A collection of old 78s, eighty-four of them—discarded dance tunes and country blues, murder ballads and gospel hymns and comical numbers from an earlier era of commercial recording—was released in 1952 by Folkways Records under the title Anthology of American Folk Music. The assembler was Harry Smith, then twenty-nine years old, a collector, underground filmmaker, occult philosopher, fabulist, and scrounger who sometimes claimed to be the illegitimate son of the satanist Aleister Crowley and who by the time of his death in 1991 had earned the nickname “the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel.”1
The Anthology identified him only by name, but the self-designed booklet accompanying the set’s six LPs signaled the presence of a deep and deeply eccentric scholarship. The booklet’s idiosyncrasies ranged from headline-style summaries of old ballads—ASSASSIN OF PRESIDENT GARFIELD RECALLS EXPLOIT IN SCAFFOLD PERORATION, or ANNIE UNDER GRASSY MOUND AFTER PARENTS NIX MARRIAGE TO KING—to a wildly methodical cross-indexing: “Bible history quoted on record…Broken promise mentioned on record…Death instructions given on record…Echo-like relation of voices…Humming, records featuring …Mountain vantage point theme.” In passing, Smith displayed an offhand familiarity with the corpus of early recordings and with all relevant printed sources.
Many of the performers featured in the Anthology—they include Mississippi John Hurt, Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, Henry Thomas, the Carter Family, Furry Lewis, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Memphis Jug Band, Charley Patton, Clarence Ashley, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Sleepy John Estes—are nowadays more or less celebrated, even if their music is rarely heard over the airwaves or in the aisles of supermarkets. It is perhaps necessary to recall that in 1952 this music was more likely to be found in attics or thrift shops or abandoned warehouses. It was the sound of cultural obsolescence, products no longer fit for broadcast or mass entertainment. Unlike the collections made in the field by such folk music specialists as Alan Lomax, they were all commercial recordings made between 1927 and 1932, a period when previously marginal country music was recorded on a large scale as record companies discovered the potential of rural markets and when, as Smith noted, “American music still retained some of the regional qualities evident in the days before the phonograph, radio and talking picture had tended to integrate local types.” (The process by which performers like this were brought into the commercial system, and the way that system broke down in the Depression, is recounted in fascinating detail in Richard A. Peterson’s Creating Country Music.) By the simple act of bringing these selections together, Smith essayed something like a one-man cultural revolution. Its effects were felt gradually, as the collection worked its way in subterranean fashion from one newly formed folk music devotee to another.
The Anthology has been acknowledged belatedly as more than just a compilation of old recordings, even of recordings as exceptional as Henry Thomas’s “Fishing Blues” or Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird” or Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down the Old Plank Road.” Its catalytic role in postwar American musical culture has been confirmed with a new edition on compact disk—a model of care and research—and it is discussed at length in two recent books, Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic and Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good. Marcus and Cantwell are at one on the Anthology’s centrality; for Marcus, in his extended riff on the aesthetic roots of Bob Dylan’s 1967 Basement Tapes, it is “the founding document of the American folk revival”; for Cantwell, in the most detailed history of that revival yet undertaken, it is the movement’s “enabling document, its musical constitution.” Similarly reverential remarks abound in the notes prepared for the reissue, like this from Peter Stampfel (of the Holy Modal Rounders): “If God were a DJ he’d be Harry Smith.”
That would be one way to think of the collection, as a supernatural jukebox blasting out favorites for the dead, the old dead, from the time before there were jukeboxes: especially since so many of the songs have to do with death in every form, by drowning, by train wreck, by outlaw’s or assassin’s bullet, by self-inflicted stab wound. Dock Boggs, coal miner and moonshiner, sets the pace in his knife-edge drone:
Go dig a hole in the meadow, good people
Go dig a hole in the ground
Come around all you good people
And see this poor rounder go down.
(Dock Boggs, “Country Blues”)
That was the kind of party it was, and in 1952 or 1962 the jolt was perceptible. It remains so, since all the bloodlettings of neo-noir, neo-Gothic, post-punk, and hip-hop have made it no easier to accept the direct encounter with last things that such songs propose. In that light even the merriest music—the dance rhythms of Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers or Hoyt Ming and His Pep-Steppers, the children’s song “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O,” the protracted comical adventures of drunkards and lechers—acquires an abrasive edge. The soothing and hypnotic aural environment to which latter-day pop music has accustomed us makes this music exotic: it feels like a music in which the world cannot be escaped.
To speak of an abrasive edge is another way of saying that this music is about being wide awake. It is always at peak; it refuses to become sub-conversational pulse or trickling background rivulet. Insistence, emphasis, exhortation: these are the qualities that unite an otherwise extraordinarily disparate collection of performances. Geographically the performers come predominantly from the American South—from Lake Providence, Louisiana, to Burton’s Fork, Kentucky—but also from as far afield as Los Angeles, St. Paul, and Cincinnati. They worked as, among other things, coal miners, ministers, carpenters, mill hands, tenant farmers, and, yes, cowboys. Many were professional or semi-professional musicians, traveling with medicine shows or performing on the street. What these recordings capture is not the folklore of private pastime but the repertoire of public performance.
The Anthology’s temporal reach extends both forward and backward. It consists of songs that were recorded in the 1920s and 1930s and collected in the 1940s, and attained wide if covert influence in the 1950s and 1960s. But for many of the musicians represented, 1928 was already the aftermath, the last time it was possible to retrieve an echo of a world whose rapid disappearance was signaled by the very fact that these songs were being recorded. That world stretched from the late nineteenth century, when the style of performers like Henry Thomas and Uncle Dave Macon was already taking shape at barn dances and tent shows and political rallies, to the eve of World War I.
It was an era when the hot news was of the depredations of Cole Younger in the 1870s, the assassinations of Garfield and McKinley in 1881 and 1901, the death of Casey Jones on the Illinois Central Line in April 1900, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Even those bulletins were late accretions to a body of knowledge extending back toward Indian war whoops, medieval enchantments, John the Revelator and his “book of the seven seals.” “These ballads are not historical dramas,” writes Greil Marcus in a book that reverts continually, inescapably, to the cultural distance separating us from the old songs. “They dissolve a known history of wars and elections into a sort of national dream, a flux of desire and punishment, sin and luck, joke and horror—and as in a dream, the categories don’t hold.” We are in a place where history survives only by being transmuted into rhymes, charms, complaints, exorcisms, prophecies.
Many listeners have observed that purely as an arrangement—a profoundly satisfying juxtaposition attentive to echoes, responses, thematic parallels, and who knows what hermetic alchemical principles smuggled in by Smith—the Anthology of American Folk Music itself functions as a work of art. Designed to be heard precisely in the order laid down, it anticipates the sort of musical collage which is now perhaps the most widely practiced American art form: the personal mix tape of favorite songs that serves as self-portrait, gesture of friendship, prescription for an ideal party, or simply as an environment consisting solely of what is most ardently loved.
Smith’s concept was vaster but equally personal. The songs did not so much refer back to an earlier America as reconstitute it. A single person was here mapping a lost or at least forgotten domain, not in the name of tradition or collective will or social or musicological theory, but merely out of his inexplicable sense of how everything falls into place. The elements were together because they belonged together; he knew. The Anthology resonated with the demiurgic thrill of holding all those elements in hand; it registered a search for hidden correspondences and occulted communications, and Smith moved as easily among its implications as a shaman rapidly switching voices during a dialogue with spirits.
That was pretty much what it seemed like to its listeners, even (in my own case) a decade after its first appearance: the soundtrack of a resurrection, an unbottling of hidden identities. After ten years, however, a whole culture had taken shape along the lines indicated by the Anthology. The dead, it turned out, weren’t all dead. Lost singers (Clarence Ashley, Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs, Furry Lewis) were found, lost careers revived in the form of albums and appearances at nightclubs and folk festivals. Ancient became contemporary in albums like Mountain Music Bluegrass Style (1959) or Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s (1961-1963); the emergence of young stars like Dylan and Joan Baez helped prompt an explosion of youthful guitar and banjo and harmonica players; and at the triumphant Newport Folk Festival of 1963, in which the joining of old (Ashley, Boggs, Hurt, Bill Monroe, Mother Maybelle Carter) and new (Dylan, Baez, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Ian and Sylvia) seemed to augur the formation of a new culture.
The implications of that rebirth remain for many unresolved, inseparable from all that came next. For both Marcus and Cantwell the old music remains a source of disquiet, like a nagging unanswered question; they circle around it, sifting through its codes and exceptions, weighing the varying responses of those who listened to it at different times and places. Cantwell in particular brings obvious passion to bear on his account, so that When We Were Good becomes a veiled autobiography, the story of what music did to him. The 1997 reappearance of the Anthology inevitably raises as many questions about the late Fifties and early Sixties as it does about the late Twenties and early Thirties, evoking nostalgia for what was already a displaced nostalgia, as if the music were a treasured memento of an alternate life.
The newly reissued CD box set of the Anthology is an advanced specimen of the form, featuring a video and photographic appendix on CD-ROM, a book-length collection of essays and interviews, and detailed notes to each track (supplementing, updating, and sometimes correcting Smith’s own notes, reproduced here in facsimile), which together constitute a study guide to the field. The entry for Charley Patton’s “Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” for instance, identifies fifteen other sources for Patton recordings and thirty-five other recordings of this and other boll weevil-related ballads, by artists ranging from Blind Willie McTell to Brook Benton. Each song becomes an entryway into a potentially endless research project.
It provides further confirmation that the CD box set is, in its reverent attention to detail, our moment’s equivalent of the medieval illuminated manuscript. It is not enough to have learned how to capture sound; there must be an appropriate monument to enclose it and keep it from escaping, to stabilize what would otherwise remain a drifting accumulation of sound effects. Hearing is the most slippery and intangible and therefore most haunting of experiences; and we have heard so much, more than we could remember or even process.
If the technology of recording and broadcasting has probably not made the world any noisier than it was—in some ways, as brass bands in the piazza give way to brass bands in someone’s headphones, it has made it quieter—the noise has at any rate become denser, and harder to interpret. Sound as a measure of location—a fairly direct clue, in simpler days, to what was coming this way and how soon it would get here—has been compromised ever more drastically by telephone, phonograph, radio, and all their children. Edgar Allan Poe was by his own account driven half-mad by the infernal din of horses’ hooves on cobblestones in 1840s New York, but at least he knew where the noise was coming from. In the urban infernos delineated by Balzac and Dickens, however convulsive and hallucinatory they may have been, sound was still one hundred percent live and therefore a reliable tool for navigation; at the very least, a shriek might guide you to the scene of a crime, or the roar of a mob alert you to an approaching riot.
Modern sound technology offered new, improved forms of disorientation, impossibly distant sounds, pre-recorded whispers, street barkers piped into private dwellings, speeches from a podium whose center was everywhere, beeps and sirens that cut across space so sharply that their point of origin became indeterminable, canned laughter echoing down airshafts, canned music doing battle with other canned music in the discontinuous spaces of our own city, the multichannel not-quite-all-here city of Burroughs or Pynchon or Perec, where we spend much of our lives listening to what is not here, is no longer here, never was here to begin with.
Long usage blunts the anomaly of this, so that by contrast those mo-ments when one may have grasped the oddness of the recording era’s wraparound wall of sound can seem in retrospect like flashes of mystical insight. A minor instance: on his 1957 album Bonjour Paris, Michel Legrand began his arrangement of “J’ai Deux Amours” with an ingenious reconstruction of the sound of an early (circa 1920) acoustical recording, complete with meticulously simulated surface noise, before gliding into a stunning demonstration of late-Fifties hi-fi in all its then-novel richness of tone and breadth of spectrum. At the time, the idea may have been to contrast the almost comical poverty of the old with the splendor—growing rapidly more splendid in those heady days of Dynagroove and Full Dimensional Sound—of the new. But the device also served, intentionally or not, as an alienation effect; it made the listener abruptly aware that this was a recording, and that if recording had a future it also had a past. Oddly, the shrill and ghostly past—even in this ersatz, mimicked form—seemed more real than the dynamic, naturally balanced, full-dimensional present of 1957.
That contrarian impulse to travel against time’s current—to gravitate toward the noise and detritus filtered out by the culture of Dynagroove—was crucial to the early 1960s folk revival. The road to the future lay in the past, among forebears so forgotten that they had become alien, so alien that they could almost be invented. Early listeners agreed that the Smith anthology’s initial effect was of uncanny strangeness. It seemed a repository of “lost, archaic, savage sounds,”2 or, in the words of filmmaker Bruce Conner, “a confrontation with another culture…like field recordings, from the Amazon, or Africa, but it’s here in the United States!” “Who is singing?” Greil Marcus asks. “Who are these people?” That was Smith’s idea: “It sounded strange,” he said of the blues record that provoked his collecting career, “so I looked for others.”
Folk music was not supposed to be strange. The folk music that Smith’s younger listeners were likely to have heard in the 1950s—perhaps in elementary school, perhaps in summer camp—was purveyed by such intermediaries as Pete Seeger (both alone and with the folk quartet called the Weavers), and Burl Ives, and Carl Sandburg. It might be droll, rambunctious, plaintive, bawdy, morally indignant, or nostalgic—it might, if you were an urban type with what you considered more advanced tastes, be faintly embarrassing—but it was music designed to restore a sense of intuitive collective warmth, as if everyone listening could be brought back into some lost circle of fellowship. The fifth-graders who sat raptly listening to scratched LPs of Burl Ives singing “The Blue-Tail Fly” or “The Streets of Laredo,” or the Weavers segueing from “Goodnight Irene” into “Tzena Tzena,” or Woody Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land,” surmised that folk songs emanated directly from the collective anonymity of the People, floated freely in a timeless inaccessible realm where folk life replicated itself from generation to generation, until some dedicated collector bothered to write them down. Emissaries carried them from those regions into ours, so that we might come to know our distant kin.
It all had to do with “the country”—but what country, whose country? For so many of those drawn into the folk revival, the very idea of the rural was something constructed out of artifacts and catch phrases. It wasn’t just a matter of accents and peculiar sayings, but of different world views, different systems of thought; there was not so much a dividing line as an abyss between the two cultures. For a postwar generation of urban and suburban children, the mountains and creeks and hollows of the songs might as well have existed on another planet.
I remember an elementary school textbook in which Jimmy and Judy from the big city went to visit their cousins in the country, to find out where their milk and eggs and bacon came from, a visit which provided the occasion for a dialogue on the many differences between city and country. (For a suburban third-grader, both city—skyscrapers, elevated trains, smoky harbors, suspension bridges—and country—barns, tractors, silos, haystacks—were exotic; in fact it was in trying to puzzle out a middle ground between these starkly opposed terms that the meaning of “suburb” began to dawn.) Jimmy and Judy told their cousins all about the technological marvels of the metropolis, but the country ultimately got the better of the comparison. The city kids were dazzled by a succession of miracles—“Oh, look at the pretty chickens!”—while the country folk exhibited an air of laconic and undemonstrative wisdom, secure in the knowledge that the old homestead was the ultimate source to which the city had finally to pay homage: Back to the land!
Mythologies of that sort had piled up like so many layers of insulation. The material collected by Harry Smith was new information, incomparably harsher and more tumultuous, as if intended to convey: “Everything you know is wrong.” What folk were these? The mood was not necessarily either collective or warm; more often it conveyed isolation, fear, even madness. As for intuition—the sort of instinctive and essentially impersonal expressiveness that was supposed to be the very definition of folk music—it was hard, given the almost freakish individuality of many of the performances, to avoid the sense of a craggy and fully conscious artistry.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the era of Woody Guthrie’s “Hard Traveling” and the Almanac Singers’ “Talking Union,” folk music had been perceived in more or less Marxist terms, as an expression of sweeping social forces, the soundtrack of a narrative marked by clear moral roles. Smith broke down that sense of large-scale evolution into molecular units, suggesting that the process was vastly more complex than the available schemata could account for. He ignored ethnic or geographic or chronological pigeonholing in favor of a tripartite division of his own invention, into Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. Ballads told stories, whether of murderous gypsies or hapless sharecroppers; social music ranged from square-dancing to apocalyptic preaching; as for songs, the most wide-open of the categories, ranging from “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” to “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” they turned out to contain an unsuspected freedom of poetic association. Everything about Smith’s presentation implied that to hear these at all, you had to forget categories and listen to each cut as the record of a distinct and mysterious event.
Smith’s most utopian gesture was to posit an American Folk Music without racial divisions. Careful to note every other detail about the records’ original release, he ignored the separation of country recordings into “race” and “hillbilly” categories which record companies had enforced from the outset (even though, as the musicologist Peter van der Merwe has noted, “it is sometimes impossible to tell whether a particular performance is by black or white instrumentalists, so similar do they sound”3 ). Race records would evolve into modern blues and rhythm and blues, their hillbilly counterparts into commercial country and western, and half a life could be spent tracing the development of one strain or another. Much research effort has gone and continues to go into separating out the strands of American music, to intercepting the West African praise song and Irish fiddle lament before they collide, or surprising a square- dance tune in the act of acquiring a blues inflection. Smith’s arrangement suggested that—since every imaginable kind of crossover had already happened, had never stopped happening—there was more to be gained by listening to the records as singularities, categories of one, rather than as specimens of one type or another.
In the mainstream culture of 1952—or 1958 (the year the Kingston Trio became the living embodiment of folk music) or 1962 (the year Bob Dylan released his first album)—all these performers, whether black or white, were united in common strangeness. To gauge the surprise, it would be necessary to reinhabit the sonic universe of late Forties/early Fifties pop music, whose perfected mellowness—a Modernaires or Mel-Tones kind of mellowness—was achieved at the price of a narrowed spectrum that excluded vast amounts of music perceived as mere noise. Even silence could qualify as noise, dead air, a disturbing spareness or starkness of tone. In those days when cowboys rode the range they brought their orchestra and echo chamber along.
It was as if the past was meant to survive only as a point of reference—at most as old songs done in new ways—not as something actually to be listened to. “Tennessee Saturday Night,” a 1947 country-and-western hit about the rough and rowdy ways of backwoods folks (“When they get together there’s a lot of fun/They all know the other fella packs a gun”) was sung in suavely self-kidding fashion by Red Foley, the already old-fashioned fiddle solo emanating from some harmless country of nostalgia. Most of the Smith anthology qualified by Hit Parade standards as noise: grating, rasping, screeching, out of tune, out of time. The crushed-rock voice of Blind Willie Johnson, the wailing tambourine-accented calls and responses of William and Versey Smith, Dock Boggs with his voice made for what Greil Marcus describes as “primitive-modernist music about death”: these came from somewhere off the map.
In short order an underground army of mapmakers emerged, finding trails within the rapidly expanding recorded repertoire of old-time music, foraging for information that no one else had deemed worthy of organizing. A sort of do-it-yourself free-floating academy devoted itself to the tracking of variants and antecedents, chord changes and tunings, false labels and reversed identities: to determining the contexts in which the protagonist of “The Girl I Left Behind Me” either “read on a few lines further” or “rode on a few miles further” to find out the truth about his abandoned girlfriend, to pondering whether John Hardy (or was it Johnny Hard?) carried “two guns” or “a gun and a razor” every day, to meditating on the non sequitur in “Little Sadie” when Sadie’s murderer is accosted by a sheriff—“He said, Young man, is your name Brown?”—and replies: “Yes sir, yes sir, my name is Lee.” Through this door you could enter history as it was in the act of changing, and come to inhabit the old language before the smoothing-out of dialects. In that area of mutating information, fifty miles might make all the difference in how a particular story turned out.
All the scholarship in the world could not keep nonspecialist listeners from finding in the songs the ingredients for a narrative as thoroughly imaginary as Ivanhoe or Ernani. For a generation that lacked much sense of common tradition, the songs became the equivalent of Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry or Grimm’s fairy tales. Smith’s collection, and all the other sources to which it pointed the way, opened up a secret literature, the poetry of an America which had been successfully excluded from the written record. Here was a down-home lexicon of fundamental terms: the river, the mill, the tavern, the mountain, the old dusty road, murders, bird calls, corn whiskey, graveyards, the train that carried my girl from town, endless journeys by sea to London Town or overland to the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was like an induction into a space constructed by ritual gestures, droning modal chants of indeterminate function—“Same old man/Living at the mill/The mill goes around of its own free will”—which revealed what the listeners had least expected, a form of abstract art.
This body of songs proposed an aesthetic that promised to be actually usable. In some sense they were songs without authors, or songs which questioned the notion of single authorship and made it seem a rather bland and decadent subspecialization; songs that interpenetrated one another, words that went drifting and changing, disparate stories that were grafted together to generate infinite further songs. Verses torn from their context—but then many of these verses had been adrift for a long time—seemed at once archaic and freshly concocted:
If I was a mole in the ground
I’d root this mountain down
Single girl, single girl
She’s going where she please
Married girl, married girl
Baby on her knees
I’ve been to the east and I’ve been to the west
I’ve been this whole world round
I’ve been to the river and I’ve been baptized
And now I’m on my hanging ground
A railroad man
He’ll kill you when he can
And drink up your blood like wine.
Out of the swirl, chunks of phrasing bobbed up—“old plank road” or “new river train”—with the inscrutable force of half-understood ideograms.
The element of unknowability, of infinite suggestiveness, was essential to the allure. A web of allusions stretched beyond any living person’s ability to make the connections. Even when the songs dealt with recognizably real events the effect was dreamlike. The horror of the Titanic disaster lived on as unconsolable moaning chant in “When That Great Ship Went Down,” as if the ship would never stop sinking. When the wife of the assassinated McKinley confronts his killer in “White House Blues”—“Look here, you rascal,/See what you’ve done/ You shot my husband/And I’ve got your gun”—we seem to be in the middle of some extraordinarily strange puppet play or verse chronicle. In comparison, Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film version of Czolgosz’s execution, a harbinger of the modern with its laboriously faked verisimilitude, has a far more cut-and-dried and therefore unintentionally comical effect. The old songs were never comical except when they wanted to be.
As Robert Cantwell charts brilliantly in When We Were Good, the process by which folk music (however defined) came to enjoy its brief moment of ascendancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was more circuitous and complex than most knew or for that matter cared to know. To learn all of it would have been to plunge into specifics of a past that was more fun when it was left beautifully vague, when it was allowed to consist, in Cantwell’s words, of “a tissue of illusion, of mountain cabins and southern canebrakes, desperados, tramps, maidens, farmers, banjo pickers, and wandering blues guitarists.” A generation of singers tentatively sketched out, on beach or in woods or down in the basement, a future of kazoo music and choral chant by the fire, a life of endlessly reiterated invocation. An alternative autobiography was put together out of crimes and executions and haunted loves, a romance of bitterness and devastation and exile. The song was there to be entered again and again, an impersonal one-size-fits-all space where one could paradoxically feel most at home: “I am going down this road feeling bad.” “Gonna build me a log cabin/On a mountain so high.” No questions asked, no details needed. Wasn’t that what folk music was for anyway, to be taken and changed into whatever one needed it to be?
A pinch of reality is just what fantasy needs to give it an aura of substance, and what a fantasy it was, with its dizzying cascades of stereotypical figurines and toy sets, gambler and floozy and moonshiner and deranged preacher, roadhouse and scaffold, mountain cabin and pitch-dark piney woods. Later, after the triumph of pop on all levels around 1965, there would be relief for the young fans in realizing that they did not after all have to become coal miners or tenant farmers. In a 1960 article in Mademoiselle, Susan Montgomery registered a disenchantment with the scene that now reads like an advance judgment on the decade to come: “This generation of college students…is composed of young people who are desperately hungry for a small, safe taste of an unslick, underground world. Folk music, like a beard or sandals, has come to represent a slight loosening of the inhibitions, a tentative step in the direction of the open road, the knapsack, the hostel.”
It was a virtual South, then, existing in a virtual past; but then it always was. Delve into the fantasy to its roots and you find another fantasy; look for untrammeled folk expression and you find one form or another of show business. Robert Cantwell, tracing the folk lineage, finds himself back among the artifacts of nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy:
The cabins, cottonbales, wagons, steamboats, and rail-fences,…the piquant genre images of corn and cottonfields, the welcoming old plantation home, the harvest moons, the barefooted children, the magnolia, honeysuckle, and wisteria vine, all the wistful longing songs addressed to them, and the very “South” itself, magically invoked by mere names, Kentucky or Carolina or Alabama—are the visual and linguistic coinage of the minstrelsy that has been circulating in America for a century and a half in thousands of forms beyond the stage itself.
Copies, parodies, reversals, deliberate distortions, whatever was required to tone down, jazz up, smooth out, mess around, or make over: this had been the process of American music, of American entertainment, for so long before anyone took note that the recorded history could never be about anything but mixes, hybrids, crossovers. Pure strains could be imagined but not really experienced, since the moment they hit the air they became part of the fusion.
In America the primary imaginary purity was traditionally racial, although there were plenty of other purities—of region, of religion, of occupation, of technique, of sheer feeling—to extend the metaphor. A continuing battle to define one purity or another is a constant theme for both Cantwell and Richard A. Peterson in his Creating Country Music, as in different ways they parse the social preoccupations that shaped the music from outside. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, wrote an admiring preface for Cowboy Ballads (1912, by John Lomax, Alan’s father), drawing attention to their echo of Anglo-Saxon outlaw ballads (a possible nod, Cantwell notes, to the support Roosevelt had gotten in Missouri from Jesse James’s brother Frank). The revival of traditional mountain music that flourished briefly in the 1920s received enthusiastic support from Henry Ford and the Ku Klux Klan, while the founder of the Archive of Folk Song spoke ominously of the threat of “Hebrew Broadway jazz” and the composer Lamar Stringfield wrote (in 1931) that
since the emotions of the Negro race are foreign to the white man, an essentially Anglo-Saxon nation derives its nationalism in music only from its own people…. Naturally, the least affected of the folk-music that now exists in America is preserved by people in the mountainous country, or on the plains.
Over the next two decades folk music would be reclaimed for the left, a story that Cantwell tells with the nuances and digressions it requires. We learn that the musicologist Charles Seeger and his son Pete got their first taste of folk music at the New School for Social Research in 1931, listening to Thomas Hart Benton sing “John Henry,” and that Leadbelly really was prevailed on to dress in convict stripes for some of his public performances after the Lomaxes had managed to get him sprung from Angola Prison. (His first such appearance was, curiously enough, at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.) Whether or not the left-wing folk song movement of the Thirties and Forties was the best idea the American Communist Party ever supported, it was certainly the most successful. At high tide the movement made inroads into radio (the Almanac Singers on the Navy Department’s Treasury Hour, Woody Guthrie on DuPont’s Cavalcade of Stars) and Broadway (the Burl Ives musical Sing Out Sweet Land!). Eventually the Weavers, who had taken their name from Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1892 protest play, found their hits covered by the likes of Mitch Miller and Vic Damone; if the People’s music was not to be enlisted in the service of ideological crusades, then it was to be looted for whatever saleable tunes it might have to offer.
But then every stage of the process reflects singular inflections and deformations. It was in the form of rousing singing groups, redolent of collegiate glee clubs—the Kingston Trio, the Limelighters, the Brothers Four—that folk music muscled its way into the charts in the next decade. Softened up by “Tom Dooley” and “Greenfields,” pop fans were ready for Baez and Dylan and the Newport Folk Festival ensemble, by which time folk music was inextricably entwined, again, with political action. Some still recall the resistance in Washington Square to Park Commissioner Newbold Morris’s order to ban folk-singing in 1961—the protestors beaten while singing “We Shall Not Be Moved”—as their first taste of what the Sixties were going to be like.
Now even the folk revival is ancient history. They all have their boxed sets—Leadbelly, the Weavers, Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, row upon row of freeze-dried echo chambers. The metallic wheels have that gleaming, hygienic impersonality by which we recognize the new technologies: the home entertainment library is now ready to be loaded on the rocket ship. We have entered an Alexandrian phase—or is it a Noah’s Ark phase?—of storing and classifying and anthologizing the works of the past, and discover that an Alexandrian life has its distinct pleasures. The generations become coeval; whether you reach for the Twenties or the Fifties or the Seventies may indicate no more than your taste in hats or song titles or cover designs. Last week you were in Zaire 1980, the week before in Paris 1952. Now, on a whim, it’s Kentucky’s turn; it is only a matter of determining where to set the dial of the time machine.
Differences were formerly mediated by physical space. If you wanted to hear mountain music you went to the mountains. Researchers of the heroic age such as the Lomaxes and Seegers invested their physical being in the music. Free now to drop in anywhere unannounced, we listen in their secret fastnesses to Tibetan lamas or Moroccan jajouka musicians or throat singers of Tuva. Like Johnny Mercer’s cowhand, we know all the songs that cowboys know because we learned them all on the radio. Long familiarity with the industrial cycles of pop permits us to observe the rough being made smooth while calmly anticipating the moment when there will be novelty value in making the smooth rough again. Blues goes lounge, lounge goes industrial noise, industrial noise prepares to merge, perhaps, with Gregorian chant. Our new tradition, however designated—fusion, crossover, sampling, mix—amounts to little more than a drastically speeded-up version of the way things have always happened. If a band in Madagascar plays “I Fought the Law” or a London-based bhangra group fuses Punjabi folk music and James Brown grooves or an even newer group mixes all of the above in brief unrecognizable fragments, the process hardly differs from, say, an obscure Alabaman band of the 1920s lending Hawaiian inflections to a revamped English ballad whose original subject, somewhere back in the Middle Ages, was Jewish ritual murder.4
In Creating Country Music, the sociologist Richard A. Peterson recounts the formative stages of commercial country music—from Fiddlin’ John Carson’s pioneering recordings in Atlanta in 1923 to the posthumous mythologizing of Hank Williams after his death in 1953—as a series of transactions, marketing decisions, calculated changes of costume and instrumentation and repertoire in response to outside pressures. The book makes an indispensable adjunct to the Smith anthology, clarifying as it does how the records came to be made in the first place.
In the mid-1920s the rapidly expanding record business was hungry for material and newly aware of the potential of specialized audiences. The companies recorded almost anything they could think of, on an extraordinary scale; over 10,000 new recordings were released in 1929 alone. One can almost hear the executives at Columbia or Vocalion planning their strategy: “Let’s round up as many of these hill people as we can and see what they’ve got.” The company scouts went out and found music that could be scooped up with a minimum of effort. Reading of the historic 1927 sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, at which Ralph Peer of Victor discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, or other similar corporate forays, one cannot help thinking of those scenes in old Westerns where the trappers come to the company depot to have their furs assessed and to be duly shortchanged.
The scouts who snapped up the music were mostly indifferent to it, as Polk Brockman, responsible for getting Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded in the first place, freely acknowledged: “My interest in hillbilly music and black music is strictly financial.” The idea was not to launch musical careers, but to take what the musicians already had and see what could be made from it. As Frank Walker of Columbia Records commented, “Their repertoire would consist of eight or ten things that they did well and that is all they knew. So, when you picked out the three or four that were best in a man’s so called repertoire you were through with that man as an artist…. You might come out with two selections or you might come out with six or eight, but you did it all at that time.” Such singers as Clarence Ashley and Mississippi John Hurt sank rapidly back into obscurity for the next three decades.
It was a novelty to put old hearthside favorites on record, but the novelty was exhausted fairly rapidly; most people did not want multiple versions of old murder ballads and square-dance tunes. Peterson describes how quickly the charm of Uncle Jimmy Thompson’s old-time fiddle music wore off when he appeared in 1925 on the first program of what later became the Grand Ole Opry: “Uncle Jimmy started right in playing a string of jigs, breakdowns, and hornpipes. When after two hours George Hay, the announcer, tried to get him to conclude his performance, Uncle Jimmy said he knew 2,000 tunes and was just getting limbered up.” The Grand Ole Opry continued to pay lip service to its folk origins while moving as rapidly as possible toward smoother, more radio-friendly sounds. From the early Thirties on, the music that got heard was mostly tailored for the new marketing channels; songwriting became the basis for the industry, making old-time music a style—a “renewable resource” (in Peterson’s phrase)—rather than a fixed repertoire of inherited songs from which no copyright advantage was to be derived.
What we hear on the Smith anthology is how people sounded before they knew how they sounded, in the same way that movies briefly caught the demeanor of people who had never seen anyone on film. The vocal styles have not been corrected by reference to recorded music, or adapted to the microphone. All that was about to change irrevocably, as singers learned how the voice could be something separate from the body. In his autobiography Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity,5 Alton Delmore of the classic country duo the Delmore Brothers tells how at their first recording session in 1931 they heard their recorded voices for the first time, and how in that instant everything changed for them. They didn’t know their own voices: “There was something divine in that little can [the recording equipment]…that helped us immensely and changed us from two country farm boy singers to something ‘up town’ and acceptable to listeners who bought records and listened to radio programs. That was the whole secret of our good luck. Our voices took well to the microphone.”
It is a moment in the history of disembodiment, the history of recording: the birth of the voice as unhinged object, linked to no particular point in space or time. By a series of incremental steps we end up in the never-never world of overdub and multitrack—from Bill Evans playing duets and trios with himself, Hank Williams, Jr., and Natalie Cole singing duets with their dead fathers, Frank Sinatra singing duets with people he may never have met, down to the completely concocted ambient landscapes of technopop, electronic collages deliberately inhabiting the land of Nowhere.
It must have been a very long time ago that Moe Asch, the founder of Folkways Records, could have said: “I always believed in the ‘one mike’ theory—I hate the stereo recordings, and mixing can never give you the accurate sense of the original sound. A hundred years from now it is as natural as the day I recorded it.” Once there was an emotional stake in having a sense of the reality on the other side of the mike, in visualizing the musicians actually playing and singing, in imagining their likely surroundings: even if many of the songs on Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s were really recorded not in the archetypal wood-frame house on the cover but in a Los Angeles recording studio; even if the Beach Boys’ Party, with its aura of background chatter and fizzing soda pop, was no more actual than sitcom laughter. It was around the time of that party—1966 or so—that the Moe Asch idea of “natural” sound began to slip into an unattainably archaic realm. There were too many options on the gizmos for anything ever to be natural in Asch’s sense any more, and it was too much fun exploring the unnatural. Recording as constructed artifact began to replace the ideal of recording as preservation of a moment in time.
Yet we go back looking for what was preserved, a life sustained beyond its limits and with which we can achieve the most intimate of fusions through the relation of sound and ear. It becomes a matter of awe that the voice of the other, the fingers of the other moving on the strings, actually vibrate in the body of the hearer, in the absence of the world in which the sound originated. All gone, those mills and wagon-yards and cheap hotels, along with all the life that sustained them, save for what a machine has captured: Uncle Dave Macon shouting “Kill yourself!” in enthusiastic exhortation, or Henry Thomas blowing a reed-pipe solo as if nothing else existed. The mystery of it deepens as we drift further from the original moments thus kept uncannily present.
The notion of lineal descent in art derived from a culture of apprenticeship becomes unwieldy when any given listener gets signals simultaneously from every direction. In the strange museum that technology opened for us, we relive earlier stages of the mixing process, wind the tape back in godlike fashion to one segment or another of the flux, tracing tones and patterns as they bounce from Swiss yodelers to Jimmie Rodgers and from Jimmie Rodgers to Doc Watson, from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Bob Dylan to the Four Tops, from Luisa Tetrazzini to Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday, from Ennio Morricone to Lee Perry. We are drawn to the beginning of our world—understood as somehow synonymous with the core of feeling—only to find a past that changed forever in being captured. The technology that lets us hear the songs also rapidly undermines the conditions in which they were created in the first place. Go back as far as possible and you find already only an echo of some unknowable music, wilder and richer.
April 9, 1998
The full range of Smith’s work, and the extravagance of his personality, can be sampled in American Magus: Harry Smith—A Modern Alchemist, edited by Paola Igliori (New York: Inanout Press, 1996.) ↩
Jon Pankake, “The Brotherhood of the Anthology,” in the booklet to the Smith Anthology. ↩
Peter van der Merwe, Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1989). ↩
“Fatal Flower Garden” by Nelstone’s Hawaiians, in the Smith Anthology. ↩
Nashville: Country Music Foundation Press, 1977. ↩