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 Anthology concentrated 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.

“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.

One might expect to be dazzled only momentarily by Volume Four, that like other digitalized reissues it might light on us with the pleasantly weightless quality of a Starbucks jazz compendium. Even though there’s no jewel box here, and no shrink-wrap, the metaphor has been literalized as a little hardbound CD-sized octavo book in a black cloth cover, the two disks sleeved front and back between endpapers as if they accompanied the book, and not the other way around. Volume Four seems to mean as much a collection of essays—Ed Sanders’s casual bio, John Cohen’s reprise of his seminal 1968 interview with Smith, Greil Marcus’s brief, finger-wagging critique, discographical and musicological notes by Dick Spottswood and Fahey respectively—as well as conspicuous, if fake, bookcraft itself, signaled by unbleached paper stock, an old letterpress typeface, archival photos, and reproductions of the 17th-century mystical drawings Harry used in 1952. Harry himself is there too—as a teenage anthropologist tape-recording a Lummi potlatch, as a diffident beatnik in shades, as a frail elderly shaman pouring milk out of a quart carton, and, most memorably, as a smug artist roughly 30 years of age seated before his Jimbo’s Bop City mural, circa 1952, where, uncannily, he has captured one of Dizzy Gillespie’s solos in visible form. Crazy. But he does it.

A little keepsake, then, nicely illustrated, with CDs included by the way, a sort of footnote to its august ancestor. But listen. This music isn’t, like the music on Anthology, music overheard, and certainly not some ingenuous “folk music,” pure and uncontaminated. This is music as swift and irresistible as a computer virus, music sung and played at just the moment that the highway construction crew, or the newspaper reporters, or the TVA bureaucrats, or the recruiting officers, or the real estate agents, are putting down stakes—and in some degree played to them. This is a music at the cusp of change, music that knows where it is and goes ahead anyway, with a gratified and gratifying irony that springs from irreversible entanglement with all-encompassing power.

Minnie Wallace makes that clear in “Cockeyed World”—”Ethiopia is a long long ways from here. They tried to steal my man and carry him over there”—as does Memphis Minnie in her robust paean to Joe Louis. In Sara and Maybelle Carter’s “Hello Stranger,” the old Sunday-morning gesture of fellowship seems to have been imported to a Salvation Army relief mission. Al Hopkins’s hangdog cautionary tale about the impoverishment of West Virginians, “West Virginia Gals,” is scarcely a generation away from the old Irish “Drill Ye Tarriers,” whose subtext is the thankless business of being Irish in mid-19th-century America. And with its exacting comparisons (three bucks for a shirt that used to cost two bits) and outspoken editorializing (trigger-happy federal agents, truancy fines, money-hungry clergymen, adulterated food, quack medicine), Blind Alfred Reed’s complaint about high prices in “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” might have been lifted directly from a conversation at the hardware store, and probably was—but from men who read the papers, listen to the evening news, belong to a fraternal organization and even a political party.

“Folksong” won’t do here. Bradley Kincaid’s “Dog and Gun,” announcing itself on the original label as “An Old English Ballad,” is really more like a BBC costume drama, especially since Kincaid’s fame, and his avuncular sound, as a recycler of Victorian sentimental songs lies all about the image of the highborn lady in a man’s hunting outfit who captures her farmer-lover with a glove; she could almost be a character in his greatest hit, “After the Ball.” And lest we forget what happens to expensive young women who think that the milkmaid’s life is really what they want, we have the Carter Family’s “Black Jack David,” to remind us of the difference between the cold cold ground and a warm feather bed.

When sentimentality turns bad it turns very bad—into the kind of ghastliness we might associate with Astroturf grave carpets, and even to an unwholesome lasciviousness. The Blue Sky Boys’ sickly-sweet harmonies and lewdly tinkling mandolin proved an efficient engine for transmitting through the dark mouths of mantelpiece radios, to the same audience that tuned in to Bible readings and cancer-recovery prayers, their repertoire of folksongs G-rated for the schoolroom: one consequence of well-meaning New Deal progressivism. But in their version of “The Banks of the Ohio” it is hard to miss the knife drawn surgically across the throat, the bloodied breast pressed to breast, the gratuitous drowning—there is a dour relish here in murder, not exactly differentiated from sexual desire, all the more lurid because it is set in a prettified courtship discourse of hand-holding and happy homes.

What’s rotten about this form of irony is that it is cowardly, its obvious aggression self-deceiving. The Monroe Brothers, and after them, in a rougher way, Mainer’s Mountaineers, do better. Rather than grieve and cry fatuously over the old repertoire, they take it and with what Alan Lomax would later call “overdrive” give it cleaner lines, reduce the number of moving parts, cover it with aerodynamic sheathing, and let it loose on the highway at a cruise-controlled but heady pace. The songs are about steel-driving men, nine-pound hammers, and exhausting physical labor. But the labor sounds as if it is being performed more by fossil fuels than by the muscle and blood, skin and bone of which poor men are made. With their snazzy uptempo mandolin solos, voices so light they hardly touch the notes, and darting braided harmonies, Bill and Charlie are very near to the technological sublime of bluegrass, whose declension swiftly followed itself, inevitably, into caricature.

Uncle Dave Macon, too, takes convict labor, state bond failures, lost elections, and poison moonshine all in stride, while not allowing us to forget that this wretched historical world is not, finally, the world we live in. We’re bound for the promised land. This is the eschatology that enables Macon’s laughter and nodding head on the one hand, and on the other the Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven,” whose sad enumeration of the hunger, orphanhood and widowhood, bereavement and death belonging to these “latter days we know” is really an expression of a damaged but still operative, even if as a last resort, religious faith: “My home’s in heaven, I’m going there.”

Nothing has been more difficult for moderns to take seriously about the “folk” than their religion, usually regarded as a kind of cultural poll-tax on the traditional life. But experienced song catchers eventually learn that between religious conviction and musical power there is no real distinction—precisely why there are few if any traditional singers, black or white, who can sing gospel songs and secular songs in the same period of their lives. Gospel songs and secular songs draw from the same well. Having “no particular interest in religion,” as Fahey reports of Bukka White, is for a blues singer the same thing as having been born again, and can in a trice become it.

Sister Clara Hudmon’s “Stand by Me” clings to the solace of human affection, as much in the lyric as in the humming, the holy laughter, and the cries that accompany her. But going to the heart of the matter is the Heavenly Gospel Singers’ “Mean Old World,” with its brutally frank and not necessarily rhetorical “Isn’t it a mean old world to try to live in, to try to stay here, without a mother, without a father, without a sister, lord ain’t got no brother—until you die?” For a persuasive answer, listen to Roosevelt and Aaron Graves do “I’ll Be Rested When the Roll Is Called.” This number, which Fahey has called “the hottest ‘religious record’ ever made,” distills the qualities of drive, exactness, candor, and freedom in which the power of Southern vernacular music resides.

Take Maybelle Carter’s guitar break in “Black Jack David,” which the New Lost City Ramblers copied note-for-note in their own version, almost but not quite capturing its well-nigh Euclidean perfections. Or what Fahey calls the “great hot syncopation” of the Graves Brothers. Or Lead Belly’s “Packin’ Trunk,” a talking song with slide guitar: This is not the Lead Belly in overalls that John Lomax got up for Life magazine in 1936, but an inspired African American bard, mostly unknown to us, telling, singing, composing as he goes. Robert Johnson’s familiar “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” belongs to this same improvisatory tradition, as does Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues,” which if not thoroughly extemporaneous at the moment it was recorded nevertheless seizes the hour, syntax and tonality melting into one another, the voice scattering itself at the line-ends onto the instrumental stream.

The primacy of voice and vocality in this universe may suggest why in Volume Four the fiddle—country fiddle, blues fiddle, Cajun fiddle—sounds the brightest and most continuous musical note throughout. With the fiddle the collection begins and ends. The fiddle is the vocalized instrument par excellence, as closely akin to the actual human voice as we have in the West, though not, like horns, an extension of it, but a miniature or model, a kind of fetish. It has been for over two centuries the premier rural instrument in America. It is also the one revivalists were slowest to adopt, not only because fretless stringed instruments place such intense demands upon a player, but because of the typically screechy, acid, or sour tones (not to mention corny sharped or flatted pitches, cheesy glissandi, and flashy double-stops) that emanate from an instrument that places the voice so close to the heart. To enter the world of Southern vernacular music, as much as its folk religion, one must be willing to accept guileless, unguarded emotion—and that means developing a taste for the fiddle, and learning to love it.

Is it the fiddle, then, that makes Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s “Adieu False Heart” the song for which Volume Four will, I think, be most remembered? Or is it only its flat, affectless, hapless beauty, the utter simplicity of its two harmonic planes and the binary melody that toggles between them, the Delmore Brothers’ dogged sump-pump guitar chords, those heavy whole and half-notes weighing down the ends of phrases, or just the lyric, so clumsily and unprepossessingly sincere: “Aay-doo false heart. Since we must part. May the joys of the world, go with you; I’ve loved you long, with a faithful heart, but I never anymore, canneye ‘bleve you.”

“Origins of this darkly sentimental piece,” writes Spottswood, “remain to be discovered. It was collected by a folklorist in Campbell County, south central Virginia, in 1931; this recording is the only other sighting.” A parlor piece of the ’60s and ’70s, most likely, its fussy language transformed like so many songs of that period by its long mingling with a mountain idiom: “I’da seen a time. I’da married you. And been your constant, lover—but now I’d gladly, give you up. For one whose heart’s, more truer.” The quality of total surrender, of a sadness so profound that it has almost swallowed the will to sing, which is the same as the will to live, the fiddle breaks that seem to tie up the verses in ribbons to be packed away forever—”lovely and devastating,” Fahey writes, noting the “extended use” of the “five,” or dominant chord, “enabling the singer to sing more syllables in a harmonically suspended state—lingering on the melancholy of unrequited love.”

The song ends: “As I lay down. To take my rest. No scornful one, to wake me; I’ll go straightway, unto my grave, just as fast as time, will take me.”

Revenant: “A person who returns. A person who returns as a spirit after death; ghost.” Of course! What we are hearing is Harry’s hearing. It is Harry Smith, now, not the Carter Family or the Blue Sky Boys, who is being summoned from the spirit world. It was nearly 50 years ago that Harry gathered these recordings together for his fourth volume, and only an accident of history that their release should come in a new technology whose headlong career has buried us in the tailings of our own past. We are, in a sense, just where Harry was in the Seattle warehouse when he began the monumental task of rescuing a discarded human story out of a mass of junk—a prolonged act of sympathetic attention whose ultimate form, Revenant’s Volume Four makes evident at last, was the beleaguered soul of the rescuer himself. Harry only wanted what was hardest for him to do, which was simply to make contact. In Volume Four he does, even as he bids aay-doo.