Various Artists

The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited

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In 1952 a record collector and musicologist named Harry Smith put together some of his obscure findings, music recorded in various pockets of America between 1927 and 1934, and released them on Folkways Records as a six-disc set called The Anthology of American Folk Music. Many of the artists represented on these recordings had been long forgotten, if they had ever been acknowledged outside of their immediate region to begin with. But the songs they sang, and which Smith rescued from an almost certain death, had a gargantuan impact on the nascent folk revival of the 1950s and '60s -- which some, Smith among them, credit for helping to spark social change in the country during that time -- and ultimately rock music as well. Artists from Bob Dylan to Jerry Garcia drew inspiration, if not material, from it; when the anthology was reissued in 1997, new attention was drawn to these cornerstone songs of Americana and to Smith, who had died in 1991, having finally received recognition for his pioneering efforts by the likes of the Grammys. In 1999 and 2001, producer Hal Willner, best known for his creative mixing and matching of talents on tributes to the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, and cartoon music composer Carl Stalling, curated three multi-artist concerts to pay tribute to Smith's anthology. The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisted is a distillation of highlights from those shows, which were held in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and London. True to form, Willner selected an eclectic and impressive array of artists to reinterpret the ancient folk songs. The performers here come from the worlds not only of singer/songwriter folk but also of jazz, rock, and various hybrids thereof. Some of the performers stick closely to the song forms as presented on the original anthology; others reconfigure the music in their own image. Roswell Rudd, teamed with Sonic Youth, contemporizes "Dry Bones," attributed on the anthology to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and Lou Reed's electrified "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (Blind Lemon Jefferson) retains that song's haunting quality while giving it an urban edge. David Johansen, who recorded a tribute album of his own in 2000 with a band he called the Harry Smiths, appears twice on the two-CD set, leading off the proceedings with "Old Dog Blue" (originally by Jim Jackson) and making a return appearance with "James Alley Blues" (Richard Brown) on disc two. Stellar performances abound, and the disparate styles coalesce seamlessly. Unsurprisingly, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Marianne Faithfull, Beck (doing Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down"), Beth Orton, Wilco, Geoff Muldaur, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Van Dyke Parks, and Richard Thompson -- each of whom has acknowledged a debt to the dustier pages of music history -- all prove to be masterful and reverential. But some of the highlights come from unexpected sources: Nick Cave, who appears twice, brings an appropriate gospel piety to "John the Revelator" and David Thomas, ex-Pere Ubu, applies his larger-than-life persona to "Fishin' Blues" and "Way Down the Old Plank Road." Gavin Friday, formerly of the Virgin Prunes, and a jazz trio comprising Don Byron, Percy Heath, and Bill Frisell -- the latter contributing a wordless "This Song of Love" -- display the flexibility of the folk songs Smith brought to light. Accompanying the two audio CDs are two DVDs. The first, also available separately, presents highlights from the same concerts, augmented by explanatory commentary. A clip of faux-folkies the Folksmen, as previously seen in the film The Mighty Wind, brings a bit of humor to the program, and Ed Sanders of the Fugs (who also performs on the audio section) recalls a visit Smith paid to his home once, getting angry over a money issue and ripping up some books that Sanders kept all those years (and shows the audience). The fourth disc, also a DVD, is a Smith documentary, The Old Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, that puts his work into perspective. In addition to interview clips from Johansen, the late poet Allen Ginsberg, Earle, and others, the film also screens some of Smith's own short films and offers vintage performance footage of folk acts like the New Lost City Ramblers, Roscoe Holcomb, and others. An outtake from the concerts features former Lovin' Spoonful leader John Sebastian, who also sings "Fishin' Blues," a song he once recorded with that group. As a companion piece to the anthology itself, this four-disc box set is a more than worthy successor.

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