the performers and the origins of the songs themselves. The anthology confirmed their suspicions: That there was more to history, more to the story than had ever been told before.

It prompted many to pick up guitars, banjos and mandolins to find something authentic for themselves in the ever-shifting rhythms and melodies of its songs. It even made some enthusiasts seek out the artists themselves, bringing those performers who were still living onto the stages of folk festivals to share their songs. And it initiated further research into the forms and figures of American music itself, uncovering a treasure trove of music and song that lay hidden just under the surface of the country's everyday life. In its primitive, raw rhythms and melodies, it predicted the birth of rock 'n' roll. In short, it changed the face of popular music forever, whether or not its influence was acknowledged.

The weird thing is, when Smith compiled his anthology -- according to a set of occult principles known only to himself -- he seemed to know exactly what forces he was setting in motion. He told John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers in a 1968 interview: "I felt social changes would result." Later, shortly before his death in 1991, when he was awarded a Grammy for his masterpiece, he said, "I have lived to see my dreams come true: America changed by music."

The reissue of Smith's document itself is now housed handsomely in a single box comprised of three double CDs, all with the original green, red and blue covers and drawings, plus a new booklet containing essays by Marcus and other writers and artists influenced by the collection. There is also a facsimile reprint of Smith's original booklet. The last disc in the package is an enhanced multimedia CD, containing biographical information, photos, interviews with some of the artists, bits and pieces of Smith's films, collections and more.

Smith himself was a curiosity piece. Born in 1923, in Portland, Ore., he grew up around Seattle. He created many fables about his upbringing, including the notion that his mother had a tryst with infamous occultist Aleister Crowley and that Crowley was his real father. He soon began his legendary record collecting when, he claimed, a wartime drive to melt down old records for shellac made thousands of obscure recordings of music from all over the country available for next to nothing. He collected everything: blues, race records, hillbilly, Cajun, cowboy songs, child ballads, fiddle tunes, polkas and more. He moved to San Francisco where he began what are now regarded as pioneering experiments in cinema.

Always in need of money, Smith approached Moses Asch of Folkways Records who agreed to produce the anthology. An integral part of its release was Smith's own guidebook, an ingenious and truly mysterious piece of art. It reveals heavy black numbers marking the selections, complete catalogue information, clipped yet accurate track analyses (which beg even more questions than the songs themselves, for example: "GAUDY WOMAN LURES CHILD FROM PLAYFELLOWS; STABS HIM AS VICTIM DICTATES MESSAGE TO PARENTS") and bibliographical research information as to the origins of songs. The booklet also contains crude photographs of some of the artists, pasted cutouts of instruments as they might be displayed in a 1920s Sears-Roebuck catalogue and other graphics and distractions to seduce one into its world.

And what a world it is. "Smithville," as Marcus termed it, is a place where disaster, homicide, suicide, liberation, lust, joy, redemption, empathy, hopelessness, despair and optimism exist side by side without contradiction.

In the puzzling language and spectral, spare arrangements of songs like Dick Justice's "Henry Lee" (about a spurned woman who kills her lover as witnessed by a bird) or Buell Kazee's "Butcher Boy" (according to the notes, "FATHER FINDS DAUGHTER'S BODY WITH NOTE ATTACHED WHEN BOY MISTREATS HER"), we hear the voices of people who set out to be heard above the silence of everyday life and to tell tales whether or not they understand them.

Whether jagged, terse, open-chord guitar stylings or polyrhythmic and percussive plucking and twanging of primitive banjos and seemingly atonal fiddles, these were sounds and techniques that came from the hardscrabble ground itself. Instruments were played and songs were sung as if life itself were at stake -- and it was. Remember, none of these were field recordings; all had been commercially released.

Whether it's the Carter Family's heavenly harmonizing on "Single Girl" or Dock Boggs' doomed, desolate wail on "Country Blues," John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues," the "hit" sermons of Rev. J.M. Gates or the otherworldly "Coo Coo Bird" by Clarence Ashley, the story is always the same; that story just goes on and adds layer upon layer to the mystery. When these tunes were first issued, they were already old, most of them passed down for generations. When they were heard by the generation of the '50s, they were twenty or more years past being recorded and sounded like a lost country in another world. Today they sound like a place that perhaps never existed except in legend, yet leaves its traces of dust over our time like a cipher that can't be witnessed or grasped, only felt.

In Smith's anthology is an America imagined by most, experienced by few. In its voices are the warnings of the three spirits from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (many of these songs have their origins in the British Isles). Unless their warnings are heeded, tragic futures will result -- futures we have already in our deafness succumbed to. The listener can also hear the harsh yet ethereal country-inside-the-country that possessed poets like James Dickey and James and Charles Wright, novelists like William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and the shades and images that tripped up Walker Evans and the WPA photo project, while presently coaxing a terrible beauty from the paintings of Edward Knippers.

Whether the reissue of the Anthology of American Folk Music will have the same impact it had upon its original release is difficult to say. Without question, though, there is a resurgence in American roots music and culture that we haven't seen in decades, particularly among young people. But the climate is different, the forces of possibility and constriction from the '50s are no longer in balance and cynicism is high. Still, with aesthetics and cultural theories swirling around the present landscape, it would be difficult to write off the anthology's reissue as mere nostalgia; a set of this magnitude and power could work on a new generation and reinspire an old one to make discoveries for itself once again, unaided by "official" interpretations of the "facts and folks." It's as if Smith had perhaps planned it all cyclically and is laughing even now as his social experiment is offered another chance to work its magic. Thom Jurek is a music writer living and working in Ann Arbor. E-mail [email protected]