November 1-7, 2006

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Harry Smith

Captain America: Harry Smith captured the great sounds of Americana.

New Weird America

Harry Smith's offbeat musical tastes still resonate

By Greg Cahill

Imagine what popular music would sound like if Harry Smith hadn't turned the world on to the old weird America. Smith, an irascible record collector and musicologist with encyclopedic powers, compiled the multi-album Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, and provided a road map for a generation of folk revivalists and their progeny. Without Smith's offbeat collection of eccentric hill-country ballads, field hollers, spirituals and blues, Bob Dylan might have stayed in Hibbing, Minn., selling used cars; the Carter Family could have slipped into obscurity; John Fahey may have failed to spark the solo-acoustic-guitar revolution; and the editors of No Depression magazine probably would be waiting tables.

There would be no alt-country movement. No Gillian Welch. No Uncle Tupelo. No Moby delving into folktronica.

The anthology remains an essential set for any serious Americana aficionado, and required listening if you have even a passing interest in freewheeling hillbilly music. "The Anthology was our bible," folk guitar great Dave Van Ronk once said. "We knew every word of every song on it."

The newly released four-disc box set The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited, produced by Rani Singh and Hal Willner, pays homage to that legacy in a neatly packaged audio and video celebration of the folk arts, replete with a 40-page annotated booklet.

The two audio discs feature 33 tracks recorded at a series of tribute concerts held between 1999 and 2001 in New York, Los Angeles and London. Among the rock, blues, alt-country and jazz performers are Elvis Costello, Wilco, Richard Thompson, Beck, Steve Earle, Beth Orton, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull, Geoff Muldaur and Lou Reed, to name a few.

There are once-in-a-lifetime pairings: Sonic Youth teams up with avant-jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd; Todd Rundgren joins Seattle art-house singer Robin Holcomb; and Van Dyke Parks meets the Mondrian String Quartet.

The supporting bands included guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Garth Hudson of the Band and drummer DJ Bonebrake of X, among others.

The mostly acoustic-oriented material is pure Americana, though oen delivered by rootsy Brits, Canadians and Australians, a testament to the far-reaching influence of Smith's original Anthology.

The result is a richly satisfying musical experience, celebrating not only the great American songbook, but the eccentricity that permeates this nation's psyche—just check out Dave Thomas of Pere Ubu's wildman delivery of "Way Down the Old Plank Road."

The concert footage can be seen on a companion DVD; a second DVD features the film documentary The Old Weird America and includes three of Smith's own films and interactive music selection by Philip Glass, DJ Spooky and Mocean Worker.

Despite this tribute, Smith remains an unheralded bohemian genius. He moved to the Bay Area in 1948, smoked pot and developed an insatiable appetite for vintage vinyl. He eventually sold many of his best records to the New York Public Library and Folkways label chief Moe Asch, whose own voluminous archive is curated by the Smithsonian Institution.

While Smith is little known outside of hardcore collectors, academics and a small circle of musicians, this new box set is hardly the first time he's been feted. If you have a chance to pick one up, revisit The Harry Smith Connection: A Live Tribute to the Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian/Folkways). That excellent 1997 single CD, recorded live at the barns at the Wolf Trap, includes unique collaborations with Roger McGuinn, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett.

And don't ignore the original source material.

As Rolling Stone magazine noted at the time of the 1997 reissues, "It's impossible to overstate the historic worth, sociocultural impact and undiminished vitality of the music in [Harry Smith's Anthology]."

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