The Carter Family (left to right) Maybelle, Sara, and A.P.
By Tom Roznowski
For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Down by a western water tank
One cold December day
– Dick Justice, The Harry Smith B-Sides (Track 1, Disc 1)
And now it lies broken. Probably for the length of our lifetimes. The deep divisions in America around race and class, which were always rooted in wealth, have stunned us all into collective dysfunction. The depth of our divisions were clearly exposed in a yea or nay national referendum. The result of that democratic exercise illuminated this estrangement for all to see. As for the business of resolving policy issues or choosing a future direction, the outcome of this once-in-a-generation election decided nothing.
Backward glances are not natural to Americans. If we have never quite measured up as a forward-thinking people, we can at least be considered a forward-looking people. Each of the major migrations in our nation-building: across the Atlantic to North America, westward into the frontier, or more recently from farm to city, required a personal resolve to never glance back at the consequences of your actions, or stop and consider how they might be slowly gaining on you.
One manifestation of this resolve has been the exploitation and subsequent abandonment of large portions of lands and people, stretching from sea to shining sea. You don’t have to look far for evidence of the damage done anywhere east of the Mississippi: the vacant small towns, the impoverished mountain communities, the tired aging cities. No question that daily life was hard for many even when these areas were thriving. In fact, as we can see now, that’s exactly what allowed them to thrive in the first place.
The Harry Smith B-Sides, recently released as a handsome boxed set by Disc-To-Digital, provides listeners a director’s cut of an already legendary work. These are the companion tunes for the A sides from original 78 r.p.m. releases that appeared on The Anthology of American Folk Music curated by Harry Smith. That initial collection, released by Folkways Records in 1952, featured 84 performances of American roots music, the majority recorded in just three years, from 1927 through 1929. The selections are divided into three categories: Ballads (the English folk tradition of storytelling through song), Social Music (played and sung where people gathered: primarily church and dances) and finally, Songs (covering the waterfront with meditations on birds, prison time, rough neighborhoods, and fishing).
As distinctive as the sources and subjects of these performances are, there is a cohesion that binds each of these collections together as a concept. This is astounding, especially given the social, racial, and class divisions that coursed through America at the time. A period photograph of African-American and Cherokee musicians Andrew and Jim Baxter (Georgia Stomp b/w 40 Drops) reveals perhaps more than was intended. The two men are seated outdo15ors posing with their instruments. They are apparently the invited entertainment for the day. Behind them, at a remove of perhaps 10 yards, a group of fashionably dressed white women stand behind a long table. Welcome to Gordon County, Georgia in the 1920s.
Of course, being uniquely American, the original Anthology American of Folk Music was a serendipitous combination of creativity, evolving technology, and market forces. In the mid to late 1920s, the process used to capture live music took a huge leap with the introduction of electronic recording, vastly improving the fidelity of performances. Voices and instruments no longer had to shout to be heard. Almost overnight, Enrico Caruso became Bing Crosby.
These advances moved in lockstep with a growing consumer market eager for portable, re-playable versions of folk songs by rural artists; performances that a couple decades earlier could have been absorbed only in the moment. What Gutenberg’s press did for story, the 78 rpm record did for roots music. Yet another step away from the imme15diate and the individual, anticipating that a broad acceptance would surely follow.
Harry Smith was not a musician, but he listened like one. He was a genuine eccentric born of eccentrics. His mother claimed to be the vanished daughter of Czar Nicholas, Anastasia. His father had once been a cowboy. Every bit as essential as his fascination with American folk music was young Harry’s penchant for collecting. Whatever he earned at various odd jobs was largely spent acquiring ephemera: catalogues, paper airplanes, painted Easter eggs. Around 1940, Harry Smith began to accumulate commercially released folk recordings created during this rich three-year period of the late 1920s. Conveniently, Harry’s curiosity and energy coincided with yet another enormous shift in recording technology that had occurred during the late 1940s: the emergence of LPs (Long Players) spinning at 33 1/3 rpm and the conversion of two song, A and B side releases from 78 to 45 rpm., which facilitated the growing popularity of jukeboxes.
In the 1920s, the B-sides were often where the racy, and racist, songs were consigned.
In response to this market shift and eager to create warehouse space for new releases, major record labels began off-loading their remaining stock of 78s to local retailers for pennies on the dollar. Much of that stock had been sitting undisturbed during the Depression and World War II. With few notable exceptions, the musicians who had performed on these recordings had either moved on with their lives or simply died.
The initiative to release The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 was guided by Moe Asch of Folkways Records. The new LP format had made it marketable. Harry Smith’s vast collection provided the content. The resulting wave of inspiration arising from the public’s exposure to the songs and styles of these lost artists is evident in the original music created during the folk, blues, and rock boom of the 1950s and 60’s. “One singer playing an instrument and telling a story” pretty much sums up the majority of cuts on the original anthology. Earthy vocal styles. Driving rhythms. All of a sudden, it was daylight again.
But in that generation between the last recordings featured on the original Anthology and a young Bob Dylan playing at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, the world had become a different place. The books included with each Harry Smith collection show us just how different. Consider the names of the artists, or the titles of the songs: Columbus Fruge, Uncle Bunt Stephens, The Williamson Brothers and Curry, or “I Heard The Voice Of A Pork Chop,” “The Royal Telephone,” “My Mamma Was A Sailor.” Clearly not from around here, at least these days.
This is what, in the first anthology’s introduction, Greil Marcus refers to as “the old, weird America.” But actually, that’s only because we collectively closed our ears, turned our backs, and walked away. Even in 1952, these recordings must have sounded raw and primitive by comparison. The emergence of multi-tracking in the mid-1960s made these initial performances seem even more remote. A little math to consider: The distance between the releases of The Anthology of American Folk Music and The Harry Smith B-Sides is 68 years. Reverse that amount of time back from the original release and you are midway between the patent for Thomas Edison’s phonograph and the formation of his company to market recorded wax cylinders.
The sudden availability of The Harry Smith B-Sides, much like the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945, basically takes a hard right turn off of our accepted reality. It’s not that these added performances are inferior or secondary by appearing on the flip side. Rather, they enhance and broaden our understanding of these rare artists, the music they played, and significantly, the America that surrounded them.
In the late 1920s, the B-sides were often where the racy, and racist, selections were consigned. A small note included in this set of 4 CDs states that three songs which matched contributions on the original Anthology are not included here because of racist lyrics. One of the artists, Uncle Dave Macon, had either a natural affinity or a supreme indifference to racial epithets. Another one of his recordings included a slur right in the title. A popular Grand Ole Opry performer, Macon still stands enshrined in the Country Music Hall Of Fame today.
There are other names in these collections that might be familiar to folk, country and blues fans today: The Carter Family, Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, but the vast majority of performers here would only be fleetingly captured in their brief recording sessions before being cast back into the river of time to sink or swim. These include voices that belie age and broader influences. Richard “Rabbit” Brown sounds like no one has since, though you’d imagine many a soul with a guitar on their knee might have thought it was a style one could learn through imitation. Dock Boggs was only 29 when these initial recordings were made, sounding twice that old because of all that he had seen, heard, and swigged. As one listens here, there is a creeping realization that as technology continues to guide us away from the sensory and what’s become lost in the process is something personal, immediate, and genuine.
The opportunity for individuals who had only played locally for town folk, family and friends to record in a professional studio must have involved a leap of its own. Imagine a visit to New York City or Chicago for someone raised without electricity. Consider too the fragile trappings of fame that might suddenly surround them: a printed poster for their performances, a professional photograph posing with their instrument, then this brittle black disc with their name and song neatly printed on a light blue label. All this when there might have been two phonographs within five miles of home.
This thrilling feeling, this startling moment in time, was all gathered in two and a half minutes of recorded music. On the second disc included on The Harry Smith B-Sides, The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers encourage you have to a little talk with Jesus. Heart and soul while making every small stop in between. Then, there’s the foot-stomping careening fiddle tune “Old Red” by Floyd Ming and his Pep-Steppers. Country music is often described as three chords and the truth. “Old Red” is two chords touching eternity.
The question one is left with after a visit to the days before tube microphones, multi-track overdubs, and isolation booths is not how much better the finished recording might have been than a live rendition but exactly the opposite. Listening to the sheer raw force of these sessions, one aches for the lost experience that must have preceded them. Maybe a random Sunday in a tiny church with Blind Willie Johnson testifying. Or maybe searching Appalachia with a name and destination in mind: Back roads traveled, directions asked, until you hear the banjo and fiddle a little further up the hill, just before your scent reaches the dogs.
All this time and distance allows for the fact that the lyrics here are frequently offered a strange patois or shouted, garbled, and growled in a way that defies understanding. As Om Kalthoum or the Rolling Stones have proven, this alone does not preclude a listener’s transcendence.
Technology continues to guide us away from the sensory.
What’s become lost in the process is something
personal, immediate, and genuine.
Can this collection of 165 songs spread out over two releases nearly 70 years apart be considered essential listening for someone who loves the American music genres of country, rock, and blues? Is reading the Bible cover-to-cover a given for a devout Christian? Or visiting the Pyramids for someone who loves travel? It’s out there. You decide.
Perhaps it’s enough for now to simply extend thanks to the folks at Disc-To-Digital for the enormous effort and collaboration necessary to present these artifacts for your consideration. One thinks about the thousands of early films shot on silver nitrate stock, the vast majority lost to the ravages of time, fire, and indifference. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, originally shot in 1928, was thought lost forever until a complete copy was discovered over 60 years later in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital. Often, the margins of extinction are just that slim. But still the search continues.
This is 20th century archeology, which in the case of The B-Sides involved using model airplane glue to restore the only surviving recordings. This collection may provide entertainment but beyond that, it may provide some cause for hope. Can something so fragile from so long ago survive the rough transition to our current reality? It is a question that involves remembering and mending as part of the answer. Acknowledging that it’s been badly broken. Needing it to somehow be made whole again.
[editor’s note: Tom Roznowski has spent most of his creative life singing, writing, and exploring in his particular locality, the hills of Southern Indiana. Currently, Tom is the host of Porchlight, airing on WFIU Saturday evenings at 6PM]