Man of the year

The late Harry Smith changes American music -- again

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For all of us who don't play an instrument and don't sing that well, Harry Smith proves that a mere record collector can change the course of music. When Smith accepted his Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in February 1991, just nine months before his death, he declared, "I'm glad to say that my dreams came true--that I saw America changed through music."

At least some of that change was set in motion by the thick 78s that Smith had picked up for dimes and quarters during his high school years in Portland, Ore., college in Seattle, and unemployment in Berkeley, Calif. He was obsessed with the "race" and hillbilly records of the 1920s and '30s that no one else seemed to want. In 1952, while living in New York, Smith was hired by Folkways Records to assemble and annotate his favorite sides for a collection of this old, largely forgotten music. His Anthology of American Folk Music, 84 songs on six LPs, revolutionized folk music when first released in 1952, and it seems to have had the same impact when it was reissued on CD in 1997. In both cases, the collection landed like a bomb in a folk-music world gone soft and sweet--typified in '52 by Richard Dyer-Bennett and the Weavers and in '97 by Christine Lavin and Dar Williams.

In both cases, the bomb sported a long fuse. The full impact of the '52 release wasn't felt until the mid-'60s, when such Smith disciples as Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, John Sebastian, Paul Butterfield, Roger McGuinn, and Jerry Garcia hit their stride. The full impact of the '97 reissue hasn't been felt yet, but the early reverberations are beginning to register. Already we see a resurgent interest in old folk and blues tunes--Wilco is singing Woody Guthrie, Cassandra Wilson is singing Son House, the Tarbox Ramblers are singing Dock Boggs, and the North Mississippi All Stars are singing Fred McDowell. The former lead singer of the New York Dolls has even formed a group called David Johansen and the Harry Smiths. All this excitement led to the emergence this year of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four, which Smith had mapped out but had never released. The first three volumes had been confined to the years 1927-'32, but this one stretches to 1940 and features many more familiar names, including Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, the Carter Family, the Monroe Brothers, and Memphis Minnie. Contained in a handsome, 96-page hardcover book, these two CDs are the most powerful expression of Smith's message yet.

What was that message? What was Smith trying to express by picking these particular sides from the mountains of discs in his collection, captured at the dawn of recording in rural America and often featuring repertoires that stretched back into the 19th century and beyond? It wasn't just that the songs were old; it was that they approached music from a whole different mindset.

There is none of the "Pay attention to me, me, me!" that underlies most modern music-making in Smith's anthologies; these are songs detached from the personality market. Dealing with the elemental issues of death, sex, home, money, and mystery, they are so timeless, so universal they could have been sung by anyone at anytime--and often were. And yet, paradoxically, these same songs elicited remarkably personal performances. Because these singers and players weren't obsessed with making audiences love them, they could give themselves over to the song. That had a liberating effect, for performers could sing about anything with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. That attitude, more than anything, is what Dylan took away from the Anthology. This combination of masklike, almost-impersonal material with very personal, idiosyncratic performance is Smith’s most important message, more than the specific songs he chose.

That said, there are some wonderful tunes on Volume Four: the Blue Sky Boys' chilling version of the murder ballad "Down on the Banks of the Ohio," Jack Kelly and His South Memphis Jug Band's "Cold Iron Bed" (inspiration for Dylan’s "Cold Irons Bound"?), the Carter Family's hard-to-find rendition of "No Depression in Heaven" (which gave an alternative-country magazine its name), and Big Joe Williams' immortal "Baby Please Don’t Go."

You can hear Smith's message echoed in David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, which includes four tunes from the Anthology and nine more from similar sources. Former proto-punk glam-rocker Johansen seems to have converted full-heartedly to the Harry Smith School of Music; his baritone submerges itself in these ancient songs over the spare, sympathetic backing of two jazz cats (Joey Baron and Kermit Driscoll) and two old-timey pickers (Brian Koonin and Larry Saltzman). This works surprisingly well, especially on the grave-haunted "Delia" and "Oh Death."

Even better--and, perhaps, even more surprising--is the work of two young bands so fully committed to the gospel according to Harry that they didn't have to convert from anything. Both the North Mississippi All Stars and the Tarbox Ramblers play older blues and hillbilly tunes (and both their new albums include Bukka White's "Shake 'Em on Down"), though with an irreverence that allows for Allman Brothers-like jamming by the All Stars and garage-rock rambunctiousness by the Ramblers. But they remain true to the Smith creed of allowing dread and desire to come through the songs unsoftened by personality salesmanship. Luther and Cody Dickinson, the primary All Stars, hung around Memphis studios while their father, producer Jim Dickinson, worked on records by Ry Cooder and the Replacements. At the same time, Luther apprenticed with two giants of Mississippi hill country blues, R.L. Burnside and Othar Turner. So when the trio tackles songs by Burnside and Junior Kimbrough (accompanied by Burnside’s son and grandson) on their debut album, Shake Hands With Shorty, they have enough inside know-how to make the music sound authentic and enough outside thinking to make it sound brand new.

Better yet is Tarbox Ramblers, the debut album from the Boston-based quartet. The disc draws from both hillbilly and blues repertoires, thus blurring the boundary between America's black and white musical traditions. Further smudging those distinctions is the sound of string-band instruments—Johnny Sciascia's upright bass and Daniel Kellar’s fiddle—set against Jon Cohan's bluesy drum stomp and Michael Tarbox's slide guitar. Carrying the day is the ghostly growl of Tarbox's vocals, which deny neither the inevitability of death nor the irrepressibility of desire. The Tarbox Ramblers came to Baltimore twice this year, in July to Fletcher's and in September to the Roots Cafe. Both times the band made it clear that this was no museum re-creation of the past, but a raucous, rocking reminder that sex, death, and mystery mean as much to America’s Internet present as they did to its dirt-road past. And they held out the hope that Smith's Anthology may yet lead to a folk-rock revolution in the mid-2000s much like the one in the mid-1960s.

Geoffrey Himes writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared.

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