TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
Listening My Way Through Chris Smith’s 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music 1. Anthology of American Folk Music – compiled by Harry Smith (1952)
As I embark on this process, I think it is necessary to point out that I am struggling with this first entry, based on the simple fact that it is not, by definition, an album. An album is a collection of songs recorded as a unit, sometimes with a connecting theme (though, admittedly, that idea was a long way off when this was conceived). This collection of songs was recorded between 1926-1934 and assembled by avid record collector and artist Harry Smith, drawn from his personal collection of thousands of 78 RPM records and collected with extensive liner notes to provide a pathway for novice listeners through the origins of America’s native musical styles, namely country, jazz, blues, Gospel, etc.
I also feel the need to admit that I have not experienced the entire collection, which was originally released as eight LPs containing eighty-four tracks in all. The original vinyl pressing of this collection, released in 1952, has been out of print for many years, and though the complete box set was released on CD in 1997 and more recently on vinyl (to appeal to the hipster crowd), no inclusive collection has been made available on any of the streaming services I use (Tidal and Spotify), and so I streamlined the listening process by selecting twelve tracks included in the anthology that spanned the variety of styles, artists, and themes represented by Smith’s original collection.
The Carter Family serves to bookend my observations, which is fitting in that they also served as the stimulus for a discussion that ensued between my husband and I after listening to the selections. A.P. Carter travelled from the mountains of West Virginia to Bristol, TN with his wife and sister in 1927 in response to an ad placed by the Victor Talking Machine Company and producer Ralph Peer. The recordings made during the ensuing sessions launched the Country Music industry. In the years that followed, as music publication laws developed in response to the growing recording industry, A.P. delivered many songs familiar among the populations of Appalachia to the doors of publishing houses, allowing him to record the songs and to receive royalties for further uses of the music. While some view this act as an abuse of his Appalachian neighbors, some argue that without Carter’s business savvy, many of these songs may have been lost to time or simply claimed by someone else. As Jason and I hashed over these arguments, he brought up Western art music composers who drew inspiration and borrowed stylistic elements from folk traditions of their homelands, such as Antonin Dvorak and Bela Bartok. I imagine the legitimacy of such “borrowing” is a question of degree – while Dvorak and Bartok used pre-existing music as an inspiration and launching pad for future compositions, Carter seemed content to simply pass off works from his culture as his own compositions. What do you think?
These are the songs I chose to listen to, a bit of background and some insight into my reasoning:
“John Hardy” – The Carter Family
A murder ballad (though, arguably, one of an African American man wrongly convicted) with the theme of redemption, as John reportedly makes peace with God before his execution. The Carters sing with their typical arrangement of Sara on lead vocals with Maybelle and A.P. joining in on the chorus and guitars in the background.
This song is an intriguing blend of traditions, as, while these kinds of ballads were most commonly a part of early blues traditions, this particular song, according to John and Alan Lomax, was most commonly heard among white populations in Southern Appalachia.
“Rocky Road” – Alabama Sacred Harp Singers
As an example of the sacred harp or shape note singing tradition, which takes its name from an 1844 publication of four-part hymns, written out using a distinctive shape system to help singers more easily identify rhythms, this song is characteristically homophonic, largely built using the pentatonic scale, and performed in a declamatory fashion that almost resembles shouting.
“Spike Driver Blues” – Mississippi John Hurt
“Spike Driver Blues” is one of several variations on the legend of John Henry, an African American railroad worker who died during the construction of the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia.Accounts vary on whether his death was simply an accident or if he was crushed to death while trying to allow other workers to escape. Other songs telling this tale include “John Henry,” “This Old Hammer,” and “Big John.” Mississippi John Hurt’s take on the legend is a sympathetic one, featuring his intricate guitar strumming and his gentle vocal delivery. The sadness of the story, combined with the sweetness of Hurt’s voice makes this a somewhat uncharacteristic example of the Delta blues commonly associated with figures such as Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
“Cumberland Gap” – Wade Ward and “Run Run” – Elizabeth Cotton
According to Smith’s liner notes, this banjo solo (Ward) and this guitar solo (Cotton) were discovered and recorded by Alan Lomax during his extensive field work, which captured and preserved much of American mainstream society’s first wide-spread knowledge of the country’s folk traditions from Appalachia and certainly played a large part in influencing later American popular music traditions.
“White House Blues” – Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers
Representing the American string band tradition, one of the early predecessors of country music, Poole and his Ramblers played primarily banjo, fiddle, and guitar, though between the forming of his band in 1926 and Poole’s untimely death in 1931, due to complications of alcoholism, the members and instrumentation of the Ramblers remained fluid and inconsistent.
This track recalls a story from roughly twenty-five years before it was recorded, the assassination of President William McKinley and the rise to power of Theodore Roosevelt.
“Prison Cell Blues” – Blind Lemon Jefferson
Admittedly, this song it tough to make much from. The recording from 1928, combined with Jefferson’s singing style, make the lyrics extremely difficult to discern, and even once one has determined what Jefferson is actually saying, the meaning is purposefully vague. The protagonist in this song bemoans that fact that he is in jail and cannot convince anyone to set him free or make his situation more bearable. He tells us that the reason his is imprisoned is because of his long-time girlfriend Nell, who “just won’t treat [him] right.” Whether Nell’s indiscretions have led the protagonist to harm her or is she has gotten him involved in illegal activity is never clarified, though in the final verse, he does state, “I hate to turn over and find [Nell] gone,” perhaps eluding to her death or her departure.
“Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues” – Charley Patton
Right around the year 1900, an insect known as the Boll Weevil was first reported in the United States. The insect, having migrated north from Mexico and Central America, decimated cotton crops from Texas to the Atlantic ocean.Songs recounting the insect invasion and its devastating effect on southern agriculture seem to vary – painting the creature as alternately cunningly malicious and innocently ensuring its own survival. Patton’s take on the scourge takes the former stance, claiming that once he has [sucked] all the blossoms and [left] your hedges square,” he will simply move on to find another farm to destroy.
“House Carpenter” – Clarence Ashley
I know this song from Nickel Creek’s 2002 version, released on the This Side album. The story is drawn from a Scottish ballad first collected by Francis James Child in 1860. The tale goes by alternate titles of “The Demon Lover” and “James Harris.” The story recounts that of a sailor, who upon returning from a long journey, finds that his beloved has married another man and has a son. He insists that she leave her new life behind and join him at sea. Shortly thereafter, the boat sinks; killing everyone on board. In some versions of the tale, the sailor is the devil (who destroys the ship in revenge), in others, he is the misguided father of the woman’s child, who in separating mother and son has led her to place a curse on the boat, killing him and herself. Ashley’s version follows the second story, stating that the sailor has been away for “three fourths of a long, long year,” during which time she has married another man and borne the sailor's son.
“Stand By Me” – Sister Clara Hudmon
Sister Clara was one of the founding mothers of recorded Gospel music, recording Rev. Charles Albert Tindley’s hymn “Stand By Me” in 1930. Her recording holds all the markings of traditional Gospel, a simple chordal piano accompaniment, a brassy and boisterous lead vocal, and a background chorus who vocally encourages Hudmon’s singing with shout backs. Hudmon’s recording career took off following her disgraced flight from Atlanta with her husband the Baptist minister, Rev. T.T. Gholston, subsequent divorce, and conversion to Pentacostalism.
“John the Revelator” – Blind Willie Johnson
This call and response number pairs Johnson’s incredibly rough and throaty voice with a soft soprano voice (sung by Willie B. Harris, who may or may not have been his wife) and softly strummed guitar. Johnson’s recording career centered around the singing of blues-influenced Gospel music, and between 1927-1930, he recorded thirty songs which incorporate the singing style, guitar work, and call and response texture closely associated with rural blues music of the same time. ”John the Revelator” describes the work of the apostle John and his creation of the Book of Revelations, which foretells the apocalypse.
“No Depression in Heaven” – The Carter Family
The composition of this song has been attributed to A.P. Carter (who, as previously noted, had a well-known track record of taking publication credit for other people’s music) and James David Vaughan. It was recorded by the Carters in 1936, during the height of the Great Depression, and it claims that the only place one can truly be free of economic uncertainty is in Heaven. The song has been re-recorded many times, most notably by Sheryl Crow, Arlo Guthrie, and Uncle Tupelo.
As is common in Carter Family recordings, Sara sings lead, while Maybelle and A.P. join in on the chorus. The guitar heard in the background here also demonstrates Maybelle’s innovative back strumming technique, which allowed her to simultaneously strum chords and picking a melody over the top.
Ultimately, I was intrigued by the selections for Smith's anthology that I heard and fascinated by the stories behind so many of these songs. The variety of musical styles that Smith compiled, explained, and made available to the public in 1952 clearly influenced many later styles of American popular music, most notably country, blues, folk, and rock and roll.
While the primitive recording technology makes listening for long periods of time somewhat tedious, the collection provides a fascinating window into America's musical past and sheds light on much of the music that followed.
John A. and Alan Lomax. Folk Song U.S.A.: 111 Best Loved American Ballads with Words and Music for Piano and Guitar (New York: Signet, 1947), 363.
“Sacred Harp and Shape Note Singing.” www.fasola.org(Accessed 4/6/2018)
Alexander. “Where Dead Voices Gather: Life at 78 RPM.” http://theanthologyofamericanfolkmusic.blogspot.com/2010/10/stand-by-me-sister-clara-hudmon.html (Accessed 4/11/2018)
Elliot, C. “The Song ‘No Depression’: Where We Came From.” http://nodepression.com/article/song-no-depression-where-we-came (Accessed 4/11/2018)
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.