Perfect Sound Forever

Harry Smith tribute

Harry Smith with recording equipment

(August 1997)

The Anthology of American Folk Music was originally issued in 1952, compiled by musicologist/film-maker/alchemist Harry Smith. This collection has been and remains a vital piece of American (musical) history- it's very fitting that it's now being reissued by the Smithsonian. What makes this set so remarkable is not only the extraordinary range of music included but also the songs and performaces themselves. Calling it a musical Rosetta Stone is no exaggeration. Here, folk singer Peter Stampfel, existential guitarist John Fahey, poet laureate Allen Ginsberg and Tom Paley formerly of the New Lost City Ramblers all pay tribute to Smith and his unique vision of American music.

 NOTE: this material is excerpts from the liner notes of the reissue. This would have never appeared here if it wasn't for the kindness of Peter Stampfel, Rani Singh, Dean Blackwood, Mark Satlof and Peter Hale.


 The first time I heard the Harry Smith anthology, I didn't really hear it. I only heard Volume Three (Songs), which was everyone's favorite. It was late 1959 at the Cafe East, a coffee house on East Ninth Street in New York City, just north of McSorley's Old Ale House. Across the street from the East was another coffee house called the Dollar Sign, which had a card in the window that said "peyote for sale." The peyote was processed into double "O" gelatin capsules, and the cops couldn't bust the owner, Baron, because peyote wasn't illegal then. The cops really hated that. Many years later I found that Harry Smith had done an extensive research study on Native American peyote music and rituals in the 1940s. Five years later, Steve Weber and I volunteered to back up the Fugs, who had formed at Ed Sanders' Peace Eye Book Store and Scrounge Lounge, on East Tenth Street, further east, between Avenues B and C. Which brings us to Harry Smith, since he was the producer for the Fugs' first album, only back then the producers were called A&R men, meaning artist and repertoire. The idea was that those clueless musicians needed some wise company-hand to pick their songs for them. With choice material like "Coca Cola Douche" and "Bull Tongue Clit," the Fugs had that particular avenue well covered. So Harry's contribution to the proceedings were his presence, inspiration, and best of all, smashing a wine bottle against the wall while we were recording "Nothing."

 Thanks to the New Lost City Ramblers, I was aware of what was then called "old timey" music, which at the time was about as far in the past as the Beatles are today. The HSA covered the years from 1927, when the advent of electronic recording greatly improved sound quality, to 1933, and the Depression-caused collapse of the recording industry. Listening to the amazing breadth of music herein, which is, among other things, the very foundation of rock & roll, I was long ago struck by the fact that when it was released in 1952, rock & roll was just being born. Anyway, it wasn't until 1963 when the idea of combining HSA era music and rock & roll- the basis of much of the music I've been doing ever since- occured to me.

 But let's go back to 1959 and Volume Three. Let's just take Charlie Poole and the North Caroline Rambler's 'White House Blues.' Rarely has any human endeavor been so simple and so perfect. The paper clip comes to mind. Three simple parts- guitar, banjo, and fiddle (the fiddler's name was Posey Rorer!) basically playing about the same thing every go-around, no breaks or solos, and fitting together like clockwork in heavan. I would play it over and over, going into a state of the purest bliss. And Uncle Dave Macon! And Cajun Music! And the Carter Family! And Mississippi John Hurt, who I actually got to play 'Creole Belee' with in 1964! And Henry (Texas) Thomas, playing the most archaic pre-blues guitar ever recorded, accompanying himself with panpipes held in a harmonica holder! The mythological blues! His 'Fishing Blues,' from Volume Three, has been covered by the Holy Modal Rounders, the Loving Spoonful, and Taj Mahal, and his sound is the basis for Canned Heat's 'Going Up the Country.' Hearing all these people for the very first time, it was as if a veil was lifted, and I was finally aware of what seemed to me to be the very heart of American music. That's what I was born to do, I thought. Play and sing songs like those guys.

 Shortly after, I heard Volume One (Ballads), and decided to try and copy the version of 'Omie Wise' therein. It was just one guy, playing fiddle and singing, at once a musicial tradition centuries old and a commercial recording. Good old days indeed. I had stopped playing violin after high school (I had been in the orchestra), but was habitually carrying my violin around since leaving Milwaukee, almost subconsciously intending to become a fiddler at some vague time in the future. I started playing banjo in 1958, but when I arrived in New York I found everyone played better than I did, which wasn't hard, considering that I had only been playing for sixteen months, and lacked the quick reflexes and natural grace of those who pick up on an instrument rapidly. As an aside, I'd like to mention that I'm a slow learner, but I persevere and tend to do things for the long run. Many of the players I met when I came to New York who could play circles around me lost interest and stopped playing. Slow and steady wins the race. A stitch in time saves nine. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. A penny saved is a penny earned. But I met only two fiddle players, Danny Z and Alan Block, who oddly was also from Wisconsin. New York City was so desperate for fiddlers it even welcomed my ragged-but-right efforts. A recent review has referred to my fiddle style as 'go to hell.' I really like that.

 So for the first time, I played along with the HSA, a past time which would come to have an almost religious significance. I discovered that Omie Wise was in G! G! The people's key, as well as my personal favorite key, mainly because it was so easy to play on the fiddle and banjo.

 But for some reason, no one had Volume Two (Social Music). By October of 1960, I could fiddle pretty good and had moved to Berkeley. I asked several people about Volume Two, and was told it was 'no good' or 'the bad one.' But finally I got hold of the two LP's and played them. I was most strongly moved by the Cajun version of 'Home Sweet Home.' After the first few bars, I collapsed to the floor, rolling around with hysterical laughter which continued till the end of the next cut. I had never had a reaction to music like that in my life. I really miss having things like that happen to me. I could never understand why so many people back then didn't like Volume Two, which is my personal favorite.

 Consider, for example, the remarkable instrumentals- all fiddle tunes except for 'Moonshiner's Dance,' a medley that foreshadowed Spike Jones, another of my childhood heros. Short snippets of 'Nearer the Cross,' 'When You Wore A Tulip,' and 'When You and I Were Young, Maggie,' among others, broken up by shouts of One! Two! Three! Four! and four blasts of the starting chord for the next tune! So cool! And the weird shouted comments by a guy I assumed was the band leader/big mouth/wiseass. We are talking seriously strange. The fiddle tunes themselves remain the best recorded collection of fiddle tunes I've ever heard in one place to this day. The diversity of styles continue to amaze me. Post Bluegrass fiddlers tend to sound similar, but these guys sound like they come from different planets! And the religious stuff! It was the first time I heard shape note hymns. And Blind Willie Johnson's 'John The Revelator'- Blind Willie's demonic below of 'Who's that writin'' followed by his wife's angelic keening of 'John the Revelator'- and the Carter Family's 'Little Moses,' back to back. If God were a DJ, he'd be Harry Smith.

 Have I ever told you that these records changed my life- and the lives of thousands of others- forever? I've taken a number of songs from then and given them new words. When Bob Dylan was learning to be a songwriter in 1961, he also wrote new words to a number of Smith Anthology songs. Hell, I'm still doing it. And the HSA songs I've recorded and performed as-is number in the dozens. This is the Touchstone, the Grail, the Real Deal, the Nitty Gritty, Gound Zero. Long may it wave.


 Had he never done anything with his life but this Anthology, Harry Smith would still have borne the mark of genius across his forehead. I'd match the Anthology up against any other single compendium of important information ever assembled. Dead Sea Scrolls? Nah. I'll take the Anthology. Make no mistake: there was no 'folk' canon before Smith's work. That he had compiled such as definitive document only became apparent much later, of course. We record-collecting types, sifting though many more records than he did, eventually reached the same conclusions: these were the true goods.

 But why is this 'folk'? Scholars who write such things have said the the 'folk' is the culture of a group of people who're at least to some extent isolated- whether by class, sex, age, race, language, space, time, religion- from the mainstream. Folk song developed as a common currency climate of comparative isolation, derived from a way of life, and blah blah blah. This is true, no doubt; but why did Smith pick this particular grouping as representative of 'folk' music and why was he so dead-bang right in damn near every selection? There were certainly other traditions to be found within 'American' music of the 'unschooled' variety: why are there no Jewish-American motifs? What about the Conjunto? (These were, instead, 'ethnic musics.') He did not confine himself to the English language- witness the many Cajun tracks- yet he very purposefully settled on a fairly circumscribed bunch of stuff. And it's all great, of course. So why this grouping?

 I believe the answer lies in the fact that Smith was actuley aware of a fairly simple truth which tooks others a great many years and much head-scratching to arrive at: certain multi-cultural traditions were sympathetic to each other while others were not. The White and Black folks found herein, despite the persistent protestations of many White artists (witness Bill Monroe, who most of his life would have us believe he invented bluegrass from whole cloth- nearly true, of course), listened to and drew from each other's musics in a landscape of musical interchange nonexistant during this same period between any other traditions to be found under 'American' music. Smith had an encyclopedic knowledge of 78's and a preternatural feel for the connections between them- across race and ethnic boundries- not only to codify them for us but also to have this collection persist as an absolutely definitive and essential historical document.


 Harry Smith's field was visual art as well as ethnomusicology. One day he had no money, and he offered to sell me a rather dark version of this film Heaven and Earth Magic for $100. Every time we'd go up there he'd get me high, and then he'd ask me for money because he was starving. And apparently he went around and did that with everybody. He had no source but he was a genius, like the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. So I got to be scared of going up there because he'd get me tremblingly high on grass, and he'd show me these amazing movies, and I'd be totally awed by the universality of his genius in music and painting. In addition he could write mad, long, long poems, rhymed. But he'd always hit me up for money if he could capture me and get me up there and hypnotize me with his films.

 In 1965 he recorded the first Fugs album. He did it on his own and then gave it to ESP, who released it. Maybe he gave it to Folkways first. Asch had constantly supplied him with money. If Harry wasn't near someone else, he'd always hit up Moe Asch, who dreaded his coming. Or Harry said he dreaded his coming. Asch was the guy who invented and subsidized and managed Folkways Records.

 By 1970 at the Chelsea Hotel I was working with Barry Miles on the gigantic project of putting together all of my recorded poetry. Miles was living at the Chelsea, so I was there listening to tapes. This was the point where Miles had assembled all the tapes, copied them, and was playing me variant versions of 'Howl' and 'Sunflower Sutra' so we could decide which was the earliest, best emotionally, and the best recorded in terms of sound. And Harry was on another floor, or down the corridor, engaged in a long recording project called 'Materials for the Study of Relgion and Culture in the Lower East Side,' which included murderers babbling on amphetamine in the streets, jump rope rhymes, bawdy songs, rap, the complete canon of Gregory Corso's early poetry, and all of Peter Orlovsky's songs- which are still at Folkways- at a time when Peter was absolutely great-voiced. I remember his rubric 'Materials for the Study of Religion and Culture in the Lower East Side,' which was a great idea. That was the period- 1968 to 1975- when the Lower East Side was really cooking and bubbling.

 Harry was also part of a project of recording all of my songs. At that time I was making up a lot of songs and still prolific in that area. The songs we recorded were basically the songs from the book First Blues. Later I put them all out because it was the first time I'd written songs. I guess I was inspired to music first by mantra chanting, then setting Blake to music, then Dylan put his hand in and got me interested, and then meeting Happy Traum. Harry recorded me a cappella, or with just my Benares harmonium, as it says on the Folkways LP liner notes. He actually recorded every single song I'd written several times until we got the right one he liked. We recorded ina drag room in the Hotel Chelsea on his Wollensack that he'd gotten either from me or from Moe Asch. It cost a couple of hundred bucks, and he really used it. He was a master of the microphone. The entire first Fugs album, which is a classic one, was recorded with just one microphone on the Wollensack.

 But I think he dumped my tapes off at Folkways. When he got kicked out of the Chelsea he probably brought all of his tapes up to Moe Asch and they were sitting more-or-less unlabeled or only partially labeled in the reel-to-reel boxes. Years later Asch approached Charters and said 'We've got all this material from Ginsberg and we've wanted to put out a record of this since the '60s.' Asch was an old lefty, and he thought I was reviving the spirit of the American left-wing rebellion. But Harry was too tangled up in amphetamine, or whatever he was taking, to do anything with all the material he'd amassed, so Moe gave it over to Sam and Anne Charters. The album was issued in 1981 as Folkways Records FSS 37560, called Allen Ginsberg: First Blues, Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs. Harry as usual was cantakerous and perfectionist and said 'Well, they got all the wrong takes.' There's a much better on of 'Prayer Blues,' he kept saying, but I never had access to the tapes, so I don't know what he preferred. 'Prayer Blues' is pretty amazing because it's kind of long, but I had good breath there. I started off a little bit on the wrong key or something and he had to stop and correct me. One thing I remember that he kept saying was 'It's all right.' I was tapping my foot and he said, 'Do that heavier.' And I said 'Won't the tape pick it up?' And he said 'Yeah, that's what the old blues people used to do- bang. Make little drum notes on the guitars or bang their foot on the floor as part of the rhythm thing.' I was amazed at this openness to whatever happened. But he did have a good ear, better than me, so he got me straightened out and we started over again. The interesting thing is that I had to take all the parts on the call and response on that, and I had the strength and breath to do that. It's a pretty amazing performance when I hear it now. I'm on pitch properly, I think. But nowadays it sounds like some funny old geezer folksinger doing this thing that he's been doing for 50 years, like you find on old folk records. The one thing Harry liked most of all on that album was 'Bus Ride Ballad Road to Suva.' He thought it was the most interesting song because it was a 'Come-all-ye' and sort of a classical thing. Like a shanty.

 The amazing thing is that in the last year of his life he was awarded a Grammy for the advancement of American folk music. He was dressed up in a tuxedo without a tie, and he stumbled trying to climb on the stage. He was given a moment to make a speech and said very briefly that he was happy to live long enough to see the American political culture affected and moved and shaped somewhat by American folk music, meaning the whole rock-n-roll, Bob Dylan, Beatnik, post-Beatnik youth culture. It was a beautiful speech because it very briefly said that he'd lived long enough to see the philosophy of the homeless and the Negro and the minorities and the impoverished- of which he was one, starving in the Bowery- alter the consciousness of America suffiently to affect the politics.

TOM PALEY - December 2000

When Folkways issued Harry Smith's Anthology, those three albums (six 12" LPs) hit us like thunderbolts. Some of us were already a bit familiar with a few of the artists (Uncle Dave Macon, the Carter Family and Charlie Poole, in my case) but here, suddenly, was a vast treasury of songs and tunes by a great range of old-time performers whose work was otherwise not available. The impact on those of us already interested in the music
 was terrific and even some musicians whose interest in old-time traditional music had been only peripheral, began to listen. I believe that it was largely because of the Anthology that elements of traditional style and material eventually began to surface in the field of Pop and Rock music.