We already have written about the recently release compilation of B-Sides of the records chosen by EGC Bishop Harry Smith for his epochal Anthology of American Folk Music. The media coverage has been interesting, largely focusing on the curators’ decision to omit three songs because of their egregrious racist content (the collection’s liner notes INCLUDE the artists and song titles along with an asterisk that leads to an explanation at the end of the track listing that these songs were omitted and why and gives resources for hearing them for those interested). Anyway, the Washing Post coverage had some points that tickled me. So…
“B-SidesThe 33rd Grammy Awards on Feb. 20, 1991, featured Mariah Carey winning Best New Artist, Bob Dylan performing a grungy version “Masters of War” in the midst of the Iraq invasion and Quincy Jones taking home an additional six Grammys. But at one point, a hunched, teetering old man with Coke-bottle glasses and long white hair hobbled up to the podium to receive the Chairman’s Merit Award. The recipient, Harry Smith, was 68 though he seemed far more ancient. ‘I’m glad to say my dreams came true; I saw America changed through music,’ he told those watching. He would pass away nine months later.
An experimental filmmaker, artist, mystic and collector of everything from paper airplanes and Seminole textiles to Ukrainian Easter eggs, Smith was best known for one particular collection: his thousands of old 78 rpm shellac records, focused on blues and hillbilly music, two early American music forms marketed to Black and White audiences, respectively. At the height of the McCarthyism witch hunts
in 1952, Smith finally presented this personally logical and quasi-mystical collection to the public as The Anthology of American Folk Music
The six LPs and 84 songs are always revelatory and often magical. Artist Bruce Conner encountered the collection in a Wichita public library and heard it as ‘a confrontation with another culture, or another view of the world . . . hidden within these words, melodies, and harmonies . . . but it’s here, in the United States!’ A scene seemingly emerged overnight sown from its seeds and the AAFM’s devotees include Dylan, Woody Guthrie, John Fahey, Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, and a litany of others well into the 21st century, such as Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, DJ/rupture and Beatrice Dillon. As Fahey once put it: ‘The Anthology of American Folk Music is a religion.’