The Ghost in the CD

In 1952, when it was first released, Folkways Records' Anthology of American Folk Music was newer than new—so naked and unlocated as to have almost no identity apart from the one that inhered in Harry Smith's ordering of it. Only by fits and starts of contextualizing and recontextualizing could it ultimately be brought into existence. The Anthologyconcentrated what had been dispersed, recovered what was forgotten, transformed obsolescence into innovation—and in time the present made shift to accommodate the music he had brought back to life.

So it will be with Revenant Records' Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four, where, as in Smith's murals and films, as well as the Anthology itself, many discrete designs, some wildly dissimilar at first blush, gradually reveal in their totality a mutual grounding in the deeper patterns of the intelligence that has massed them together. Like his collections of Micronesian string games or crazy quilts or Swinomish dances, Harry's reissue album is more than an act of cultural recycling. It exposes an interior life—a theater of mystical correspondences, icons, and effigies designed to impregnate memory, impart knowledge, and prepare the soul for the apprehension of truth. As Harry put it, "To program the mind."

Reissues deal in durations. There are always gaps in the wall, between past and present, through which lovers speak. In 1952, the wall was high and wide—more like the face of a mountain. Radio had created an imaginary nation with a metropolitan face whose features were by then visible on television. Depression migrations and wartime mobilization had permanently scrambled Kenneth Rexroth's "old free America," the parochial America of places and peoples. And the Bomb had mortgaged the future. It was either buy into the national security state, and the consumer transubstantiation rite that went with it, or go looking for a usable past.

Harry Smith pursues his life work: Programming your mind.
photo: © 1965, John Palmer
Harry Smith pursues his life work: Programming your mind.

"Folk" music was a moral resource, a pastoral dream, a myth of origins. Above all it was strange, very strange. Yet in Revenant's Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four there is no queer archaism, no spooky parochialism, no voices lost in the swamps of time. The same startling immediacy and plausibility that marked the Smithsonian's 1997 reissue of the six-LP 1952 Anthology, removing the veil that the rerecording of the 84 1926-33 recordings had thrown over the entire work, usher the singers and the songs of Volume Four into the explainable historical world, where in spite of the passage of time, even in light of manifestly old-fashioned voices and vocal styles, rhythmic orientations unknown to the contemporary nervous system, and all those thunky-sounding cheap guitars and emaciated fiddle tones, the musicians are men and women with whom we could at least shake hands, and even accompany to the fishing hole as Revenant's John Fahey used to do with Bukka White. It's the difference between a local phone call and an international one; it restores the all-but-inaudible frequencies that convey emotional tone so that we're no longer deprived of the last and most critical nuances of meaning. Once again here the singers enter our world, becoming folks more or less like ourselves and not demon-haunted schizoids dreaming of snakes crawling under beds, or cowboys who sing as if they had lassos around their testicles, or Baptist choirs already gone to heaven.

We are savvier listeners after 40 or 50 years. Anyone interested in this album will have heard, many times over, the Carter Family, the Memphis Jug Band, the Blue Sky Boys, the Monroe Brothers, Mainer's Mountaineers, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson of course, Uncle Dave Macon, and Sleepy John Estes, even if not these particular selections. The shock of the new, then, is mitigated. Moreover, most of these recordings were made later than most on the Anthology, in the mid '30s or even, in the case of Bukka White's "Parchman Farm Blues," in 1940. Hence they are closer to us stylistically, reflecting such modern influences as Western swing and prefiguring postwar sounds such as bluegrass and boogie even as others look back upon without belonging to old times: Jesse James's "Southern Casey Jones," for instance, is for barrelhouse rocker James already a kind of period piece, as his is a rent-party, not a tent-show music, a music for the Corwith freight yards and the Maxwell Street Market, while the two Cajun dance tunes that end the collection bespeak a fascination with network radio and Hollywood films.

The Depression gets four different treatments on Volume Four, Prohibition makes a cameo appearance, Joe Louis and Benito Mussolini each gets a blues devoted to him. But these topics belong to the global, not the local, history of a period that has just slipped out of our grasp: the New Deal, fascism and communism, the Cold War and the hot one, race above all. Why, it seems only weeks ago that they were still filling the columns of the middlebrow magazines. Volume Four, then, is like a kind of cultural curtain call. All those dark mysterious figures, singing their strange songs in their strange ways—here they are, again, with their several encores, saying, in effect, well, people, it was all a kind of illusion, Harry's own special magic, a phenomenon of those times. Get over it.

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