Graded on a Curve:
The Harry Smith B-Sides

The Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952 by Folkways Records in three 2LP volumes, is amongst the most important collections of recordings ever assembled. Indeed, it has been suggested more than once that it is the very apex of 20th Century music, a genuine cornucopia of performances that in their diversity endure as intriguing, devastating, delightful, foundational. The sources were 78-rpm discs collected by filmmaker, visual artist, mystic and great American bohemian Harry Smith, and on October 16 the Dust-to-Digital label releases the flip-sides to those records as The Harry Smith B-Sides, a 4CD box set with a 144-pg book loaded with images and insights, an altogether indispensable item.

A dozen considerations inspired by The Harry Smith B-Sides:

1. Given the Anthology’s undiminished stature in the scheme of all things folk, it can get misplaced, surface noise aside, that Smith’s sources were commercial records, many released by the Columbia, Paramount, and Brunswick labels. This reality has undercut hoary notions of supposed folk purity, and the B-Sides drives home this fact anew, and in so doing, makes abundantly clear that Harry Smith was one of the greatest of all things, a record collector.

2. The B-Sides also illuminates how the concept of the “Old, Weird America,” as famously formulated by Greil Marcus with the Anthology at its core, was preserved by a record industry that, still in its early growth stages, had no firm grip on what would sell in large numbers, only knowing there was a market for music made by a diverse working class including farmers, coal miners, sharecroppers, and bootleggers (nearly all of this music was recorded during Prohibition), both secular and sanctified. The Anthology resuscitated many commercial failures, and the B-Sides further extends and expands legacies.

3. The “Old, Weird America” kinda goes hand-in-hand with the Eccentric Harry Smith. Still, Smith apparently had his limits (or better said, had ideas other than weirdness on his mind), choosing Jim Jackson’s canine homage “Old Dog Blue” over the hokum-blues songster’s yarn of a sentient and telepathic meat cutlet, “I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop.”

4. Indeed, B-Sides drives home that Smith’s wasn’t simply pulling the “best” tune from these 78s, and that his themes extended beyond the volume order of “Ballads,” “Social Music,” and “Songs.” The notes reveal that Smith didn’t even consider Dick Justice’s “Henry Lee,” which opens the Anthology, to be a “good record” (“it had to go first because it was the lowest numbered Child Ballad.”) Smith’s project was so much more than simply a prototype for mixtapes and playlists, and while the B-Sides’ methodology is much more rigidly defined, it still has its surprises in store.

5. The B-Sides also reinforces how Smith’s conception diverged from the social-political folk concept as exemplified by Woody Guthrie and of course, Pete Seeger. Over the decades, some listeners have snarled that the Woody-Pete tradition is vastly inferior to Smith’s vision, but in fact the Anthology was quite influential on the more explicitly protest-oriented crowd (older and younger), and 15 years after the Anthology’s release the two approaches were effectively intertwined (see Festival, Murray Lerner’s 1967 documentary film of the Newport Folk Festival, currently streaming on the Criterion Channel).

6. The B-Sides establishes the depth of artistry of the included performers; although a few of those chosen only recorded one 78 (or more accurately only had one record released) these aren’t one-shot singers and players. This was already clear to folks who’d dug into additional collections on the Document, Yazoo, and County labels (plus additional volumes on Folkways), but Dust-to-Digital’s undertaking (which was given an initial, though incomplete, run on CDR in the late ’90s-early ’00s by another estimable record collector, Robert Nobley) foregrounds sheer talent through this sequel, a direct continuation of Smith’s work and simultaneously distinctly themed.

7. In choosing to extend from Smith’s initial model of thematic design, particularly with the inclusion of often revealing and occasionally hilarious newspaper headline style synopses for the tracks, the B-Sides helps to undermine the stereotypes some might continue to hold regarding “old-time rural folk” (ideas that were undeniably reinforced by the altered presentation of Folkways’ ‘60s reissue). It’s an approach that Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the “Minstrel of the Appalachians,” who performed in a coat and tie to help undercut false notions of mountain residents, would likely appreciate.

8. The B-Sides makes obvious that Smith had his favorites in terms of genre, specifically blues and mountain music, but more directly, the use of guitars, banjos and fiddles; the sound of Cajun accordions continues to give the contents a welcome layer of instrumental enhancement, as it illustrates how the Anthology and the B-Sides are by no means an exhaustive survey of folk styles in the early 20th Century USA.

9. It’s also increasingly apparent that Smith had his favored individual artists, e.g. Lunsford, Buell Kazee, The Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, and even his favored versions of songs, as he chose “White House Blues” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers over “The Road to Washington” by Ernest and Hattie Stoneman (concerning the assassination of William McKinley, the versions are quite similar; “Zolgotz,” which concerns the same incident, named for the anarchist assassin, was recorded by Lunsford for the Library of Congress in 1949). As the flip to the Stoneman’s “Mountaineer’s Courtship” from Volume 3 of the Anthology, “The Road to Washington” is here.

10. The B-Sides possesses some valuable qualities of distinction, as it pushes deeper into gospel. To elaborate, Smith preferred songs to sermons, with the latter offered here (in combination with some deeply spiritual singing) in back-to-back cuts from Rev. J. M. Gates. Also, the jug bands, namely Cannon’s Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band, are instrumentally sharp and lyrically prescient, specifically in relation to run ins with cops, and are occasionally risqué. And speaking of prescience, Frank Hutchison’s “Stackalee,” which is an instrumental take of his vocal “Stackalee,” couldn’t help but remind me of the brief heyday of the cassette single, which regularly had instrumental versions and remixes on side two.

11. It was bound to happen. Three of the flipsides are marred with racist language and have been omitted from the release, a decision that might inspire ire in those who are up in arms over what they perceive as retroactive “cancel culture,” but is frankly in keeping with Smith’s curational decision to avoid such lingo and its attached sentiments (though this isn’t to suggest he was ideologically spotless, as Marcus has pointed out regarding Hoyt Ming and His Pep-Steppers “Indian War Whoop”), and furthermore his desire to desegregate the music, i.e. no divisive “hillbilly” and “race music” categorizations for him.

12. But in conclusion, Smith’s selections, while laudable in their exquisite assemblage, can paint too rosy a picture of the past, if the Anthology is one’s only (or primary) source of early 20th century folk music. Searching out more can provide a rude awakening, which is what I received upon digging deeper into the work of banjo maniac Uncle Dave Macon, one of the three acts with an omitted track here. The decision to not include them, but to write about them in the accompanying text, addresses the problems of the past and additionally ties that past to 2020. In a sense, no timelier a reissue has emerged this year. It’s safe to predict that none will sound as magnificent a century from now.


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