“People got folk song happy for awhile,” Merle Travis recalled when interviewed in 1979. Capitol’s Cliffie Stone asked him to record an album full of them. Travis replied, “Bradley Kincaid and Burl Ives have sung every folk song that I ever heard of.” Not one to take “No” for an answer, Stone said: “Write some.” Thus were born “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Sixteen Tons.”
That was 1946. Fast-forward a half-dozen years to 1952. A nascent folk boom of sorts had briefly made pop stars of the Weavers, whose prettified versions of “On Top of Old Smoky” and “Goodnight Irene” were hits before the group was blacklisted amidst the post-War Red Scare. The paranoid notion that within every urban folk singer lurked a subversive froze the blossoming folk boom, but in some ways it also signaled a creative time-out.
In 1952, also the year the Weavers were blacklisted, Folkways released the Anthology of American Folk Music. It was a six-LP set of 84 songs and tunes commercially recorded between 1926 and 1934 and arranged thematically: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. The LP set had debuted in 1948, and while Folkways marketed heavily to libraries, its releases also made it into middle-class homes at the dawn of the hi-fi era. (The Anthology of American Folk Music wasn’t a trivial purchase: it retailed for $25, about $245 today.) One can only speculate at the reception it got among Truman-era buyers hoping for something soothingly Weavers-like. But it proved to be a Pandora’s box for their children, who transformed bits of its contents into staples of the ’60s folk boom.
Harry Smith was the wizard behind this, an artist, occultist and compulsive collector who may have foreseen the Anthology’s latent potential, or may simply have been desperate for cash as he sold a chunk of his record collection to Folkways founder Moe Asch. Whatever his motivation, Smith oversaw both the programing and the packaging of the Anthology, with hints of his occultist inclinations appearing in the art work and a quirky sense of humor displayed in the tabloid headline-like song summaries he penned.
Smith explained his criteria for selecting songs to John Cohen: “The thing that was the most exotic—whether it happened to be the words or melodies or the timbre of the instruments—that’s really what selected those things.” Elsewhere in Cohen’s interview with Smith, he says: “They were selected to be the ones that would be popular among musicologists, or possibly with people who would want to sing them, and maybe would improve the version.” Seemingly contradictory in recalling his motivations, Smith’s sense of purpose appeared sharply focused to Moe Asch, who told Cohen: “He knew what he was doing…Harry understood the content of the records. He knew their relationship to folk music, their relationship to English literature, and their relationship to the world.”
But what was their relationship to their B-sides? If Smith carefully compiled his Anthology along thematic lines (Ballads, Social Music, and Songs), wouldn’t a collection made by simply turning over 84 records render a musical hodgepodge untethered from any thematic mooring? John Cohen, who, along with collector Robert Nobley, suggested the B-sides concept to Dust-to-Digital, didn’t think so.
What was on the other sides? Lots of things. Smith chose “Henry Lee” by Dick Justice to simultaneously open his Anthology and the Ballad section of it. Cohen quotes him calling it “not a good record,” but a lyrically solid American variant of a venerable Child ballad, so he led with it. It’s likely neither Justice nor the Brunswick label were conscious of this synchronicity, but the B-side of Henry Lee, “One Cold December Day,” is yet another Child ballad variant, this of the vaguely necrophile “Lady Alice.” At the same time it’s also one of the earlier recorded versions (1929) of “In the Pines.” Other surprises follow: The B-side of Clarence Ashley’s “The House Carpenter” (another Child ballad) was “Old John Hardy,” sung on the Anthology by the Carter Family, who made the earlier recording. Buell Kazee, who recorded “John Hardy” before either of them, inhabits tracks six and seven on the first CD with “The Butcher’s Boy” and “The Wagoner’s Lad,” the same songs in the same spots they held on the original Anthology, since the songs were originally issued on the same 78!
Not everything is a mirror image. Burnett & Rutherford’s rowdy “All Night Long Blues,” the B-side of the Anthology’s ballad “Willie Moore,” could not be more delightfully different. But the G. B. Grayson B-side of “Ommie Wise” hews close to the ballad tree with the much-covered “Rose Conley.” The B-side of Uncle Bunt Stephens’ “Sail Away Lady” may not equal the show-stopper with which Smith opened the Social Music section of his Anthology, but “Louisburg Blues” offers its own mournful, meditative charm.
It was in the context of Social Music that Smith introduced the first of seven Cajun recordings on his Anthology, this at a time when Cajun music surely was even deeper terra incognitato Truman-era folk LP buyers than African American jug bands, Appalachian string bands, guitar evangelists, and rail-riding songsters. Perhaps to display a familiar chestnut reworked (and sung in Cajun French), Smith put the Breaux Freres singing “Home Sweet Home” on his Anthology. But to buyers of the 78 in 1934 that surely would have been the B-side in the conventional sense: the more dance-worthy “T’as Volé Mon Chapeau” (“You Have Stolen My Hat”) appears here, a variant of the Cajun evergreen “Hippy Ti Yo.”
Nearly all the artists on Smith’s Anthology hailed from the greater South, with one notable upper Midwestern exception, St. Paul’s Frank Cloutier & Victoria Cafe Orchestra. The Anthology offered “Moonshiner’s Dance Part One,” with Smith citing among the songs in its medley “Over the Waves.” That popular waltz actually opens “Moonshiner’s Dance Part Two,” making one wonder if this boozy waltz medley wasn’t the side of the record Smith meant for listeners to hear all along. On this B-sides set we get it, complete with shouted asides that were a popular part of generations of polka records.
Controversially, Dust-to-Digital opted to delete three B-sides on account of racist language, though the descriptions in the accompanying 144-page book remain. The handsomely designed, image-rich book includes brief song commentary by a host of authorities of varied stripes. The four-CD, 81-tune box set offers a wide range of vernacular African American and Anglo-American music by such legends as Charlie Poole, Charley Patton, Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, etc. Audio engineer Michael Graves has done a superb job of restoration and mastering, bringing sounds of a now-distant era into sharp focus. While it’s unlikely the B-sides will have an impact equal to the original Anthology, it’s a worthy complement to it.