Some box sets, like The Music of Kenny G or The Slade Box, are better left unbought. Others, such as AC/DC’s Backtracks, which comes with a working amp, are fun but perhaps a little gimmicky. But some are, well, essential. Like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which offers on its six discs the breadth and potential and cradle of American music.
To understand any pop music, from Katy Perry to the White Stripes, you need to go back to Harry Everett Smith: the renegade ethnomusicologist, experimental filmmaker, muse to Allen Ginsburg and longtime resident of the Chelsea Hotel who died there in 1991 was an avid record collector. In the 1940s, he bought entire catalogues from old record companies going out of business (or trashing their 78s for newfangled 45s). In so doing, Smith rescued an entire musical history—blues, country, jazz, gospel and more.
In 1947 Smith convinced Folkways Records’ Mo Asch to publish some of the favorites from his personal collection of vinyl. The result, issued in 1952, was three volumes of American folk music—ballads, social music and songs—accompanied by Smith’s own strange and wonderful liner notes (he was, among other things, a fervent alchemist and occultist.) On these discs, you’ll find the early recordings of now-legendary musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Carter Family, as well as a stable of gone but not forgotten regional acts like the Carolina Tar Heels and haunting Cajun group the Breaux Freres. The box set, more than anything, inspired and gave cohesion to the folk music revival scene of Greenwich Village in the fifties and sixties. Without Smith, there would be no Bob Dylan, who idolized him and poured over his records obsessively, and without Bob Dylan there would be no… well, best not to go there. So, yes, Smith is an important guy.
Unless you’re incredibly lucky, you’ll never get your hands on the original 1952 Anthology, but the Smithsonian issued a handsome new version in 1997, complete with a 96-page book featuring essays by eminences like Greil Marcus, Luc Sante and others, along with the original liner notes and, of course, the discs themselves. And while you’re at it be sure to check out the Harry Smith Archives both online and in New York City.
Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, $85. For more on Harry Smith: harrysmitharchives.com