Anthology of American Folk Music (2 of 5): An Epiphany

This is post 2 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

In high school, I didn’t really connect with my United States history course. I halfheartedly attempted to “memorize the important identifications from the chapter(s),” as I was instructed to do by my teacher, but it was solely to achieve an acceptable grade. For whatever reason (“memorize the important identifications,” anyone?)  I didn’t relate to history as a tapestry of stories about real human beings living through both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. It was through music, starting with the Anthology of American Folk Music, that this would change.

During the 1990s, the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album started me down a path tracing the roots of country music. The path seemed to end abruptly at a 1927 field recording session in Bristol, Tennessee that is frequently referred to as the “Big Bang of Country Music.” Soon-to-be-stars Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family , the “First Family of Country Music,” were discovered at the Bristol sessions. In the late 1990s, I also started listening to a set of CDs called Anthology of American Folk Music. The Anthology was a collection of American folk songs, some of which dated back to the English and Scottish ballads that were carried with emigrants to Colonial America.

I had an epiphany that would forever change my worldview when I realized that the Anthology included four recordings by the Carter Family.

The implication of this discovery was that the Bristol sessions were not the Big Bang of Country Music. The music of the Carter Family and other Bristol artists was connected to the music that came before it. While these artists in the 1920s recorded some songs of their time, many of the songs predated the recordings by 25, 50, 100, 200 or more years. All the music since the Carter Family, right up until today, is part of a continuum that reaches back to Colonial America and stretches across the Atlantic Ocean to the Old World. Whoa.

Suddenly, listening to the music and digging into the essays and annotations that accompany the Anthology, the whole story of America came alive for me in a way that it hadn’t in my high school history course. It’s one thing to read about people and events from the past, but now I was hearing and feeling their words and music. The sounds are rooted in the traditions of the countries from which they came, but the music changed and grew as people from different cultures interacted in the United States. The lyrics reflect the hopes, fears, struggles, sorrows, triumphs, and humanity of the real people who lived our history. To follow the paths taken by the music is to understand the great cultural stew that is the United States. The entire story of America can be deeply felt and understood through the music of its people.

The Anthology is organized in three volumes, with two discs dedicated to each. Volume One – Ballads, Volume Two – Social Music, and Volume Three – Songs. In subsequent posts I will explore each of the three volumes.

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of 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.

Spotify Playlist

Anthology of American Folk Music (1 of 5): An Introduction

This is post 1 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

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.”

Harry Smith
Harry Smith

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.

Spotify Playlist

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.

The Carter Family and the “Big Bang” of Country Music?

Browsing through the country music section of a music store in the late 1990s, I happened upon a CD by the Carter Family. Country music sections of music stores were new to me, and I was wholly unfamiliar with the Carter Family. As I was seeking new experiences in old country music (see my previous post How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music), the photo on the cover of the album intrigued me.

Best of the Best of the Original Carter Family

The text on the back of the CD referred to the Carter Family as the “First Family of Country Music.” There was also reference to them being discovered at a 1927 recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, that has been called the “Big Bang of Country Music.” The Bristol sessions were conducted by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company. He was seeking rural musicians to record for what was a growing “old-time” or “hillbilly” music market in the record industry during the 1920s.

The Carter Family came from Poor Valley at the foot of Clinch Mountain in southwest Virginia. They were a trio consisting of Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle. The first vocal group to become country music superstars, the Carter Family carried on in various forms with two generations of offspring, which included Maybelle’s daughter June, who eventually married Johnny Cash. Maybelle’s distinctive guitar style, playing melody notes interspersed with chords (“the Carter scratch”), was hugely influential and can still be heard today in many genres of music.

So I had found the “First Family of Country Music” from the “Big Bang of Country Music.” At the time, it appeared that my search for the roots of country music, which began with the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, had reached its end. I had found the source. Or had I?

I eagerly removed the shrink wrap, inserted the CD into the player, and hit the play button. From the opening guitar notes on the first track I was hooked. And when the three-part vocal harmonies kicked in on the chorus… just listen.

Spotify Playlist

How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (4 of 4): Traditional

This is post 4 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

One song on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, “I Am a Pilgrim,” has a songwriting credit that attributes it to “traditional.” My understanding at the time I first heard the song was that traditional meant it was so old that no one remembers who wrote it.Later I learned that “traditional” is a term, like “folk music” and “old-time music,” that has been defined in different ways. Some people spend a lot of time and brainpower discussing, dissecting, and debating the minutiae of these definitions. Fortunately for you, I am not one of those people.

For our purposes, let’s just expand my original definition a little. A song can be traditional even if the name of the songwriter(s) is known. Traditional songs are those that are performed by custom in a community and have been passed down orally, or aurally, over a period of at least a few generations. Close enough.

“I Am a Pilgrim” is of unknown origin. It seems to be related to many different 19th century song texts. It was possibly an African American spiritual from the time of slavery. Trying to determine the origins of a traditional song of unknown origin is part of the fun and frustration of folk music.

The earliest recording that I have been able to identify is by the Heavenly Gospel Singers, recorded on February 13, 1936 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The song has been recorded by many others, including Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, Alabama, Willie Nelson, and Doc Watson. Some people mistakenly attribute its authorship to Merle Travis, possibly because his version provided the blueprint for some of the versions to follow. In the spoken introduction for his 1946 recording of “I Am a Pilgrim” (below), Merle indicates that he learned the song in his youth at the camp meetings and Brush Arbor meetings (religious gatherings) presumably in or near his hometown of Rosewood, Kentucky (Muhlenberg County). Depending on how old Merle, who was born in 1917, was when he “first got big enough to start running around by myself at night,” this supports the idea that the song was in circulation prior to the recording by the Heavenly Gospel Singers.

Here is the 1968 recording from the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album started me traveling down a most unexpected road that led to country and folk musicians the Louvin Brothers, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Merle Travis. This was only the beginning of my journey into American heritage music. Little did I know how far the road would go, how many forks it would have, and how long I would travel it. It’s been more than two decades and I’m still fascinated by what I find around every bend.

Spotify Playlist

How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (3 of 4): Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly

This is post 3 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

I don’t remember the first time I heard or read the name Woody Guthrie. Does anybody? For what seems like my entire life I associated him with “This Land is Your Land” and nothing more. As my musical outlook was expanding in the 1990s, thanks in large part to my exploration of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album (see part 1 of this series), I happened upon a CD called Folkways: The Original Vision. The album, which launched the nonprofit Smithsonian Folkways label in 1989, was a collection of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly recordings from the 1940s.

I loved it from the opening notes of the first track – “Sylvie” by Lead Belly and Anne Graham. Just listen…

The album included one of Lead Belly’s several recordings of “Midnight Special,” a song that I knew from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s later version. “Midnight Special” is a traditional folk song that became a staple among folk and rock singers. It has been performed and recorded by Little Richard, Van Morrison, Harry Belafonte, Paul McCartney, and many others.

Another Lead Belly song from the album, “Rock Island Line,” was covered by the Beatles in their original incarnation as a skiffle group, The Quarrymen. Skiffle was a music craze in England in the 1950s that consisted of British youth playing American folk and blues songs on whatever instruments they could obtain or devise. Many of the rock artists associated with the 1960s British Invasion, including the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Who, started out listening to and playing skiffle. Skiffle bands learned more than a few songs from Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie records.

The Lead Belly songs on Folkways: The Original Vision were more interesting and satisfying to me at the time than the Woody Guthrie songs, but the influence Woody had on one of my favorite artists, Bob Dylan, was unmistakable. Before he began writing his own songs, Dylan was “like a Woody Guthrie jukebox,” as he later described himself. When he did begin writing songs, Dylan borrowed melodies and song styles from Woody.

Folkways: The Original Vision included one of Woody’s recordings of “Pretty Boy Floyd. ” This song was covered by the Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The floodgates were open. The connections I was making between older folk and country music and the rock music I loved were undeniable, and I was compelled to swim further up the stream.

Continued in part 4 of 4. Sign up to receive future posts by email using the box on the right.

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How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (2 of 4): The Louvin Brothers

This is post 2 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

The first time I heard the Louvin Brothers, one of the artists covered by the Byrds on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, I was struck by how much their sound and vocal harmonies reminded me of the Everly Brothers. I loved the Everlys and many of the artists who were inspired by their vocals, including the Beatles, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Beach Boys. Could the Louvin Brothers be the source of all this musical magic?

Not exactly. The Louvin Brothers, who first recorded in 1947, listened to older harmony duos, including the Monroe Brothers (first recorded in 1936), the Blue Sky Boys (first recorded in 1936), the Delmore Brothers (first recorded in 1931), and Mac and Bob (first recorded in 1926). No doubt the harmonies and some of the repertoire of folk, country, and sacred songs performed and recorded by these duos predates the era of recorded sound in the music of the Appalachian Mountains, where the duos originated.

After scoring top ten hits with “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie” from their self-titled debut album in 1958, the Everly Brothers released an album called Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. The album featured traditional folk and country songs the brothers learned from their father, Ike Everly. Ike was a guitar player who had worked in the coal mines in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and the songs he taught his sons were cut from the same cloth as those recorded by the Louvin Brothers, Monroe Brothers, et al.

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The Louvin Brothers first came to my attention in 1997 shortly after Capitol Records released three of their classic albums on compact disc. An article by David Cantwell that appeared in Miami New Times piqued my interest, and I purchased Tragic Songs of Life (originally released in 1956) and Satan is Real (originally released in 1959). The Louvin Brothers were a musical duo consisting of brothers Ira (guitar and vocals) and Charlie (mandolin and vocals). They began their career in the 1940s singing gospel music. Until they split up in 1963, largely because of problems caused by Ira’s excessive alcohol consumption, they performed and recorded a mix of gospel and secular folk and country music that often focused on themes of God, family, love, and loss. As Cantwell wrote, “If you said these harmonies were the closest anyone has ever come to actually simulating the pain of human loss and desire right there in the recording studio, you would probably be right. But you still wouldn’t be doing them justice.” The Cantwell article is a good place to start if you want to know more about the Louvins and their music.

I don’t quite recall how I made the connection between the Louvin Brothers and the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo (see part 1 of this series). I don’t know if I bought the Louvin Brothers albums because I recognized that one of their songs, “The Christian Life,” was covered by the Byrds on Sweetheart, or if I only discovered that when I heard their original version on Satan is Real. But no matter. The Byrds had eased me into the sounds of country music, and I learned that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it could be downright beautiful. And I was learning that country music was elemental to rock & roll.

Continued in part 3 of 4. Sign up to receive future posts by email using the box on the right.

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How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (1 of 4): Sweetheart of the Rodeo

This is post 1 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

OK – so I wasn’t really a hard rocker or metalhead, but my gradual discovery of American heritage music was a revelation that caused a transformation in me. I found that much of the music in America today is part of a continuum that reaches back to Colonial America and stretches across the Atlantic Ocean to the Old World. American heritage music includes, but is not limited to, traditional folk songs, fiddle tunes, ballads (both Old and New World), sea shanties, railroad and cowboy songs, Appalachian, ragtime, spirituals, work songs, minstrel, blues, jazz, jug band, rhythm and blues, old-time, country and western, bluegrass, and rock & roll.

Being on this journey has deepened my understanding and appreciation of many genres of music, new and old. The music connects me to the strength and beauty that have emerged from the often troubled history of the United States. I believe that it can do the same for you. I’m still traveling down this path of discovery, and I am happy to point out some of the highlights that I find along the way, if you care to join me by reading this blog. This is American heritage music. This is your birthright. Own it.

The Beatles were my first love musically, and most everything I listened to was influenced by them. I was one of those “I like all kinds of music, except country” people. Upon hearing Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album (1987), I commented that it was “too country” for me. Now I own and play seven different banjos and write a blog called American Heritage Music. The album that opened the door for me was The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

It was sometime around 1990, and I was in college. I liked The Byrds, but I was primarily familiar with their hits. Although we were squarely in the CD era, my housemate (future Rambling String Band bassist Chris DeAngelis)  had a turntable and a massive record collection. Stumbling upon Sweetheart of the Rodeo, I dropped the needle and found that it wasn’t the rock (or folk/rock) music that I was expecting, though the title and cover may also have clued me in to that. It was country music. I didn’t know much about country music, but I knew this much – I did not like country music. But I liked Sweetheart of the Rodeo. A lot.

The album was largely the vision of Gram Parsons, who was a member of The Byrds only for the recording of this one album. There were contributions by Nashville session musicians, including Lloyd Green on pedal steel guitar, John Hartford on banjo, fiddle, and acoustic guitar, and Clarence White on electric guitar, who become a full-time member of the band following Parsons’ departure.

Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons

Today, with the popularity of Americana music and artists like Wilco, Ryan Adams, and Jason Isbell, all roads lead back to Sweetheart of the Rodeo. As the first country rock album by a major artist, it essentially launched the genre of Americana music decades before that term would be used. From Pure Prairie League to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, to the Eagles and beyond, the influence of Sweetheart is well-documented and can be easily heard.

But this story and blog is not about what came after Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It is about what came before. (see Americana: How Country and Roots Music Found a “Brand New Dance” for what came after). The album included songs written by Bob Dylan (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered”), another one of my favorite artists at the time. There were a few songs penned by Gram Parsons (“One Hundred Years from Now” and “Hickory Wind,” co-written by Bob Buchanan). One song was written by Merle Haggard and another by soul singer and songwriter William Bell.

It was the songs written by three other names that really started me on my journey backwards in time to the roots of American music: “The Christian Life”by the Louvin Brothers, “Pretty Boy Floyd” by Woody Guthrie, and “I Am a Pilgrim” by Traditional.

Continued in part 2 of 4. Sign up to receive future posts by email using the box on the right.

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