Anthology of American Folk Music
The Anthology of American Folk Music is a compilation of several dozen folk and country music recordings that were released as 78 rpm records in the 1920s and 1930s. The compilation was released in 1952. Although the choice of music is idiosyncratic, the collection is famous due to its role as a touchstone for the US folk music revival in the 1950s and 1960s.
Harry Smith was a bohemian who lived in Berkeley, California in the late 1940s and 1950s. Although he considered himself an abstract-expressionist, with a special interest in film, he had a hobby collecting old folk and country records. At a time when many people considered these records to be ephemeral, he took them seriously and accumulated a collection of several thousand recordings.
In 1952, Smith compiled 84 of his favorite records on a collection of six LPs. The music on the compilation provided direct inspiration to much of the emergent folk music movement. The Anthology made widely available music which previously had been largely the preserve of marginal social economic groups. Many people who first heard this music through the Anthology came from very different cultural and economic backgrounds from its original creators and listeners. Many previously obscure songs became standards at hootenannies and folk clubs due to their inclusion on the Anthology. Some of the musicians represented on the Anthology saw their musical careers revived, and made additional recordings and live appearances. Selections were chosen by Harry Smith from his personal record collection, and chose records from 1926-1932 for the reasons that, as he stated himself, "1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Depression halted folk music sales."
The album is divided into three sections: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. A fourth collection, including union songs and some songs recorded after World War II, was created but not released until 2000. Harry Smith created the liner notes himself, and these notes are almost as famous as the music. Smith used a fragmented, collage method that presaged some postmodern artwork, and he wrote narrative summaries of all the songs. Smith incorporated the music into his own unusual cosmology. Each of the four albums is associated with a color (Blue, Red, Green, and Yellow respectively), and an element (Water, Fire, Air, and Earth). In the 1960s, Irwin Silber replaced Smith's covers with a Ben Shahn photograph of a poor farmer.
The Anthology has had enormous historical influence. Smith's methodology of sequencing tracks, along with his inventive liner notes, called attention to the set, imbuing it with a talismanic aura (the cover image is a monochord drawn by Robert Fludd). This reintroduction of near-forgotten popular styles of rural American music from the selected years had impact on American ethnomusicology, and was both directly and indirectly responsible for the aforementioned folk music revival. By extension, along with other factors such as the civil rights movement, the emergence of the Beats, the rise of rock and roll, and the invention of the Pill, the counterculture of the 1960s would not have happened, or would have been vastly different without the release of Smith's seminal archival document.
The Anthology originally appeared on the Folkways label established by Moses Asch. In 1997, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings republished the collection on six CDs. In 2000, Revenant Records released the fourth collection on two CDs and two LPs.
In 2003, the album was ranked number 276 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
- Anthology page on Smithsonian Folkways website contains notes on the singers / musicians and songs.
Because of their potential public domain status, some of these recordings are available on the Web:
- The Butcher's Boy (The Railroad Boy) by Buell Kazee
- Dry Bones by Bascom Lamar Lunsford
- I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground by Bascom Lamar Lunsford
- White House Blues by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers
- The Coo Coo Bird by Clarence Ashley
- The House Carpenter by Clarence Ashley
- Country Blues by Dock Boggs