In the late 1990s, I read an article in Rolling Stone magazine about the Anthology of American Folk Music. The article indicated that Bob Dylan had given the album set to Ani DiFranco as a gift when they were on tour together. I thought that sounded pretty important, so rather than waiting on Dylan, I got one for myself. I had an epiphany through the Anthology that brought the story of America to life for me and set me on my current path as a tireless student of American heritage music.
The Anthology was originally released by Folkways Records in 1952 as a six-album set. In 1997 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released it on compact disc with expanded essays and annotations. The set contains eighty-four recordings that were made and issued on 78 rpm records between 1927 and 1932. The music included Appalachian ballads, fiddle tunes, country blues, Cajun, jug band, sacred harp, and more. The songs were chosen, sequenced, and annotated by West Coast visual artist, experimental filmmaker, record collector, and mystic, Harry Smith. Smith indicated that his hope in assembling and releasing the Anthology was to see “America changed by music.”
Author Greil Marcus wrote that the Anthology was “the founding document of the American folk revival” of the 1950s and 1960s. According to folk/blues musician Dave Van Ronk, a key figure in the folk music revival, “(The) Anthology was our bible… We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.” The set brought virtually unknown parts of America’s musical landscape to people’s attention, introducing generations of Americans to the music of their heritage.
The success of the Anthology led to the reissue of many other early recordings and is largely responsible for the general interest in roots music that continues to this day. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, and others learned to write by studying, playing, and singing its songs. These artists, in turn, influenced countless songwriters who came after them. In his effort to see America changed by music, I’d say that Harry succeeded.
For a year or two after obtaining the Anthology of American Folk Music, I listened to the discs occasionally without giving them great attention. I loved the strangeness of the songs and the primitive sound of the recordings themselves, but I hadn’t read the essays and notations to really understand what I was hearing. I knew that, although the recordings were made between 1927 and 1932, many of the songs themselves were 25, 50, 100, 200 or more years older than that. So, for me, the set represented really old songs, essentially unrelated to the more contemporary music to which I was listening. I later had an epiphany that would enable me to see how connected the music really is.
I’ll share that in my next post. Subsequent posts will explore each of the three volumes of the Anthology.
The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of the Anthology of American Folk Music. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.