Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music, various artists, six CD set plus booklet, Smithsonian/Folkways, 1997
It is no secret that the reviewer in this space has been on something of a tear of late in working through a litany of items concerning American roots music, a music that he first ‘discovered’ in his youth with the folk revival of the early 1960s and with variations and additions over time has held in high regard for his whole adult life. Thus a review of musicologist (if that is what he though he was, it is not all that clear from his “career” path that this was so) Harry Smith’s seminal “Anthology Of American Folk Music” is something of a no-brainer.
Since we live in a confessional age, however, here is the odd part. As familiar as I am with Harry Smith’s name and place in the folk pantheon, his seemingly tireless field work and a great number of the songs in his anthology this is actually the first time that I have heard the whole thing at one sitting and in one place. Oh sure, back in the days of my ill-spent youth listening to an old late Sunday folk show I would perk up every time the name Harry Smith came up as the “discoverer” of some gem of a song from the 1920s or 1930s but to actually listen to, or even attempt to find, the whole compilation then just didn’t happen.
In 1997 Smithsonian/Folkway, as least theoretically in my case, remedied that problem with the release of a high quality (given the masters) six CD set of old Harry’s 80 plus recordings. Not only that but, as is usual with Smithsonian, a very nicely done booklet with all kinds of good information from the likes of Greil Marcus and the late folklorist Eric Von Schmidt (of songs like “Light Rain” and "Joshua’s Gone Barbados”, among others, fame) accompanies this set. That booklet is worth the price of admission alone on this one.
Here is the funny thing though after running through the whole collection. I mentioned above that this was the first time that I heard the collection as a whole. Nevertheless, over time I have actually heard (and reviewed in this space), helter-skelter, most of the material in the collection, except a few of the more exotic gospel songs. So I guess that youth was not so ill-spent after all. If the "roots is toots" for you, get this thing.
Note: For a list of the all the tracks in the entire collection just Google “The Harry Smith Collection” and click onto Wikipedia’s entry for Harry Smith. Or keep watching on this site over the next several days for entries for each one of the songs in the collection. Easy, right?