Sunday, 30 September 2007

The Old, Weird America

Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music

This enjoyable film about the eccentric and influential musicologist Harry Smith is showing in the BBC Electric Proms next month. Like last year's Leonard Cohen film I'm Your Man, it's centered on a series of Hal Wilner produced tribute concerts. A number of artists - Nick Cave, The McGarrigle Sisters, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton - appear in both films, though thankfully Bono is nowhere to be seen in this one. Other musicians performing the old and weird here include Steve Earle and David Johansen.

Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music came out in 1952 - a six LP compilation of 84 folk, blues and country recordings originally released as 78s in the 1920s and 30s. It is widely regarded as a cornerstone of the 1960s blues and folk revival, bringing artists like the Carter Family and Blind Lemon Jefferson to audiences including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

As the film explains, the anthology's origins lie with 19-year-old Smith's obsessive collecting of thousands of archaic and increasingly rare records (as Steve Earle points out - the materials used to make records became crucial war supplies in the 40s). Smith believed the bygone music he loved could change America and to some extent the counter-culture's embrace of it proved him right.

Many of the songs are showcased from the Wilner concerts, though for me, a lot of their "old, weird" qualities are lost in translation. Nick Cave's version of John The Revelator would sit happily on many of his own albums while Blind Willie Johnson's 1930 version is creepier and far more compelling (scroll down to download).

I'd known that Harry Smith was also involved in filmmaking but until seeing this doc I'd never appreciated quite how experimental and ground-breaking his work was. Smith made the incredible film below in 1946 by painting on the individual frames - no camera required.

Other contributors to the film include Smith's old pal Allen Ginsberg and Greil Marcus (who coined the phrase "Old, weird America" in his fascinating book about Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes).

I admit it, my copy of the Anthology rarely gets a spin, but I have now transferred it all onto on my iPod after seeing the film. That so many people continue to cover the songs prove its timelessness. To anyone who's never heard of Harry Smith, this film is the perfect introduction to his box of delights.

Download: Clarence Ashley - The Coo Coo Bird (1929)

Download: The Be Good Tanyas - The Coo Coo Bird (2002)

Download: Blind Willie Johnson - John the Revelator (1930)

Buy the Anthology of American Folk Music at

Related Links

The Harry Smith Archives

BBC Electric Proms


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