Folk music fans can find a feast of recordings at any music store - but no folk recordings have ever equaled those collected by folklorist and filmmaker Harry Smith in terms of their impact on the history of American popular music.
Smith's multivolume "The Anthology of American Folk Music," recently reissued on CD as a six-disc box on the Smithsonian Folkways label, directly inspired all of the major performers of the 1960s folk revival. A quick listen to the first albums of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez swiftly reveals the extent of the influence of Smith's collection.
But there is another compelling reason to hear the Smith collection beyond its influence: This is the only major collection of American folk music organized thematically rather than historically or stylistically. The theme cohering Smith's collection? The outlines of the mystical and mythic America that the critic Greil Marcus calls "Smithville" in his new book, "Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes" (Henry Holt, $22.50).
Marcus writes: "This is Smithville. Here is the mystical body of the republic, a kind of public secret: a declaration of what sorts of wishes and fears lie behind any public act, a declaration of a weird but clearly recognizable America within the America of the exercise of institutional majoritarian power."
The 84 songs Smith collected revolve around murders and other crimes, betrayals, various hard times ("John Henry" is the best-known example here), some misfortunes met, some escaped or evaded. Some songs are simply inspired nonsense or fantasy in a vein long familiar to lovers of the folk tradition, but eerie sounding in this context ("Froggie Went a' Courtin' " collides with ballads about lovers murdered). All were recorded between 1927 and 1932, and at the time Smith collected them in the 1940s, they were out of general circulation and available cheaply.
Such was the state of mass interest in traditional folk fare then, but Smith's ears were open to the subtextual dramas this music conveyed, the secret lives of desperate or dreamy Americans seeking spiritual salvation, or just the gumption to get through another workday.
What Smith did was create an enormous mosaic, a kind of musical quilt or mandala, by sequencing these songs in a manner emphasizing cosmic cycles of destruction and rebirth. That is how Blind Willie Johnson's gruff gospel-blues "John the Revelator" ended up following Charlie Poole's "White House Blues," a country bluegrass classic about President McKinley's assassination. Faith surviving the grave is a theme Smith underscores in his cherry-picking of old Kentucky mountain ballads, Georgia blues, and white and black gospel.
The sixth disc in this box offers a bonus: an enhanced CD (playable on home computers) with examples of Smith's epochal experimental filmmaking, a selection of his abstract paintings, and most movingly, a video clip of his acceptance speech at the 1995 Grammy ceremonies, honoring his achievement in compiling this collection (which was then unavailable).
"I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music," commented Smith. Today's folk artists continue to prove Smith correct, building on his foundation of the mystical, the mythic, and the just plain odd and noteworthy about us plain folk.