The second annual Harry Smith Festival is this Sunday, November 15. Eight bands from Ithaca, NY, and central Pennsylvania will perform songs from The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by the late avant-garde filmmaker and record collector Harry Smith.
Kai is also an assistant professor at Penn State, and directs Penn State's Center on Rural Education and Communities. He's got a Ph.D. from Cornell.
I emailed him questions, and he emailed me answers. Many sincere thanks to him!
The Celestial Monochord (CM): What happens at a festival about an anthology? Please say there'll be PowerPoint slides — I love lectures by experts!
Kai Schafft (KS): No powerpoints, sadly. Last year we did show an experimental film inspired by Harry Smith. I had found an old 20 minute 16 mm Maryland Game Commission film in a junk shop and rigged up a contraption that would allow me to mount the film reels and create some under-lighting. I re-animated the whole thing with Sharpies, frame by frame, turning it into a kind of psychedelic game commission film. Then I recorded a soundtrack – an audio montage of found sound, bird noise, gospel music recorded on old 78 records (naturally), Baba Ram Das giving spiritual advice by telephone, sex noise off a weird slab of vinyl, echoey ambient noise from the lobby of an interstate rest area in Maine, and so forth. We set up a screen and projector halfway through and showed the film. I was a little worried that it might seem too esoteric, but people loved it – another successful social experiment! Our friend Elody Gyekis (who is returning this year) completed a pair of oil paintings as the bands played. The place filled up, lots of people ate food and drank beer. They seemed to feel that something special was happening.
CM: What kind of audience showed up for this on the first year? What's the venue like?
KS: We didn’t know who would show up. The Elk Creek Café + Aleworks (www.elkcreekcafe.net) is located in Millheim, a small rural town located practically in the geographic center of Pennsylvania. It’s Amish country, with ridgelines and long flat farmed valleys. The venue is right in the center of town at the one stoplight in either direction for miles and miles. Amish buggies roll by. It’s an unlikely place for a craft brewpub and music venue, but the proprietor, Tim Bowser, is a pretty visionary guy and not afraid to take risks. He’s also a huge music lover and early on set his sights on establishing Millheim and the valley we occupy, Penns Valley, as a center of great (local) food, excellent craft beer, eclectic music and local culture. So he immediately took to the idea of the Festival. He didn’t need any convincing, and I knew he wouldn’t. And we ended up packing the place and not just with hipsters and folkies from State College (about 25 miles away), but all sorts of people from near and far. Tim books music at least 2 or 3 nights a week, so, especially now the place has quite a good reputation. But last year, it hadn’t even been opened for a year. So it was a bit of an experiment. But, like the film, it worked!
CM: The musical line-up sounds fantastic. How do you rope all of these people into playing? Are they all Anthology fans, or do they owe you money?
KS: They are all people that I know – or at least know of. Early on I thought about how great it would be to hand pick my favorite local-ish bands and musicians to play songs off the Anthology – turn it into a big benefit, have a happening, create a shared situation where really talented people are challenged to dig into the Anthology and reinterpret and re-encounter these chunks of American Collective Unconscious. Practically speaking, the only way to really do this was to turn it into a benefit. And really, this kind of thing should be done for love anyway. Everyone who I’ve asked, both years, has seemed genuinely honored to be asked and genuinely excited to participate. And, as a musician (albeit as one that doesn’t do it for a living) I know that some of the most boring, worthless and fucked up gigs have been the highest paying, while some of the craziest, most inspired and transcendent gigs have been those done for little or no dough. But maybe others have had different experiences. I don’t know. We do offer gas money for bands coming in from away. That was mostly or entirely turned down last year. I expect a similar thing will happen this year. The performers get free food and beer though and they can sell merchandise. The beer is great, so that’s a strong incentive. Plus the Elk Creek is a flat out special place to play. The vibe and the audiences are always tops. And, unless I am very much mistaken, Elk Creek will be packed this Sunday too.
CM: Every February, there's a battle of the jug bands in Minneapolis. There are 20 bands, and it lasts over 8 hours ... by the end of the night, you can see into other dimensions. Is the Harry Smith Festival like that?
KS: Yes. Or at least it was last year. The songs on the Anthology have some pretty heavy spiritual, emotional and aesthetic content. Eight bands playing this stuff for 6 hours can be a surprisingly affecting experience. I think a lot of people felt this way. It caught them off guard. It definitely was a case of the whole being way larger and more expansive than the sum of the parts. It’s a social, aesthetic and cultural experiment that makes all sorts of crazy stuff bubble up.
CM: The Anthology covers a huge range of southern music — blues, cajun, cowboy songs, sacred harp, square dance fiddling, etc. It must be hard to match that kind of scope in the festival.
KS: Well, it’s always interesting to see what people pick. There are some obvious ones I think. And then there are some that I wish someone would step up to the plate and try to do. Like "Saut Crapaud" which almost seems to anticipate The Shaggs, albeit transported back 40 years and 40 time-space continua. Or, one of your favorites,"The Moonshiner’s Dance Part One." Nobody’s picked those yet. We have some great bands this year, though. The Evil City String Band is doing "Indian War Whoop" which I’m very excited to hear.
CM: How did you discover the old American music? Was it part of your upbringing?
KS: I grew up in Washington DC near the Walter Reed Hospital. When I wasn’t listening to the "album oriented rock" stations, I listened to bluegrass music on WAMU, and the blues shows on WPFW where I was introduced to artists like Tampa Red and Leroy Carr (and also tripped out on Louis Farrakhan sermons and other non-mainstream stuff). And my parents used to take me to the Folklife Festivals down at the Mall in Washington near the Smithsonian. So, you might say I always had "predilections." But sometime in the early 1990s I came across the collection of field recordings John Cohen did in the mid-1960s that had been released on Rounder, "High Atmosphere." That was really my gateway drug. I heard for the first time people like George Landers, Wade Ward, Gaither Carlton, and Estil Ball and I felt like my neural structure had somehow been re-arranged. Literally. Then I lived in Ithaca for a long while and got steeped in that music scene. Lots of old-time and roots music, and interestingly an actual local music culture where people share certain kinds of understandings and sounds and aesthetics – not as an orthodoxy, but as a shared framework, a culture. And that’s what Harry Smith was interested in too, those regional cultural expressions. When I was up there I DJ’d a Sunday morning radio show for a number of years, along with some compatriots, the Salt Creek Show, which is devoted entirely to American roots music of varying levels of obscurity. I still listen to it online. (wvbr.com/saltcreek). So that also was a huge influence and really introduced me not only to rural music of the 1920s and 30s but also straight up classic country and honky tonk which I also love.
CM: When did you find the Anthology? How did it change things for you?
KS: Well, I was certainly familiar with the Anthology, but I didn’t actually break down and buy it until I started thinking about doing this festival. It’s a bit of an investment! And of course you can probably figure out ways of accessing the anthology, but ultimately, the print catalog Harry Smith pulled together is indispensable. It really does establish the fundamental point that the Anthology – or rather this collection of music – has cosmological, mystical qualities. If anyone doubts that, listen to Bascomb Lamar Lunsford’s "Dry Bones." Or any number of other selections. Or the whole thing. Or whatever. You come away and you conclude, "This is not nothing. This is Something."
CM: Fans of the Anthology seem to struggle to react to it. They launch a thousand ships, go on fantastic voyages, build impossible contraptions. You and I certainly have. Why?
KS: Well, with the festival, really because I could, because I thought it would be fun. Because I thought it would help build community in a variety of ways. Because I thought it would help bring this great and largely forgotten music and expression back to the light of day. But mainly, to be honest, I just thought it would be a kick. As it happens though, the Anthology has some real juju. So it turned out to be a lot more than just a kick. But it’s that too.
CM: How does your work in rural education connect to your Anthology interest? I think of Bill C. Malone, who writes a lot about country music and southern working-class culture.
KS: I work in a university. A good friend of mine described universities as "temples of rationality." I’ve never heard a more apt description, with all the positive and negative that that implies. The Anthology is in some senses a temple (or altar?) of irrationality. So, it’s a balance thing really, balancing a life of rationality with a world – or many, many inner worlds – of IRrationality. Actually although a lot of my colleagues and some of my students know about this other part of who I am, for whatever reason I generally don’t broadcast it. As for Bill Malone’s stuff, yeah I’ve read it and I like it, a lot actually. But as for my own practice, I’ll keep my irrationality irrational!
CM: How did you get interested in Gypsy, or Roma communities in Hungary? And, of course, have you followed the resurgence of gypsy music?
KS: I lived and worked in Budapest in the early 1990s and then went back to work with rural Gypsy communities. I was interested in Hungary’s system of local minority self governments and what that meant for marginalized Gypsy communities. How they could use it as a leverage point for political and economic power and cultural autonomy. I spent a lot of time out in some pretty rural villages, living and working. But there wasn’t much music happening that I saw, at least where I was. A lot of the Roma music is associated with particular groups of Roma, especially in urban areas, wealthier, higher status groups. I was pretty far from that. But I imagine there are some analogies to be drawn, like Hungary’s Kali Jag is to the Carolina Tar Heels, as The Gypsy Kings are to Garth Brooks, as Muzsikas is to New Lost City Ramblers … ? But I don’t know. I haven’t followed Gypsy music that much.
CM: You live up there at the top end of the Appalachian range. Do you think there's a kinship with people living further down on the same range? Have you explored music closer to Pennsylvania and New York cultural history?
KS: Well, I don’t know. Except in pockets, regionally-specific musical expression seems largely non-existent. But there are certainly pockets, and even very strong pockets of people tapping into local/regional musical expression, rural music and so forth, old time, and what have you. Ithaca has been a real hot bed. There’s good stuff around Morgantown and further south into West Virginia, North Carolina. I would like to be one of those people who goes to Clifftop and Mt Airy, but I don’t. And maybe I’m not looking in the right places, turning over the right rocks. Sifting through piles of 78s around here you find a lot of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. He used to have a banjo orchestra and was pretty popular for a while. He actually died at a show when he was in his 80s – a friend of mine was actually at that show! But he was more of a jazz guy I think. Much of my efforts these days seem to be more with creating, or reinvigorating, or strengthening a local musical-cultural presence than digging into what came before. But, then again, there’s not much evidence of what came before, at least as far as I can tell. It’s like a cultural amnesia, the Clear Channelization of popular consciousness. To that extent the Harry Smith Festival is a subversive act – and it’s meant to be.
CM: Did you attend any of the Harry Smith Project concerts — the concerts by Philip Glass, Wilco, Beck, Elvis Costello, etc?
KS: No, and in fact, I didn’t even know about these till we started planning the first one here in Millheim. I have the Harry Smith Project DVD. There’s some great stuff on that, although it’s a little hit or miss too.
CM: There's something called the "Harry Smith Frolic" held annually in Greenfield, MA. It seems to be a weekend of oldtime stringband jam sessions. Have you been in touch with them?
KS: I didn’t know about this either. I’ll have to check it out.
CM: What's your favorite ancillary Anthology-related stuff? What book, CD, DVD, and/or movie?
KS: Well, the Celestial Monochord is actually a big favorite of mine, and the website run by that French guy is absolutely amazing! I also love the site you have linked with the visual art of the different anthology songs. Perhaps farther afield there’s a great Motorhead documentary, "Ace of Spades," that I really enjoyed. I like Harry Smith’s catalog. One of these days I’ll get around to reading some of John Fahey’s stuff. I have read and re-read the booklet that comes with the High Atmosphere disc. I recently read a book called Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia. There’s an excellent CD that goes with it. I really enjoyed that. And most recently I’ve been really freaking out about Michael Hurley. Really, really freaking out. The next "fest" might have to be Michael Hurley themed, I don’t know. I’m still figuring that one out. And Karen Dalton has also recently left a pretty strong impression – "Green Rocky Road" (her robotic voice intro to Green Rocky Roads: "This * song * recorded * in * two * tracks"). So these are all ancillary to the Anthology in my mind.
CM: It's a painful fact that a man is rarely asked to talk about his banjo. Please, Kai, tell me about your banjo.
KS: I used to live in an old farm house in Upstate New York. One day by happenstance I found an old gun in the wall of the house. It was a WWII German Mauser. We had it around the house for a while, and a friend borrowed it, cleaned it and got bullets for it. I went over to his house and we shot it a bunch and blew apart some old clay flowerpots. He got really excited about it and really wanted it for his own. He said, "I have an old banjo – I’ll trade you the gun for the banjo." So we struck a deal and I took the banjo home. Some months later, with prodding from my wife, I screwed up my courage and took some lessons from Richie Stearns, a phenomenal musician and clawhammer banjo player from the Ithaca area who plays with The Horseflies, plus a ton of other projects, plus has played with a crazy list of musical luminaries from Mike Seeger and Tony Trischka to Natalie Merchant and Jim Lauderdale. But he’s also just a really nice and humble guy. A mutual friend said, "Oh Richie, he’s common as dirt!" So, I learned some stuff off him and started playing in a zydeco-electric old time band called The MacGilllicuddies, who I still play with a bunch of times a year, but these days I mainly play with my local band Chicken Tractor Deluxe, the band that’s hosting the festival. Last year we were preparing to record our CD, Tin Can Holler, and the Austin band The Gourds came through and played at Elk Creek. Kev Russell did an a capela version of Butcher’s Boy, which slayed everyone in the house. I talked to him about it afterwards and we geeked out about the Anthology. He told me that he played a gig in Arkansas where the audience pissed him off, and when they clamored for an encore he played them My Name is John Johanna! So we ended up playing Butcher’s Boy and John Johanna in last year’s Festival and they ended up on our CD, Tin Can Holler, along with I’m On the Battlefield for My Lord, and Country Blues. But I’m getting off track. About the banjo and all, Richie plays with Evil City Stringband, so I’m hoping that we can get him to sit in with us when we do the Coo Coo Bird. It all comes around in the end!