The fetishized harmonica rack from the 1952 liner notes (detail)
Harry Smith approached his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music as a self-consciously avant-garde art project. Knowing that the Anthology was going to be commercially released as a set of LPs, he nonetheless compiled a proto-post-modern collage.
And this turned out to be a source of its power — a catalytic feature. The Anthology seduces you into hearing old-sounding, authentic-sounding poor-people's music as tomorrow's high art.
In the decade after its release, the early adopters and taste-makers in the small Greenwich Village folk music scene were staring deeply into this Anthology.
And they got to work building a small world that had learned from the Anthology, where the next waves of young folkies could, for example, sit at the feet of Roscoe Holcomb and Skip James — very old, weird southern musicians indeed.
Bob Dylan was one of those fresh new kids.
Of course, a wide variety of brilliant people in different fields were already chipping away at the separation between high art and low culture. But the most devastating blow to that barrier ultimately came from a veteran of this Greenwich Village folk scene, a fact that surprises us still.
Allen Ginsberg said it about his friend Bob Dylan, but he could have easily said it about his friend Harry Smith. "It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox. He proved it can."
Kevin Moist's article ("Collecting, Collage, and Alchemy: The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music as Art and Cultural Intervention") starts from essentially the same premise — that the Anthology derives its power to influence from high art sensibilities, which it helped to democratize.
But Moist takes the next step. He opens up those sensibilities to see what they're made of, at least as Smith used them in the Anthology.
Moist focuses on collecting, collage, and alchemy — not as "themes" or "conceits" in a work of art, or as Smith's personal quirks, but as practical concerns that shaped Smith's understanding of his task, as Smith would probably have wanted us to do.
Moist's findings reveal that Smith's interests in collecting, collage, and alchemy were actually part of his coherent focus on cultural transformation — on the problem of how to rework the world through the meanings we ascribe to it.
As a result, Moist's article reads like an anatomy of the Anthology's ability to change the perceptions of its listeners. Accepting his 1991 Grammy Award, Smith said "I saw America changed through music," and Moist's article is a natural history of that power to affect change.
An associate professor of communications at Penn State Altoona, Moist seems to have a long-standing interest in the religious ideas of the 1960's counter-culture, and their role in the art and music of the era. It makes sense, then, that Moist would think this carefully about Smith's very earnest interest in alchemical theory.
About the Anthology, two alchemical principles seem important, and Moist argues that the application of these two principles to culture, high and low, was a key element in Smith's thinking.
(Look at the image of the celestial monochord on the Anthology's cover, with its hand of God tuning a string extending down through the nested spheres of creation. It's an emblem of this harmony across the high and low orders.)
Second, alchemists believe that by stripping stuff of its original context — purifying or distilling it — and rearranging it, nature's true divinity can be exposed. The alchemist doesn't turn lead into gold, but instead serves as "midwife" to an ever-present potential inherent in all of nature.
Smith's interest in alchemy, it turns out, matters when we try to understand Smith as a collector — as we should, if only because every anthology starts with collecting.
Collecting, Moist explains, is a fairly recent phenomenon in which the consumer acts as curator. As such, the collector sees a larger cultural significance in his collection, and wants to intervene in the usual meanings that the broader culture ascribes to the objects he collects.
In this sense, Smith was a kind of super-collector. In multiple interviews, Smith describes his accumulation of objects as merely the first step in a larger reconsideration of culture as a whole.
So, as a collector and student of alchemy, Harry Smith sat down to edit his Anthology — although Moist finally convinced me to take literally Smith's insistence that his Anthology was a collage. The "anthology" is really a metaphorical conceit of this collage artwork.
Moist points out that collage — another type of collection — works by isolating pieces of the world and rearranging them, thus reshaping the meanings they bring with them into the new collage. Collage is "a process of reconstructing reality by reassembling pieces of it."
This vision of Smith's cultural transformation through collage, collecting, and alchemy is convincing and useful and full of exciting possibilities. But the essay attempts a new reading of the Anthology that proves disappointing, maybe because a journal article just isn't long enough to do the job.
In a few paragraphs, Moist takes on the entire "lost" Volume 4 (first issued in 2000) without unearthing any surprises about the music or the Anthology. The reader could conclude, I think incorrectly, that the exhilarating insights in the rest of Moist's essay aren't so useful after all.
The reading might have revealed much more with a much narrower focus, by dedicating those paragraphs to only one piece of Smith's collage, or to one transition between pieces.
Let's see, I don't know which recording to suggest ... I guess I'll have to pick one completely at random here ...
"Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" is one of only two medlies on the Anthology.
Not a tune but a collection of tunes, it is an anthology in the Anthology, a collage incorporated into a larger collage.
Our understanding of "Moonshiner's Dance" therefore benefits from some of the same thinking we apply to the Anthology itself — if, possibly, on a different scale. It’s, like, totally fractal, bro.
In the 4 years I've been investigating Moonshiner, I've come to understand it as a promiscuous set of juxtapositions, a collection of popular tunes that were mostly already old fashioned in 1927.
Clearly, some of the meaning Moonshiner held for its 1927 audience would have derived from its aggressive and multi-leveled recontextualization of these earlier tunes.
Like the Anthology itself, the pieces that make up Moonshiner trailed some of their meanings with them into their new assemblage, where these meanings served a new agenda in a new context — in this case, that of the Victoria Cafe, a cabaret-style nightclub and speakeasy in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, MN.
Part of what maintains my interest over the long haul is tracing the way Moonshiner (and, subsequently, the Anthology) transformed meaning into meaning, agenda into agenda, context into context.
For example, of the 112 selections in the four-volume version of the Anthology, Moonshiner is the only one that’s unambiguously from outside the American South. Basically, you get 111 southern recordings, and one from the capitol of Minnesota.
Of course, the recording process always isolates (distills) music from its historical contexts. And Smith's collage style maximizes this effect, which actually contributes to the Anthology's power and appeal.
Even so, the regional geography of the Anthology uniquely decontextualizes Moonshiner even from the context-free space Smith created for it.
Much of the pleasure of my project is in placing "Moonshiner's Dance Part One" back into context, often shedding light on the sources of Moonshiner's own power and appeal.
The work is slow going, in part because related scholarship, reissues, revival activity, etc., has been sparse. Indeed, I've found no evidence that anybody had even bothered to look up "Frank Cloutier" in the St. Paul phone book.
Thus, my interest in the Anthology's jazz-inflected Northern polka has me pondering the Anthology's contribution to the various chauvinisms of "roots music" and "Americana" — ironic, given Smith's radical eclecticism.
The failure to follow up on this recording makes it seem prescient, to me, that the center of Smith's Anthology is the silence that follows Moonshiner. I mean that mostly literally.
The mid-point of the original 3-volume Anthology falls between Moonshiner and the next cut, "Must Be Born Again," the first cut of Volume 2's second half. Frank Cloutier's command to "Be seated!" introduces the silence at the center of the 1952 Anthology.
This placement also puts Moonshiner at the pivot-point between the secular and the sacred — by far, the most jarring transition in a collection of jarring transitions.
Moonshiner was clearly chosen to end the secular half of Volume 2 with a bang — to achieve a kind of final paroxysm for the sequence. Listen to it. With Moonshiner, the secular body of Volume 2 finally exhausts itself, and the spirit rises.
Hearing it this way, it's not so surprising that Smith would find this break "elsewhere" — by reaching outside of the context the Anthology had established for itself, outside its system.
Given the Anthology's eclecticism, finding its "outside" isn't so easy. So Smith reached out for Moonshiner, the exception that proves the Anthology's various rules. It's intriguing that the piece chosen to play this role would itself be an anthology.
"Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" is thus an excellent probe of the Anthology's meaning system, of Smith's method, and of their sources and consequences and limitations. Then again ... maybe the same might be said of each of the other 111 entries of the Anthology, each its own universe in a grain of sand.
I'm not sure, and given the time-consuming nature of the work involved, somebody else will have to confirm that hunch.