The great folk music revival of the 1960s didn’t happen out of thin air, nor simply due to the ever-shifting whims of popular tastes. Before the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, the New Lost City Ramblers and John Fahey could start cranking out covers of old-timey ballads, country blues and Appalachian gospel tunes, someone had to collect and republish them. The general public has at least some vague awareness of the work of such itinerant ethnomusicologists as father and son John and Alan Lomax in preserving old songs and musical styles through field recordings, or by bringing performers with long memories into the studio. But collectors of phonograph records from the earliest era of recording technology also helped immeasurably in saving the works of many obscure artists from being lost to time.
Perhaps the most influential of those collectors was an underground filmmaker named Harry Everett Smith. Born in Oregon in 1923 and raised in Washington by pantheistic Theosophist parents, Smith was by all accounts a bit of an odd duck. He was an amateur anthropologist who studied the traditional music, folkways and spirituality of the Lummi Indians; a beatnik and jazz fan who palled around with Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders; an occultist interested in alchemy who designed a Tarot deck and taught Shamanism for a while at the Naropa Institute. He first began collecting out-of-print blues recordings in the 1940s, then moved on to include what was then called “hillbilly music”: backwoods country, bluegrass, Cajun and gospel tunes.
Smith was also an alcoholic and heavy user of hallucinogenic drugs who was rarely gainfully unemployed – though he put years of work into his experimental art films, some of which are still preserved in Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archives collection – and occasionally homeless. Low on funds in the early 1950s, he approached Moe Asch of Folkways Records in hopes of selling part of his huge collection of early 78s. Asch presented a counteroffer that ended up cementing Smith’s place in the history of the folk revival: Together they created and released a three-volume, six-disc series of records in the new LP format, incorporating some of the gems of Smith’s collection. (A long-planned fourth volume was released after Smith’s death in 1991).
The Anthology of American Folk Music not only galvanized a generation of neo-folk performers; it also revived the careers or restored the legacy of many great American roots artists whose work was in peril of being lost from our collective cultural memory. Among the performers whose early recordings were captured and popularized in the Folkways compilation were the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, Dock Boggs, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie Johnson, plus many other names still regarded as obscure today.
Adding to the recording’s now-legendary status were Smith’s quirky liner notes, which consisted mainly of synopses of each song’s narrative, rendered in newspaper headline style. Thus Chubby Parker’s 1928 version of “Froggy Went A-Courtin,’” titled “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O,” is described by Smith as “Zoologic Miscegeny Achieved,” for one oft-cited example. The covers were decorated with a 16th-century etching of a fanciful musical instrument from an alchemical treatise and color-coded to relate the subject matter to the elements of fire, water and air (and later earth).
Among the generation of young folkies who congregated in Greenwich Village in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Anthology of American Folk Music became known simply as the “Harry Smith Anthology,” and it was studied with fervor. According to Van Ronk, “We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.” The seminal compilation was reissued on vinyl with different cover art, and rereleased on CD by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997.
The Harry Smith Anthology has also inspired the occasional tribute concert by musicians who came under its influence, and one of those is planned for this Saturday at the Bearsville Theater. Unsurprisingly, old Smith crony Ed Sanders is behind the event, and local veterans of the West Village folk scene of the ’60s like John Sebastian, Happy Traum and Steve Katz will be performing. Eric Weissberg will join banjo buddy Bill Keith and the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band. Also on the program are Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, Professor Louie & the Crowmatix, Mikhail Horowitz & Gilles Malkine, Bill & Livia Vanaver, Charlie Knicely, Fre Atlast’s Women of the World drum ensemble and the Rosendale Improvement Association Marching Band and Social Club.
This stellar lineup won’t just be honoring the memory of an obsessive and multitalented record collector, however: It’s raising money through this concert for the Hudson Valley Musical Instrument Drive being organized by Hungry for Music. The not-for-profit organization “supports music education and cultural enrichment…by acquiring and distributing quality musical instruments to underserved children with willing instructors and a hunger to play.” More than 7,000 instruments have been donated to needy students around the world over the past two decades.
If you have a working instrument that’s gathering dust, you can donate it to the cause by visiting www.hungryformusic.org. Or just come to the “Tribute to Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music” show at the Bearsville, which starts at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 14. Tickets cost $45 for Gold Circle seating and $30 for regular reserved seating. To order, visit www.bearsvilletheater.com. The doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Tribute to Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music benefit concert for Hungry for Music, Saturday, June 14, 7:30 p.m., $45/$30, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.