In 1950 the long-playing album was still a relatively new concept, one that a 27-year-old, discographer, artist and historian named Harry Smith decided he could usefully exploit. He convinced Moses Asch the owner of the Folkways label to allow him to compile an ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’.
The Anthology was packaged as a set of three, boxed albums, each box front was a different colour: red, blue, or green – in Smith’s mind this represented the alchemical elements. It ran to 84 songs concentrated onto 6 LP’s and each double LP set was priced at $25 (over $200 in today’s money), so this was both an esoteric item and a luxury one.
The Holy Grail of America’s music
Over the next decade or so this became the Holy Grail of America’s music. It contains many of the best of the pre-war blues artists, as well as country, hillbilly music, old time songs and even sermons. The recording engineer on the project was Péter Bartók, son of the renowned composer and Harry Smith wrote some wonderful essays to accompany each release, meaning the anthology became a first stop for early music historians.
Smith’s Anthology introduced men like Dick Justice, a white coal miner from West Virginia, who had come under the influence of the blues, as well as better known performers like The Carter Family and the Rev. J.M. Gates. Among the blues artists are Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell, The Memphis Jug Band, Henry Thomas, Charley Patton (included on the LP as The Masked Marvel, Smith was unaware that it was really Patton), Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt.
A passport to a lost world
At a time when America was at the dawning of the modern era, a consumer driven age, Harry Smith put down a marker as to the value of the nations musical heritage, reminding us all that it is as important to look back as it is to look forward.
For many musicians and fans alike it became their passport to a lost world of rare and unusual recordings. It helped some to rediscover pre-war blues and helped spawn the Folk Blues revival of the 1960s; both Bob Dylan and Joan Baez covered songs included on the Anthology. John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers said that the Anthology introduced him and many others to performers “ who became like mystical Gods to us”. Dave Van Ronk said the anthology became “our Bible”, “we all knew the words to every song on it, even the ones we hated.”
Looking for more? Discover the history of recorded blues.