Anthology of American Folk Music (3 of 5): Volume One – Ballads

This is post 3 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

The popularity of Americana and roots music today can, in no small measure, be credited to Anthology of American Folk Music. Writer Greil Marcus called the Anthology “the founding document of the American folk revival.” It was released by Folkways Records on six long-playing records in 1952 and re-released on compact disc by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1997.  The Anthology consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume One – Ballads.

British Ballads

Ballads are narrative, or storytelling, songs. It’s impossible to determine exactly how long humans have been telling and singing stories. The ballad tradition as we know it today is traceable to the minstrels and troubadours who traveled and entertained throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages. A repertoire of common ballads evolved in the British Isles from the 15th through the 18th century. While most may have originated from single composers, who are unknown to us today, these ballads evolved and developed variants over time through the singing of many different people.

The old British ballads tell stories of nobility, romance, love, family strife, heroes, monsters, ghosts, death, and damsels in distress. Many of these ballads were carried in the hearts and minds of immigrants to Colonial America. They were commonly sung in America and passed down to subsequent generations orally. By the early 19th century, Americans were composing new ballads to tell stories relevant to their lives in the United States.

Child Ballads

Harry Smith, the creative force who almost single-handedly assembled the Anthology, starts volume one with a series of five Old World ballads that can be found in Francis James Child’s seminal work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The books, published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898, catalog the texts of 305 distinct ballads and 1,660 variants. Most of the Child ballads, as they are now commonly called, originated and circulated orally in the British Isles during the 17th and 18th centuries, though some have remnants and influences that can be traced as far back as the 13th century. The Child ballads are the cornerstone of the Anglo-American ballad tradition.

In North America, the Child ballads went where the British settlers went and have most frequently been found and collected in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, New England, the southern coastal states, and the Canadian maritime provinces. Originally sung unaccompanied, by the 1920s and 1930s when the recordings on the Anthology were made, they were often sung with instrumental accompaniment that might include guitar, banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, or any combination of these and other instruments in a small string band.

The Anthology includes Child Ballad #243, “The House Carpenter,” recorded in 1930 by singer and clawhammer banjo player Clarence Ashley. All versions listed by Child are of Scottish origin, though details of the story differ. Ashley is from Shouns in East Tennessee and sang with medicine shows in the 1920s and 1930s. He is one of several Anthology artists who had a second career performing and recording music in the 1960s after being rediscovered by young folk revivalistswho had initially assumed all the artists from the Anthology had long since passed. Ashley was only 35 years old when he recorded “The House Carpenter,” though he sounds as though he might have been 135.

Heavily influenced by the music of the Anthology, Bob Dylan recorded “The House Carpenter” during the November 1961 recording sessions that produced his first album. This recording was not included on the Bob Dylan album, which consisted almost entirely of traditional folk songs. His recording of “The House Carpenter” was eventually released as part of The Bootleg Series Volumes 1 – 3, issued in 1991.

Indigenous Ballads

Following the five Child ballads, the Anthology moves into indigenous ballads that were born in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They generally recount actual events and were composed soon after the events occurred. Indigenous ballads, like British ballads, are often of unknown origin and developed many variants through the singing of people who transmitted them orally over the years. They tell stories of crime, love, natural disasters, and change brought about by the industrial revolution. On the Anthology, the songs aren’t sequenced chronologically, which would have been all but impossible. Part of Harry Smith’s genius is evident in the way the songs fit together, following sometimes intangible thematic, lyrical, or harmonic threads.

“Kassie Jones” recounts events related to an actual train wreck that occurred on April 30, 1900, killing engineer John Luther Jones. Jones was from the town of Cayce, Kentucky, which is how he attained his nickname, usually spelled “Casey.” The song was written by Wallace Saunders, a close friend of Jones, a few days after the wreck. It might more accurately be identified as a blues ballad, because it does not strictly follow the events of the story, as ballads generally do. The version of “Kassie Jones” on the Anthology was recorded by Memphis bluesman Walter “Furry” Lewis on August 28, 1928. Like Ashley, Lewis had a second career in music later in life after being rediscovered during the folk music revival by disciples of the Anthology.

The first video below is Lewis’ recording of “Kassie Jones” from the Anthology, followed by a video of him performing it in 1968.

Joni Mitchell wrote “Furry Sings the Blues,” after meeting the singer in a Memphis boarding house in the 1970s.

“The House Carpenter” and “Kassie Jones” are just two of the twenty-seven ballads on volume one of the Anthology.

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume One – Ballads. 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.

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.