Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith, 1952, CD reissue edition, 1997, Smithsonian Folkways, Washington, D.C., 800-410-9815, two booklets, six discs, 84 songs, $79.95.
Listening to the recordings in Smithsonian Folkways’ Anthology of American Folk Music is like looking at a photo of a Civil War soldier dressed in a crumpled uniform. Beneath the medium’s time-worn surface you can sense the presence of a vibrant living person.
What cuts through the mild surface noise of the anthology’s 70-year-old recordings is people in all their joy and sorrow. These are plain folk, mostly from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. They have no pretensions. They are not self-conscious. Their music is earthy yet at the same time other-worldly.
There’s plenty of sloppy string plucking and bowing here, and warbling voices, too, but surely that’s what folk music sounded like in the 1860s (and often still does). It was a time when entertainment for a social gathering often meant a friend playing his banjo. He probably wasn’t an accomplished musician by traditional standards, but his confident rhythm and enthusiasm made the music come alive in ways sheer virtuosity can’t. This anthology is about as close as we can get to the music of that era.
Although the recordings here were, of course, not made during the war, the performances are timeless. The songs are even more so. Indeed, many of them have been around for hundreds of years. They were played in the 1860s and are still played today. As everything in history does, these simple tunes have picked up a little bit of all the generations they’ve passed through. That historical gold dust shows up on these recordings.