Anthology of American Folk Music

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November 03, 2005


Mark Woody

Hello, just a few comments about your great site. I stumbled upon it looking up info about Harry Smiths' Anthology. I had read about it in Marcus Greils' Invisible Nation, and just knew I had to get a copy of it eventually. It's as wonderful as I was imagining and more so, because I find it very dense and intriguing. Especially Vol. 2, Social Music. But, back to your site. I like your cross-referencing. I look forward to reading your site now that I have discovered it. I'm also turning it on to colleagues. Mark

The Celestial Monochord

Thanks, Mark. I really appreciate that. Back around 1998, I found a copy of Invisible Republic in a used book bin. I'd heard good things about Greil Marcus and I'd always liked the Basement Tapes, so I bought it. When I read about Harry's Anthology, I went out and bought that. (Only later did I realize that both the book and the CD version of the Anthology had JUST been released a short time before.) I remember pacing around the record store for a REALLY LONG TIME, worrying about whether or not I should spend the $57 on the Anthology (I had a coupon). Today, I would very gladly spend $5700 for the experience of getting to know all that great music. Thanks again for reading, Mark. -- Kurt G.


This is a really great blog! I found it while researching Einsteins love of music, and how Kepler believed in the harmony of the spheres.

John Culpepper

If Lead Belly had "such a degrading experience" under the management of the Lomaxes, why did he keep writing to John A. Lomax, asking him to take him back after the latter broke with him in April, 1935? Contrary to folklore, the 68 year old Lomax managed Lead Belly for a mere two-and-a half months, and their quarrels over money and credit were typical of those that artists have with their managers. They never saw each other again, but both Lead Belly and his wife, Martha Promise, sang at John Lomax's memorial concert in 1948.

I suggest you read up on the real story of Lead Belly and the Lomaxes in Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell's biography of Lead Belly, to start with. And then the chronology of the Lomaxes and LeadBelly on the Association for Cultural Equity website.

It does a disservice to these important historical figures to reduce them to cartoon stereotypes. The fact is, that if the Lomaxes had not recorded Lead Belly and brought him to Washington and NY, Lead Belly would have spent the rest of his life pumping gas in Louisiana (a best case scenario) or back in jail for life.

Neither was Moe Asch, who gave Harry Smith the idea of making the Anthology, a saint in by any means, either in his private life or in his business dealings. But then, who is?

Read Peter Goldsmith's magnificent biography of Asch: "Making People's Music", a wonderful portrait of an man and an era. This book describes Asch's transformative encounter with John A. Lomax's book, "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads" while a student in the German Rhineland in 1922.

The encounter is also describes in Gene Bluestein's Poplore (1994):
Asch, brought up in Staten Island, NYC, had been sent by his father to technical school in Post World War 1 Germany to save money.

There the other students taunted him by saying that America had no folklore and was “just a wilderness with Indians in the streets.” He told Bluestein “while I was in Paris on vacation from school . . . I came across the 1913 edition of John Lomax’s cowboy ballads, and it had an introduction by Teddy Roosevelt which guided me through life, because he said that folklore and folk songs were the real expressions of a people’s culture. And when I got back to school I was able to show the kids at school that there was uniqueness in our [American] culture. Lomax showed that there was folklore in America. All this stayed in the back of my mind.”

As recounted above, in 1939, on the advice of Asch family friend, the physicist Albert Einstein, Asch founded Disc and later Folkways records to document and preserve European Jewish (then in dire peril) and American folk music. See Gene Bluestein’s Poplore: Folk and Pop in American Culture (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), pp. 105–120. A version of the story also appears in Peter Goldsmith's bio of Asch.

John Culpepper

Another interesting thing about Asch, is that his father, Schlomo Asch, was marginalized and practically excommunicated by the Jewish community for trying to reconcile Judaism with Christianity.

Sort of like a later-day Spinoza.

Harry Smith was not wrong to associate folk music with things celestial.

Carl Sagan knew it, too. According to wikipedia:
Alan Lomax was a consultant to Carl Sagan for the Voyager Golden Record sent into space on the 1977 Voyager Spacecraft to represent the music of the earth. Music he helped choose included the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll of Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry; Andean panpipes and Navajo chants; Azerbaijani mugham performed by two balaban players,[32] a Sicilian sulfur miner's lament; polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, and the Georgians of the Caucasus; and a shepherdess song from Bulgaria by Valya Balkanska;[33] in addition to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and more. Sagan later wrote that it was Lomax "who was a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible. There was, for example, no room for Debussy among our selections, because Azerbaijanis play bagpipe-sounding instruments [balaban] and Peruvians play panpipes and such exquisite pieces had been recorded by ethnomusicologists known to Lomax." --Carl Sagan, Murmurs of Earth, p. 16.

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