NOTE WELL! A week before each class, I will post a one or two page essay on the blog. I hope each essay will elicit a few comments and kick start the class discussion to follow.

I will be distributing additional listening each week as well, in the form of a CD, whose contents are described in each week’s “Listening” section. You’ll get the assignment for each meeting at least one week before that meeting.

Greil Marcus called the Anthology “the founding document of the American folk revival,” and it is that. It inspired performers, scholars and listeners to create, learn and enjoy in ways no other collection could match. In this study group, we’ll spend the first three weeks looking at what made the Anthology so special: in week 1, we’ll examine the Anthology as a work of art in its own right and consider the plan of its creator, Harry Smith. We’ll have a chance to introduce ourselves and consider a couple of questions that will establish some of the context for our listening and reading this semester.

In week 2 we’ll see why Harry had a remarkable opportunity to present American folk music in a nearly complete panorama. The Southern United States of the 1920’s preserved almost every kind of American folk music that had ever existed, from Child ballads to field hollers, and a wonderful array of hybrids that grew from these forms: minstrel music, spirituals, native ballads, the blues and more. Before many of these forms were modernized out of existence, they were commercially recorded in wholesale quantities between 1925 and 1932. These are the records Harry collected, and from which he drew the musical material of the Anthology.

The topic of week 3 will be to understand how the fortunate confluence of Harry’s creative goals with the material in his collection produced a document that changed American music and in the process changed America as well.

Most of the rest of our time will be spent considering these genres in more detail, with particular attention to how they influenced each other and how, together, they produced the heterogeneous but somehow unified sound we hear in the Anthology: what Marcus might have called the sound of Smithville.

Finally, we’ll take a look at two of the Anthology’s consequences: the rediscovery of some of the original performers, particularly Dock Boggs, and the inspiration of a new generation of performers, led by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Here is a week-by-week list of class topics.

September 16 – Week 1: Harry Smith and His Anthology

Reading: Liner notes from Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume 4: pp. 4-42.

Harry’s original booklet (I will not post or distribute this – it’s part of the Anthology package).

The Birth and Growth of the Anthology of American Folk Music – pp. 22-23 of the big booklet that comes with the Anthology. I won’t post or distribute this either.

Listening: At least one trip through the Anthology.

September 23 – Week 2: Southern Sources, Northern Forces: Mostly about where the music came from and a bit about the technology that produced it.

Listening: Keep on listening to the Anthology throughout the semester (and beyond, of course).

Reading: Bill C. Malone, Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music (University of Georgia Press, 1993), ch. 2, pp. 43-68.

Notes on Harry Smith’s Anthology, pp. 34-37 of Anthology booklet. I won’t post or distribute this.

Supplemental Notes on the Selections, pp. 38-63 of Anthology booklet. I won’t post or distribute this.

September 30 – Rosh Hashanah – No Meeting

October 7 – Week 3: Comparing Maps: How Real is Smithville?


Geoffrey O’Brien, Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears (Counterpoint Press, 2004). Chapter 5, pp. 105-129.

The Old, Weird America, pp. 5-31 of the Anthology booklet. I won’t post or distribute this.

Listening: Once again, the Anthology.

October 14 – Week 4: Ballads: Mostly the Traditional Ones. The readings begin with a general introductory essay on ballads by Albert Friedman, from his Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World. Armed with this background, we’ll take a closer look at House Carpenter, a ballad performed on Disc 1A of the Anthology by Clarence Ashley. This ballad was collected by Francis Child – as James Harris (The Demon Lover), it appears as Child Ballad number 243. Cecil Sharp also collected it on his first trip to the United States in 1916.

Next is Sharp’s own account of his collecting trip to the United States. It’s charmingly written, and embodies an interesting view of folk music (and the folk themselves) that we may want to talk about.

I’ve included excerpts from Child and Sharp presenting all the versions of House Carpenter/James Harris they collected. Please do not feel that you need to give close attention to each and every one of these versions, although you are of course free to do so. I have included them primarily to give you an idea of the history, development, and provenance of these ballads.


Friedman, Albert B. The Penguin Book of Folk Ballads of the English Speaking World: Introduction, pp. ix-xxxv.

Child, Francis James. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Vol. 4, pp. 360-9.

Campbell, Olive Dame, and Cecil James Sharp. English Folk Songs From The Southern Appalachians: pp. iii-xxiii, 119-127.

Listening: You’ll get a CD at our October 7 meeting, with a few versions of House Carpenter, and a couple of other ballad examples, comprising 30-40 minutes of listening. You might also want to revisit Anthology disc 1A.

October 21 – Week 5: Native Ballads: Heroes and Villains. Native ballads generally deal in more realistic subject matter than do the more traditional ballads, and the native ballad singer is less detached and impersonal in performance style. A good Anthology comparison is House Carpenter against Cole Younger, the latter a typical native ballad, the former (except perhaps for the accompaniment – unaccompanied ballads were rarely recorded commercially) a reasonably representative traditional performance. This week we’ll learn some of the true stories of two of these ballads, Stagger Lee and John Henry, and consider how they fit into both native balladry and the Black narrative tradition.


Nelson, Scott Reynolds. Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry: The Untold Story of an American Legend, Chapter 6, pp. 93-117.

Brown, Cecil. Stagolee Shot Billy: Introduction, pp. 1-18.

Listening: Some examples of John Henry and Stagger Lee on a CD I will distribute, about 30 minutes long. You might want to go back to Disc 1B of the Anthology.

October 28 – Week 6: Minstrels, Songsters, Medicine Shows. In week 2 we considered some of the variety of traditions from which the music in the Anthology developed. This week we look at three venues in which these traditions met. From 1840 until the latter part of the 19th century, minstrel shows were America’s most popular form of entertainment, and while these performances (despite their billing) did not represent authentic slave music, they were close enough for most northern audiences, and influenced generations of performers, both white and black. Medicine shows featured both black and white musicians and toured even more widely than did the minstrels, making them extremely important in spreading repertoire and performance styles to rural amateur and professional musicians. The songsters were individual musicians who played wherever the tips were, from town squares to lumber camps to rural dances, reaching places where even the medicine shows didn’t go. As a result, despite relative isolation, the rural southerner was exposed to a wide variety of live music performance. Many of the Anthology artists performed in one or more of these venues.

Note Well! The racial attitudes of Americans in the 19th century were not particularly enlightened. The readings include illustrations, situations and language that present a realistic picture of history and may therefore be offensive to some. The recordings are representative of the time and place in which they were made and a few contain similar material. My own feeling is that unless we confront these words and these attitudes we will never understand our history. Those who differ with me are welcome to skip these readings and musical selections.


Wondrich, David. Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924: Part I, pp. 20-41.

Townsend, Charles. Negro Minstrels, from Watkins, Mel, Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. pp. 121-125.

Excerpt from liner notes of Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows – 1926-1937.

Listening: I’ll distribute a CD with the usual 30-40 minutes of related music.

November 4 – Week 7: The Banjo in Black and White. In their 1947 book Folk Songs U. S. A., John A. and Alan Lomax referred to the banjo as “America’s only original folk instrument.” They were wrong. The banjo first came to the Americas with the Africans who played it. Slaves in the Americas continued to make and play banjos, and the instrument was not widely adopted by whites until popularized by minstrel players in the 1840s. After Emancipation, the banjo was virtually abandoned by black musicians, and the myth of its American origins took hold. This week we’ll read about the banjo’s African beginnings and its appropriation by white minstrels, and consider how playing styles changed between then and the time of the Anthology recordings.


Conway, Cecelia. African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions, Chapter 1, pp. 55-83.

Listening: I’ll hand out a CD – expect about an hour of music.

November 11 – No Meeting – Veteran’s Day Holiday

November 18 – Week 8: The Blues and Before. The end of slavery changed black society radically, and it was inevitable that these changes would be reflected in black music. This week’s readings present three quite different perspectives on these changes.


Jones, Leroi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America, pp. 60-80.

Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta, pp. 23-47.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, pp. 217-232.

Listening: Since there were no commercial recordings of authentic field hollers or work songs, this week’s CD will fill that gap in the anthology with 30-40 minutes of field recordings and early blues.

November 25 – Week 9: The Carter Family: Mostly on the Sunny Side. No group has had more influence on country music than the Carter Family. A. P. collected and arranged the songs, setting the standard for country (and much of folk) repertoire for many years; Sara’s soulful lead vocals were the core of those arrangements, and Maybelle’s guitar playing has been copied and studied by thousands of aspiring guitarists over the years. The Carters have not been well served by biographers, so this week’s reading consists of a short selection from a book about the Bristol Sessions (the 1927 recording sessions at Bristol, Tennessee at which the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and many others made their first recordings) and a link to the website accompanying a PBS-produced Carter Family film.

Reading: Wolfe, Charles K., and Ted Olson. The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music, pp. 66-86.

Website: American Experience: The Carter Family: Feel free to wander about the site (the Gillian Welch interview under “A Musician’s View” is excellent, and the picture gallery is fun), but don’t leave without reading all the links on the “People and Events” page.

Listening: Some famous Carter Family material, a bit from June Carter Cash, and a couple of examples of Carter influence, adding up to 30-40 minutes.

December 2 – Week 10: Shape Note Singing. Harry includes a wonderful variety of religious music on disc 2B of the Anthology. There’s enough here to keep us busy for weeks, but since we don’t have weeks, we will concentrate our attention on shape note singing, and particularly Sacred Harp singing. The several shape note systems were devised in order to make sight singing easier, and thus render congregational singing easier on the ears. The idea was that if everyone could read the notes, then everyone would sing the notes. It didn’t turn out to be quite as simple as that, and the shape note singing that continues in the United States has an energy and excitement that I have long found irresistible. We’ll read some of the history, watch a short film, and get an expert introduction (with singing!) from Judy’s husband David.

Reading: Liner Notes from Rounder Records’ LP The Social Harp: Early American Shape-Note Songs From Singing School and Campmeeting.

Website: Visit, the website of The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association. Read at least the welcome page and the first two links (Wikipedia entry and “Introduction to Sacred Harp and Shape Note Singing”) under the heading “Where Can I Learn More?”

Listening: Harry’s Disc 2B has many wonderful selections we won’t have time to treat in detail. Listen again if you have time. I’ll also distribute a CD including the music David will be presenting.

December 9 – Week 11: The Rediscovered: Dock Boggs, John Hurt and Son House. Quite a few of the Anthology artists were tracked down by folklorists and fans after the albums’ release in 1952, and enjoyed second careers often much more successful than their first. Among the most interesting of these was Dock Boggs, who was recorded and interviewed by Mike Seeger for Folkways Records beginning in 1963. In these recordings, Boggs serves as an honest and rudely eloquent spokesman for the conflicts and contradictions that inhabit so much of rural southern music.

Mississippi John Hurt’s second career brought him a good deal more fame than did his first. His recordings were both commercially and artistically successful, and his personal appearances reached a wide and appreciative audience. Other rediscovered blues musicians, whose music was less accessible (and who were personally less affable than Hurt) had less success. One of these was Son House, whose adversarial relationship with the blues often marred his performances. We’ll read about them both in a selection from Ted Gioia’s book Delta Blues.

Reading: Barry O’Connell essay on Dock Boggs. This is an internet version of an essay that appeared in different form with the Smithsonian/Folkways reissue of Dock Boggs’s recordings. I’ll also post a PDF of the transcript of Seeger’s interviews.

Gioia, Ted. The Delta Blues. pp. 347-358, 370-380.

Listening: Selections from both recording careers of Boggs, Hurt and House, and excerpts from Mike Seeger’s Dock Boggs interviews.

December 16 – Week 12: Revival and Transformation. The Anthology was a major force behind the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, inspiring a new generation of listeners, scholars and performers. Traditionalist groups like the New Lost City Ramblers virtually owed their existence to the Anthology. Joan Baez covered nine of the Anthology’s songs, Bob Dylan covered some, stole lines and melodies from others, and internalized all. American music would not have been the same without the Anthology. We’ll use this valedictory week to tie up loose ends, discuss the impact of the Anthology, and do whatever else we feel like doing.

Listening: This is an all request CD! That’s right, you pick the (folk revival related) tunes! The only ground rules are that you must either give me the music on CD or that I must already have it in digitized form. Give me your selections no later than December 2 and I’ll distribute copies at our December 9 meeting. If I get more submissions than will fit on one CD, my inclusion decisions will prevail.

Reading: Jorge Luis Borges, The Witness. This one-page Borges piece has nothing to do with folk music, but for me sums up what Harry Smith’s Anthology has privileged us all to become.


3 Responses to “Syllabus”

  1. George Y Cha Says:

    Hi Don,

    A question:

    Barnes & Noble have 2 CDs, both available at the Prudential Center location:

    a. Anthology of American Folk Music Vol 1-3
    Label: Smithsonian Folkways
    Release date 1997;

    I believe this is the version in your Course Description.

    b. The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited 4CD and Bonus DVD
    Label: Shout Factory
    Release date: 2006

    What are the differences between the two?

    Please advise, and thanks.

    George Y Cha

  2. Don Bashline Says:

    George – This course is based on the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology.

  3. Don Bashline Says:

    George – To clarify my prior comment a bit, the 2006 Shout Factory release contains excerpts from concerts containing cover versions of some Anthology songs recorded in the last few years. We will not look at that at all in this course.

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