The Harry Smith B-Sides

Blog Post #10 discussed The Anthology of American Folk Music, consisting of 84 recordings of folk, old time, blues, Cajun, and gospel music originally released in the 1920s and early 1930s. These recordings were collected and annotated by disc collector Harry Smith and released on Folkways in 1952. The Anthology was an important source of inspiration and repertoire for the musicians of the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, including bluegrass artists.

The Harry Smith B-Sides, released this year by Dust to Digital, answer the seemingly obvious (in retrospect) question that for some reason didn’t occur to anyone for decades: what was on the other sides of those 84 records? And the new collection further demonstrates that Harry Smith chose the artists for his Anthology wisely. The 81 tracks included here (three of the 84 B-sides were omitted due to lyrics containing racist language) show that the songs and tunes that Smith included in the Anthology were no flukes. In a few cases, in my opinion, the B-sides are superior to the tracks Smith chose. See, for example, the Carter Family’s incandescently beautiful recording of “The Storms Are On the Ocean,” a duet featuring Sara and A. P. Carter, the B-side of “Single Girl, Married Girl.” (In Smith’s defense, not that he needs defending from me, he had reasons beyond simple aesthetic appeal for both his track selection and sequencing).

Not surprisingly, the B-Sides collection sounds much like the Anthology-the same artists featured on recordings originally issued at the same time as those Smith chose. The B-Sides are presented in the order in which their A-sides appeared on the Anthology. And we hear again the same Anthology artists of interest to bluegrass fans and those who like the banjo: the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon (one of whose songs was among the three excised here), Charlie Poole, Clarence Ashley, the Carolina Tar Heels and Dock Boggs. And finally, the Asheville lawyer, folk festival promoter, and movie star (see the “Bluegrass Roots” documentary) Bascom Lamar Lunsford, singing his ever-popular hymn to moonshine “Mountain Dew,” supposedly based on a case he handled.

And so, many of the songs here will be familiar to bluegrass listeners. Clarence Ashley sings the outlaw ballad “Old John Hardy” and “Dark Holler Blues” (aka “East Virginia Blues”); G.B. Grayson sings “Rose Conley” (aka “Down In The Willow Garden”); the Carter Family sing (in addition to “The Storms Are On The Ocean”), “I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes,” “Bring Back My Blue-Eyed Boy To Me,” and “God Gave Noah The Rainbow Sign”; Buell Kazee sings “Darling Cora” (later covered by the Monroe Brothers and much later by the Seldom Scene); Uncle Eck Dunford sings “Angeline The Baker”; J. P. Nester sings “Black Eyed Susie”; and the Stonemans sing “The Road To Washington,” a variant of “White House Blues” and “Cannonball Blues.”

The arrangements heard here are not bluegrass; these recordings predated Bill Monroe’s earliest recordings by as much as a decade. Although many bluegrass standards were composed later by the genre’s founders, Monroe, Flatt, Stanley, etc., from the earliest days to the present bluegrass artists have drawn from this deep well of folk and old time songs. Many of the recordings that make up the Harry Smith B-Sides, like those in the Smith Anthology, were heard by Monroe and his contemporaries in their original release. In many cases these musicians had been singing these songs from childhood. The tunes spoke to them and perhaps inspired them to pursue music professionally, to our good fortune.

The repertoire of the Carter Family, in particular, had a profound influence on Bill Monroe and others who played bluegrass in the early days. Bill’s earliest recordings, with brother Charlie as the Monroe Brothers between 1936 and 1938, included a number of songs composed or recorded by the Carter Family (but not the four B-Sides here), at a time when the Carter Family was still recording. Carter Family standards such as “Can (Will) The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Weeping Willow Tree,” “Let Us Be Lovers Again,” “Gospel Ship,” “Foggy Mountain Top,” and “Lonesome Valley” turned up on Monroe Brothers records. The Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers were the source of many songs that form part of the standard bluegrass repertoire. Although the Monroe Brothers recorded too late to be included on Smith’s Anthology, his inclusion of four Carter Family recordings ensured that the Carters’ legacy as folk music pioneers would endure.

It’s also worth pointing out that the B-Sides inspired musicians in addition to bluegrassers. For example, fans of the 1960s blues-rock band Canned Heat will find some good up-country sounds on Henry Thomas’s recording of “Bull Doze Blues.” And old time fans (bluegrass seems to have a lot of them) will like the Burnett & Rutherford version of “All Night Long Blues,” recorded by the Foghorn Stringband (who also recently covered Grayson’s version of “Rose Conley”), and Uncle Dave Macon’s recording “Rise When The Rooster Crows.”

Finally, I note that some of the B-Sides match anything on the Anthology for sheer weirdness. The Anthology’s “Henry Lee” featured a talking bird; here, we have a talking entrée, “I Heard The Voice of a Pork Chop.” As Bill Monroe might have said, “You can’t beat that kind of music, I don’t believe.”

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