Archive for September, 2008

The Anthology Remixed

September 30, 2008

Last year, the UK art gallery opened an exhibition called Harry Smith Anthology Remixed. The exhibition consisted of 84 visual artworks, each created by a prominent artist or musician as his or her response to one of the songs on the Anthology.

You can read about the exhibit here: if you go, you’ll find links to all the artworks (a mixed bag – my favorite is a comic-book version of Old Shoes and Leggins), to a booklet describing the artworks, and to a remarkably pretentious essay by David Keenan.

Here’s Rich Jacobs’s take on Dock Boggs’s Sugar Baby –


Open Thread – Week 2

September 23, 2008

Comments on any topic are welcome, but – please let me know what song lyrics you want me to scan out of Dan’s book. I’ll do the dozen or so songs for which there are the most requests, as long as I get them by the end of next week – that lets me do the scanning over the weekend and have it on the blog by our next meeting.

I’m adding a link (look under “Related Links” on the right) to John Cohen’s home page. Cohen has had a long and remarkable career as a musician, photographer, artist and filmmaker, and the site is well worth a visit.

For those interested in some background on the film we saw today, there’s a very useful article entitled John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky in the online journal Southern Spaces, and I’m also adding a link to it.

Finally, here’s a clip from Roscoe Holcomb’s performance on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV show. Please enjoy!

When Harry Met Woody

September 21, 2008

When George Cha asked whether we'd get to hear any Woody Guthrie in this group, I hated to say no, but it's just too long a stretch from Woody to the Anthology. However, since Harry did see Woody Guthrie perform in Oakland (or San Francisco, depending on Harry's memory of the night) in 1942, I have all the excuse I need to put a song of Woody's on the blog.

Woody was a stay-at-home dad for a while during the late 1940s and early 50s, when he and his wife Marjorie Mazia (a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company) lived on Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island with their children. Among the songs Woody wrote down during this period were the songs he sang to Arlo, Joady, Nora and Kathy.

Woody had some good advice about how we should relate to kids:

"Watch the kids. Do like they do. Act like they act. Yell like they yell. Dance the ways you see them dance. Sing like they sing. Work and rest the way the kids do.

You'll be healthier. You'll feel wealthier. You'll talk wiser. You'll go higher, do better, and live longer here amongst us if you'll only just jump in here and swim around in these songs and do like the kids do."

Here's The Car Song – think of Woody cruising down Mermaid Avenue with a car full of singing kids – and jump in and swim around with them!

Meeting 2 – The Dear Old Sunny South

September 18, 2008

Harry wanted the Anthology to change the world in some way – to bring about a world that did not yet exist. But the world from which he drew the Anthology’s music was a real world: the rural south. This week we’ll take a look at that real world and how a confluence of technological and historical events made it a veritable museum of American music, a storehouse of the old from which Harry could construct his blueprint for the new.

The rural southerners who made the music we hear on the Anthology settled there over the course of three hundred years, whites mostly from the British Isles, blacks primarily from West Africa. Each brought music with them, but began a process of acculturation almost immediately, as they adapted to their new land and to each other. The relative isolation of the south was real enough to allow the old ways to survive, but incomplete enough to allow the new to change, replace, or even stand alongside the old.

The Civil War and its aftermath both reduced this isolation and accentuated it. Emancipation scattered the newly-freed slaves, and their new social arrangements led inevitably to new forms of music, among them the blues. At the same time, exploitation of the south’s natural resources brought northerners south to work on railroads, mines and lumber camps. Here they worked with native southerners, black and white, and all listened to the traveling musicians who worked the circuit of mining towns and lumber settlements.

Northern industrialization in the early 20th century increased the mobility of black and white southerners, as they took advantage of job opportunities. These migrants took their music north and brought much of what they heard home with them, and the fast-growing recording industry made it even easier for all this music to travel.

But when radio hit, the recording industry was staggered. Sales slumped as radio gave people the music they wanted, programmed locally, at a lower cost and often with better sound. The record companies’ first response was to improve recording techniques, replacing the cumbersome acoustic horns with microphones. This innovation allowed them to build portable equipment, and to the field they went, recording local artists and giving more autonomy to local producers and distributors. The result was a recording boom that lasted until the Great Depression. The recordings of this boom times are the ones Harry collected.

Here’s a picture that for me perfectly expresses the incomplete isolation of the rural southerner – it’s the Hammons family from West Virginia, and yes, that’s a gramophone on the rightmost Hammons’s lap! See you on Tuesday!

Week 1 Open Thread

September 16, 2008

Thanks to all for your participation today! While you’re free to say anything you want in comments on an open thread, I’d like to hear from you on how much music you’d like to have us listen to at our meetings. I think I missed a couple of opportunities for music today – let me know your ideas, please!

Since the pictures didn’t copy or scan too well out of this week’s readings, here’s a great picture you didn’t get a good look at.

The alchemist tranforming milk into milk - photo by Allen Ginsberg 1985

The alchemist tranforming milk into milk - photo by Allen Ginsberg 1985

Calendar Change = Revised Syllabus

September 15, 2008

Harvard, and thus HILR, have changed the holiday schedule for the fall semester. We will meet on November 25 (previously part of the Thanksgiving break) and instead take an elongated Veteran’s Day weekend, meaning we don’t meet on November 11.

I have revised the syllabus to reflect these changes, and made some other tweaks to it as well. The revised version resides, as always, on its blog page, but I will bring a couple of copies to our meeting tomorrow and give you a new PDF attached to this post.

Revised Syllabus – September 15

Readings are up!

September 14, 2008

All the readings are now posted on the “Readings” page as PDF files which should be easy to download and print. For those who have elected to receive hard copy, Gnomon Copy will get a set tomorrow, and as soon as I get the copies back I’ll distribute them. Once again, there is no requirement that you be a study group member or an HILR member in order to download and enjoy the readings. Questions? Add a comment to this post!

Anthology Documentary on TV

September 14, 2008

George Cha commented last week about a 2CD/2DVD set he’d seen at Barnes and Noble – The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited. This was one I hadn’t heard of, so I looked it up – 2 CDs and one DVD contain performances from a set of concerts collectively called The Harry Smith Project, in which contemporary rock and folk artists reinterpret Anthology songs. These have been released in a few configurations over the years (the concerts were held from 1999-2001) and we’ll be seeing a performance from one of those prior releases in week 4.

The second DVD is the documentary film, The Old, Weird, America, which includes not only some of the concert performances, but footage of Anthology artists and interviews with many whose lifes were changed by the Anthology. I’ve never seen it end-to-end, and it seems that the only way to purchase it is as part of this set.

But there is another way to see it – it’s being televised by Ovation TV (check with your cable provider!) on September 30 at 3 P.M. and 6 P.M., and on October 1 at 2 A.M. Ovation has kindly provided a clip on their website (follow the Ovation link above), and I am providing a clip below. Check out Tom Ashley, Eck Robertson, and Son House and stick around for Nick Cave.

Meeting 1: What Hath Harry Wrought?

September 8, 2008

“I always tried to inspire people, but I don’t know if that atones for my sins.” Harry Smith.

When Harry put together the Anthology many of his sins still lay ahead of him, but the inspirational motives behind his great work are obviously present. Harry had read Plato’s Republic on how changes in music presage changes in society, and told John Cohen, “I thought it would do that. I thought it would develop into something more spectacular than it did, though…I imagine it having some sort of social force for good.”

Harry had several ways of effecting this change by way of the Anthology: his musical choices and the arrangement and sequence he devised for them have been much discussed in this connection. Perhaps less obvious is the booklet Harry put together to accompany the original Anthology LPs. The melange of typefaces, the collage of antique images and symbols, the “headline news” song summaries juxtaposed with scholarly notes: all these make it clear that Harry saw the Anthology as more than just a bunch of old records.

The LP covers add their symbolism to the Anthology’s ambitions. The covers’ colors, red, blue, and green, represented three (fire, air, water) of the original four elements, and each cover featured a mysterious hand tuning the Celestial Monochord, the single string of which was believed by its inventor, Robert Fludd, to connect the pyramid of energy with the pyramid of substance.

The music tells its own story: justice often, but not always, prevails; death’s visit is often, but not always, arbitrary; courtship is a more dangerous undertaking than we would have thought; fishing is about the only thing you can do without the risk of untoward consequences. Is this the blueprint for revolution Plato had in mind?

Among the questions I’d like us to discuss when we meet are these: what was Harry trying to accomplish with the Anthology? What new America did he expect to emerge from the revolution the Anthology’s musical changes would bring? How did the techniques he applied in designing the original package advance these goals? How did his choice and arrangement of musical selections work to accomplish these same aims?

Harry was among other things a filmmaker, and his films continue to be much admired. When he first decided to make films, he didn’t have a camera, and someone suggested he paint directly on the film. He made many of his films this way, using one method or another to transfer an image directly onto the film. The example attached here is titled “Early Abstractions, Pt.4.” Enjoy it, enjoy the music and reading, and I’ll see you next Tuesday!

Syllabus is Here!

September 7, 2008

A complete syllabus for the course is available under the “Pages” heading (where the preliminary syllabus used to be) and attached to this post as a PDF file, so that you can easily print a reference copy. Please attach comments, questions, and corrections to this post, and I will respond and/or make necessary changes as soon as I can.

I will bring a few copies to our first meeting, and those who take hard copy for readings can pick one up then.

Anthology Course Syllabus in PDF form