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Beyond The Anthology

 

Banjo_camp_rancher

A reader has asked:

I only recently discovered the Harry Smith Anthology but I'm already obsessed. Any further recomendations?
What a question! For the past eight years or so, my musical and intellectual life has revolved around my own discovery of the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music compiled and designed by Harry Smith. You could say The Celestial Monochord's own reason for being is to provide such "further recommendations."

But I also hesitate to answer. Much of the energy and diversity in a Folk Revival (which is what's happening today) seems to come from everybody struggling to find their own way. When I ask like-minded people how they found the old folk and blues music — and where they went from there — the answers almost always surprise me.

At the 2004 American Banjo Camp in Washington State, I met the guy pictured above (I can't recall his name). He was a rancher from arid eastern Washington near the Idaho pan handle. Several campers listened as he told about the time he traded his much sought-after banjo — an old Gibson Mastertone — for seventeen tons of hay. We all laughed and told him he'd been bamboozled. When the laughing died down, he said, "Do you know what seventeen tons of hay cost?" We all conceded that indeed we did not.

Anyway, point is, this guy seemed like a truly authentic folk character — The Genuine Article. So I asked him how he got into playing the banjo, hoping he'd say it was a family tradition going back centuries. Instead, he said "Well, when I was a kid, I was very heavily into the Rolling Stones. And their liner notes said they owed it all to Muddy Waters. So I got some Muddy Waters albums, and that got me into Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton records, and that got me to Harry Smith and Dock Boggs, which got me into bluegrass and ... well, twenty years later, here I am at Banjo Camp."

You just never know.

I'm happy to list some of the places I've been, but I wouldn't think of it as a road map. It's mind-boggling how much stuff is out there today, and how many paths there are into and out of The Anthology.

 

THE ANTHOLOGY

Harry_smith

Once you've memorized The Anthology and scoured its liner notes, you may want even more supporting material.

Anthology of American Folk Music is an invaluable but out-of-print book from Oak Publications. I found a hard copy from an online bookseller, but this electronic version at Tower of Babel will also do nicely.

Volume 4 was released in 2000 by Revenant, where it promptly went out of print (which is why I wish Folkways had done this, as nothing goes out of print there). Smith had long planned this fourth volume, but his attention span expired. It's wonderful — maybe you can find it used somewhere.

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus. In a way, it's a book-length argument that the spirit of The Anthology deeply animates Dylan's vision — even more so AFTER he "went electric." I think you need to know this book to go any further. It's been renamed and revised, but I only know this first version.

When We Were Good: The Folk Revival by Robert Cantwell — especially Chapter Six, "Smith's Memory Theater." Cantwell's writing is often dense and difficult (in a postmodern cultural studies kind of way) but if you can figure out what he's saying, he'll change your life. I've returned to this beautiful chapter again and again over the years.

Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith — Selected Interviews is for the serious Smith-head. It's easy to forget that the highly honored and influential Anthology was put together by a border-line homeless weirdo whose main source of income was often small-time dope peddling. This collection of interviews is frustrating, hilarious, tedious, inspiring, illuminating. Mostly, it's a sad reminder that Allen Ginsberg was right about what becomes of the best minds of his (and your) generation.

 

THOSE ANTHOLOGIZED

Henry_thomas

Find out what ELSE the people on The Anthology recorded — that is, find out what Smith chose from to arrive at The Anthology. Here are my favorites so far.

The Carter Family: In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain. The fact that I laid out the cash for this Bear Family box set suggests how important I think the Carter Family is (it sure as hell doesn't mean I've got the money to spend — you might want to go for some of the box sets put out by JSP instead). You know ... sometimes I walk down a crowded street and am suddenly saddened, thinking "Most of these people don't know about the Carter Family."

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson and its liner notes. Johnson is a gospel musician, so the central themes of his work go back to African American slavery, and back through all of Western literature, and ultimately to Jewish slavery and the Torah. This may be why his artistry can seem to take on layer upon layer upon layer. It's DEEP. Don't screw around with any "selected" collection — go for the Complete.

The Complete Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas. Despite their wild differences, Thomas is like Willie Johnson in that a Great Theme gives his art a depth that opens up beneath you and swallows you up. Born less than a decade after the abolition of slavery, his theme is travel — the road's promises of freedom and its ever-present threats of sudden terror.

Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years, 1963-1968. Boggs is like the greatest old Irish storyteller you'll ever meet — you never know whether to laugh or cry. These years that Dock Boggs and Mike Seeger spent together have a mythic status in my mind — like Dylan and Guthrie at Greystone Hospital, or like Johannes Kepler at Tycho Brahe's bedside. The difference is that Seeger made recordings.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford: Ballads, Banjo Tunes and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina. After many weeks of listening exclusively to this, I stood on the shore of Lake Superior and tried an impersonation of Bascom Lamar Lunsford. To my surprise, what came out was a terrible Lunsford, but a great Bob Dylan. I think not only Dylan's voice, but his approach to imagery and meaning owes a large, mostly unrecognized debt to Lunsford.

Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962 documents one of the great moments of American music — Ralph Rinzler's simultaneous rediscovery of The Anthology's Clarence (Tom) Ashley, and his discovery of the young Doc Watson. The collection has the sound of music being reborn.

 

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS + ALAN LOMAX

Black_texicans

Reading a song as sheet music is like looking at a roadmap of a city, while hearing an actual recorded performance of a song is like visiting that city and eating its gumbo. That's the big shift in which Harry Smith's Anthology participated. Technology and imagination allowed The Anthology, The New Lost City Ramblers, and Alan Lomax to put the true sound of real folk music right into people's ears — and it literally remade the world.

New Lost City Ramblers, 40 Years of Concert Performances. A great introduction to the Ramblers, with many stories told between songs, plenty of laughs, and brilliant musicianship. You can hear the guys grow to a venerable age right before your ears. Tracy Schwarz's introductory comments about "I've Always Been a Rambler" are alone worth the price.

New Lost City Ramblers: The Early Years, 1958-1962. Selections from the Folkways albums before Tom Paley left the group. Particularly surprising for these Patron Saints of Oldtime is all the bluegrass they played so capably. Particularly amusing are all the bawdy and politically questionable songs such as "Sales Tax on the Women" and "Sal's Got a Meatskin."

Out Standing in Their Field: The New Lost City Ramblers Volume II, 1963-1973. Selections from the albums recorded with Tracy Schartz in the line-up. I love the ever-timely Roger Miller song "Private John Q," the hilariously bad-news "Dear Okie," John Cohen's insanely shaggy shaggy-dog story "Automobile Trip Through Alabama," and the worryingly moving Freudian parable "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake." For more on the Ramblers see The New Lost Times.

Southern Banjo Sounds
Solo Oldtime Country Music
Third Annual Fairwell Reunion. I carry around these CDs by founding Rambler Mike Seeger like the American President's nuclear football — they're never far from my side. Mike has done more than any other living person to make the music of The Anthology a living reality in the hearts and hands of people like us. Like the Ramblers themselves, Mike is not a nostalgic impersonator of old records — he's very much a new thing, a creature of today and tomorrow.

The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler. A brilliant way to get a sense of what Alan Lomax preserved in his journeys through America, and during his McCarthy-era exile in Europe. A good third of these performances by longshoremen, patrons of taverns, and prisoners in work crews just don't seem possible — they're too beautiful and strange.

Deep River of Song: Black Texicans. The reason I choose these recordings of black Texans over all the other Lomax recordings I own is that they just happen to blow my mind so consistently. Lomax recordings have a startling immediacy — you feel like you're there watching the thing get recorded, every time you hear it. If I could sit down with you and spin some disks, I might just start you off with Butter Boy's freaky "Old Aunt Dinah."

 

INHERITORS OF THE ANTHOLOGY

Aereoplain

It's silly to list performers influenced by The Anthology, since just about everybody's world has been transformed by it, whether they know it or not. But here's a few people I happen to like, and who just seem to smell like Harry Smith — they have The Anthology and/or Lomax and/or the Ramblers written all over them.

There's a vast universe of incredible musicians who perform in old folk styles. They are world-class masters of their instruments, but when you see them in concert, you might be one of only a dozen people in the audience. It's insane, but ... hey, at least they do requests. I once told Ken Perlman that I've given his brilliant "Northern Banjo" CD to friends as gifts a few times. He gave me a puzzled look and said, "Where do you get them?" Lord help us all. I'm also crazy about Tom, Brad, and Alice, Mac Benford, and local boys Spider John Koerner, Charlie Parr, and Lonesome Dan Kase. (These last three are all fine songwriters, but I think of them as oldtime bluesmen.)

Then there's all the more popular (for better or worse) singer-songwriter acts who Smith-ites might like. Recordings I really like and tend to associate with the Anthology are Jolie Holland's Escondida, Gillian Welch's Time the Revelator and Revival, John Prine's John Prine and Diamonds in the Rough, John Hartford's albums, the great and unavailable Aereo-Plain and the very strange Mark Twang, Tom Waits' Mule Variations, and The Handsome Family's Through the Trees.

Also, for all that can be said about Bob Dylan's debt to The Anthology, Alan Lomax, and The New Lost City Ramblers, I think Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong are the Dylan albums that make the point most clearly. They're also among Dylan's best, it seems to me, and like his first album, they're heard far too rarely.

 


Careless Love

Dockboggs

The first version of Careless Love I knew was the one Dock Boggs did, recorded by Mike Seeger thirty-eight years ago today, just in time for Valentine's Day 1968.

This was near the end of Dock's life, and so near the end of his second music career — his "Revival" career. As I've discussed at length before, Mike Seeger writes that Dock loved this second career but also found it unsettling in some ways. It apparently brought back memories of his misspent youth and its moonshine-fueled violence. Everything Boggs played in this second career could be heard as confronting this past, and as exorcising his decades working the infernal coal mines.

Careless Love is a fine example. To match Dock's high, raspy, pinched voice, you'd have to sing and sob at the same time. Though the tempo is so fast — and accelerating — that Dock can barely get some of the lines sung clearly, he delivers every word as if speaking spontaneously. Like all great singers, his song feels immediate and new:

Oh when my money you could blow
Oh when my money you could blow, Lord Lord
When my money you could blow
You was always hanging around my door

I wish to the Lord this train would run
I wish to the Lord this train would run, Lord Lord
I wish to the Lord this train would run
To carry me back where I come from

Oh now my money's all spent and gone
Oh now my money's all spent and gone, Lord Lord
Oh now my money's all spent and gone
You pass my door and sing a song

But it's not one of Dock's graveyard songs — it's a party blues tune in good old open-G banjo tuning. In Boggs, I see the cliche of the theater's masks of tragedy and comedy taking on a new life — his music projects so many intense facial expressions.

Into this mix, add the fact that Dock apparently learned this song — and many others — from recordings of female blues singers of the 1920's. Oddly and movingly, Dock retains the original gender of the narrator:

Oh momma, oh momma, yonder he goes
Oh momma, oh momma, yonder he goes, Lord Lord
Oh momma, oh momma, yonder he goes
With a banded hat and a suit of clothes

Oh place this ring upon his hand
Oh place this ring upon his hand, Lord Lord
Oh place this ring upon his hand
To show the world he's a married man

Oh take this ring and put it on
Oh take this ring and put it on, Lord Lord
Oh take this ring and put it on
And think of me when I'm gone

If I had listened to what momma said
If I had listened to what momma said, Lord Lord
If I had listened to what momma said
I'd been at home in momma's bed

Given Careless Love's subject — people gathering around when you're doing well, dumping you when you're down — there's no wonder the song has drawn the attention of a lot of professional musicians, from Elvis and Janis Joplin to Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk. Since discovering the song through Boggs in 1999, at least two other versions have crept into my CD collection. Both are unbelievable in entirely separate ways — like Boggs' version, they make me want to sit you down and say "Listen to THIS!"

One is on the first bluegrass LP every released, also recorded by Mike Seeger. It's by Snuffy Jenkins, who inspired several generations of three-finger banjo players, including Earl Scruggs. His version is outlandishly cheerful and skilled, a virtuoso piece that Seeger describes as "much influenced by jazz, as if he were playing a trumpet or jazz guitar." Follow the links above to get the Smithsonian CDs that the Jenkins and Boggs versions come from (I highly recommend them) or get the individual tracks from Smithsonian Global Sound.

The other version in my CD collection is a duet between Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, who probably know a thing or two about careless love. The track is available only as a bootleg. In this version, Cash and Dylan are mostly screwing around. Dylan seems initially lost until Cash comes to the rescue by feeding Dylan a verse he can sink his teeth into as a tool for improvisation — a reason for the recording to exist:

Cash: Love, oh love, oh careless love
Gimme some love, oh love, oh careless love
Love, oh love, oh careless love
Won't you see what your love has done to me

Cash: Sing one now, Bob.

Dylan: Hmmm. Give me a verse.

Cash: I pass my window. [pause] Pass your window. [pause] Pass your window.

Dylan: Pass your window by.
I pass your door and your window too.
I pass your door and your window too.
Yes, I'm still very much in love with you.

Cash: Well, I pass your window, pass your door
You pass my window, pass my door
Woman, man, you pass by my window and you pass my door
But you'll never get by my forty-four

Cash: Sing one now, Bob.

Dylan: Well, I pass your door, I pass your gate.
Well, you pass my door and you pass my gate
Yes, you pass my door and you pass my gate
But you won't pass by my thirty-eight.

And so on. Louis Black describes the recording fairly well:

They do an overly long version of "Careless Love" ... One of the lines refers to a gun that Cash identifies first as a .44 caliber, then Dylan labels it a .38, and then a .45. By the end of the song, Cash has identified it as a .30-ought-6 (a rifle rather than a pistol). At one point, however, in order to hit a rhyme, Cash calls it a .41 (which doesn't exist). He's so pleased with this that, just a bit later, he again refers to a .41, and you can hear the absolute delight at this silliness in his voice. Especially noticeable throughout the recordings is just how sweet and lovely Dylan's singing and harmonies with Cash are.

John Glenn's Capsule

John Glenn Spacesuit
John Glenn's Mercury spacesuit
(from beercheesesoup.com)

 

I've often heard John Glenn's Mercury 7 capsule is about the size of a Volkswagon Beetle, but this week, on a trip to Washington DC, I was still surprised to see it up close — it hardly seems bigger than John Glenn himself.

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum has a great way of displaying its capsules, kind of shrink-wrapped in plastic allowing VERY close examination, especially on a slow day at the museum. Rivets, seams, little dings and burns — Glenn's capsule really is just a tin can.

Its interior redefines "cramped" (and I thought my connecting flight to Chicago was tight!). Glenn was in a little can of human with only enough room for movement to touch a few controls. Just above his head, he had a window about four inches wide and twelve inches high.

Standing next to the capsule, the familiar facts about John Glenn now seemed strange and beside the point — the ticker-tape parade, the "hero" status, the eventual power and privilege of the Senate. Even the idea of his being "The First American In Orbit" fell away. What stuck with me was that, during the 4 hours and 55 minutes he was in orbit, he was alone up there in 1962, his bones as breakable and his flesh as flammable as yours.

Because fabric is very prone to degradation, the Smithsonian stuffs the old spacesuits on display with under-sized manikins. It gives the strange impression that all the Mercury astronauts were skinny 13-year old boys. It seems as if the astronauts were like wiry early hominids — Lucy's younger brothers.