More Bluegrass Roots-The Anthology of American Folk Music

Andy Bing’s Bluegrass Blog – Week 10

Blog posts for weeks seven and nine mentioned in passing the Anthology of American Folk Music, which was issued on six LPs on Folkways in 1952. This week’s post is devoted to the Anthology. Although the Anthology’s 84 recordings all predate bluegrass by a decade or more, a number of its songs have been taken up by bluegrass artists over the years. In addition, the Anthology’s impact on American music continues as contemporary bands record songs from it. Finally, a second anthology, composed of the recordings on the flip, or “B” sides, of the records included in the Anthology, has recently been issued. It now seems appropriate to spend a few moments with the Anthology.

The 84 recordings on the Anthology were issued by commercial record companies in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These tunes were not recorded by music scholars looking to preserve an important aspect of traditional American culture. Rather, record companies issued them to make money. The tunes range from blues to gospel to ballads to old time folk and what was once called “hillbilly” music. Of interest to fans of bluegrass and related southern music forms, the Anthology includes songs by the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, and Clarence (aka Tom) Ashley, among others.

The Anthology was compiled by Harry Smith, a polymath whose interests included experimental film making and mysticism in addition to music. His record collection was enormous, and from it he curated the Anthology. Smith divided his collection of folk music into (his terms) ballads, social music, and songs. Smith’s deep knowledge of this music is reflected in the booklet he complied to accompany the Anthology. For each of the 84 songs, Smith supplied discographical data, artist information, a bibliography, and finally, a short punchy summary of the song in headline form (ALL CAPS). The headlines displayed Smith’s puckish sense of humor but they got right to the heart of the songs. For the murder ballad “Ommie Wise” (#13): “GREEDY GIRL GOES TO ADAMS SPRING WITH LIAR; LIVES JUST LONG ENOUGH TO REGRET IT.” For “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O,” a variant of “Froggie Went A-Courting”: “ZOOLOGIC MISCEGENY ACHIEVED IN MOUSE FROG NUPTIALS, RELATIVES APPROVE.”
Smith included in his Anthology the Carter Family’s recordings of “John Hardy,” “Engine 143,” “Little Moses,” and “Single Girl, Married Girl”; Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down The Old Plank Road,” and “Buddy Don’t You Roll Down The Line”; Charlie Poole’s “White House Blues”; and Clarence Ashley’s “House Carpenter,” and “The Coo Coo Bird.” In addition are songs by the Carolina Tar Heels (featuring Ashley) and the Stoneman Family, one of the pioneering country bands, whose second generation included fiddle virtuoso Scotty, mandolin virtuoso Donna, and banjoist and comic Ronnie, a staple on “Hee Haw” for many years. “Sugar Baby,” by Dock Boggs, is a variant of a song better known to bluegrassers as “Red Rocking Chair,” covered by the Country Gentlemen. And “East Virginia,” by Buell Kazee, is another tune well known to bluegrass. If you like the banjo, played in a variety of pre-Scruggs styles, there’s a lot of it here.

By 1952, when the Anthology was issued, these songs, most of which were archaic when recorded, must have seemed other worldly. According to the New Yorker (not necessarily my favorite resource for writing on this kind of music, but they are not wrong here), “[t]here’s a lot of bleating, croaking, hollering, screeching, and moaning.” And yet the Anthology inspired several generations of musicians, starting in the early 50s, to explore America’s musical past, which turned out to be its musical present as well, since many of the artists featured on the Anthology were then still very much alive. (Blues mandolinist Yank Rachell, who appeared on track 70, “Expressman Blues,” with Sleepy John Estes, is believed to have been the last surviving artist on the Anthology at the time of his death in 1997.) A number of the Anthology artists, including Clarence Ashley, who recorded and toured with Doc Watson, and Mississippi John Hurt, had second careers as a result of the Anthology.

Anthology songs were covered by contemporary musicians from the beginning. Early on, Pete Seeger recorded “Down on Penny’s Farm” (#25) and “Peg and Awl (#12),” and of course Bill Monroe recorded “White House Blues” in 1954, although he likely knew it directly from the Charlie Poole recording rather than from the Anthology. Bob Dylan recorded Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” (#76) on his first LP and his “Maggie’s Farm” owes a lot to “Penny’s Farm.” Much more recently, in 2015, Foghorn Stringband recorded “Henry Lee” (#1), an unusual murder ballad where the woman is the killer and the crime is witnessed by a talking bird. I guess you have to hear it.

In the late 1990s, Smithsonian Folkways reissued the Anthology on six CDs, making it more widely available to a new generation of musicians and fans. And this year, Dust To Digital issued The Harry Smith B Sides, containing the flip sides of 81 of the 84 records included in the Anthology. (The compilers omitted three tracks because of racist lyrics). One of the included B sides is Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s hymn to moonshine, “Mountain Dew,” a bluegrass jam session staple. It’s on the flip side of Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” (#63).

The fact that people are still listening to and talking about the Anthology and that musicians continue to record songs from it demonstrate that it still speaks to contemporary audiences, nearly 70 years after it was first issued and nearly a century after the songs included in it were recorded. This fan of the Anthology is eagerly awaiting the B sides.

2 Responses

  • Very nice article Andy. I never heard of the Harry Smith Anthology until around 2000! I got in invitation to a Harry Smith Frolic in Massachusetts where enthusiasts recreate the songs. I suppose the Anthology influenced lots of preservationists like the New Lost City Ramblers, etc. The Anthology is eclectic, I’ll give it that!

  • Thanks Dick. I didn’t make to the Frolic but hope to if/when it’s held again. But the Frolic attendees are much more steeped in the Anthology tunes than I am. I am pretty sure that the New Lost City Ramblers were big fans of the Anthology and recorded a lot of songs from it, although I haven’t checked the archive. Rambler John Cohen was involved in the B sides reissue project before his death last year.

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