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4.9 out of 5 stars
Anthology of American Folk Music (Edited by Harry Smith)
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382 of 391 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2002
I half heard a story about the Anthology on Natl Public Radio a few months ago while I was getting ready for work. The story kept coming back to me, until I had to buy the Anthology to get some peace. Instead of peace, I find that I am now disturbed, intrigued, and haunted.
Music is ill-suited to being described in words, so I'll use an entirely different experience to try and convey what listening to this Anthology is like.
I once knew a fellow who had grown up on Bechtel construction project sites around the world. As a kid playing in the dirt at these sites, he'd collected a box full of those stone tools that humans made and used for something like three million years. I found that once I had turned one of these slips of chipped obsidian or shale over for a moment, it settled naturally into my hand. There was a spot for my thumb, another spot for my forefinger, and my hand was making a scraping or digging motion with the thing. The tool and my hand still remembered their ancient partnership, without any volition from me. This sensation was simultaneously disturbing and satisfying and made the hair stand up on my neck.
This sensation is very close to what I feel listening to this anthology. You will not hear the familiar, highly produced music we're now so comfortable with. You will hear the voice and sound of music as it has been for millions of years -- and you will recognize what you are hearing as being utterly, essentially human.
These recordings were, of course, made only 75 years ago in the 1920's, surely part of the modern era. Yet this was the last moment in time between the old world and the new world. We still sing and play music for the same reasons we always have, but the way we used our voices and instruments for millions of years has been changed by technology. So if these not very old recordings feel strangely like a link to something ancient and mysterious, that's because they actually are.
There is a great beauty in the voices on these recordings, many of which are almost shrill, almost off-key -- unfamiliar to our pampered contemporary ears -- but also perfectly right. There is a mystery in the odd and sometimes fragmentary lyrics, whose once important meaning is now lost.
We can still share the depth of feeling through the music itself, sometimes so strongly that your heart leaps as though you'd been kicked from inside. But, as it says in the booklet of notes, while we can share in the emotions that impelled someone to sing about The Coo Coo Bird in the first place, we'll never know why it was important to live on a mountainside in order to see Willie go by.
Perhaps the true power of this Anthology is that every recording is genuine in a way that is no longer possible. I recommend it.
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115 of 120 people found the following review helpful
The "Anthology of American Folk Music" put together by Harry Smith was originally issued in 1952 in three volumes of 2 LPs each, with a total of 84 tracks collected from old records. It is said that this collection played a seminal role in the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, influencing and inspiring the generation of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Once you listen to these songs you will have little doubt that was indeed the case. The three volumes focus on Ballads, Social Music, and Songs respectively. I did not recognize enough of these 84 songs to use all of the fingers on my guitar picking hand and I could not care less. You can look over the playlist above and see if anything looks familiar, but, obviously, that is beside the point here. These songs involve a definition of "folk" that is expansive enough to include blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Richard "Rabbit" Brown. The authenticity of these songs is overpowering, transporting you to a time and place when radio was just starting to make inroads into the backwoods of America.
The collection includes a 100-page booklet that features harry Smith's original handbook of songs, an essay by critic Greil Marcus, along with other essays, song notes, photos, graphics, and recollections by legendary artists about how this anthology inspired their own careers. The overall effect is like taking a college course on American Folk Music. Whether your interest in this type of music comes from listening to the Weavers, Peter Paul, & Mary, or the soundtrack to "Brother, Where Art Thou?" hopefully your enjoyment of folk music will lead you back to this seminal collection. Additional Note: There is also an excellent website put together by the Smithsonian Folkways that will tell you for not only alternate titles (e.g., "The Wagoner's Lad" is also known as "Loving Nancy" and "My Horses Ain't Hungry"), but other recorded versions organized by styles (e.g., traditional American Folk, Folksong revival, Post revival, Country/String Band, Bluegrass, and British). Like everyone else, I have been greatly impressed by the way the Smithsonian Institute has been protecting our nation's heritage when it comes to folk music. They take their job seriously and they are very, very good at it.
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88 of 91 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2000
My review title says it all. Of course, that won't stop me from saying more...
Let's just say I wouldn't trust a musician that did not have at least a passing familiarity with one of the following: 1. The Anthology of American Folk Music; or 2. An artist that appeared on The Anthology of American Folk Music; or 3. At least a few songs from TAAFM.
That said, I feel very strongly that even if you are not a musician, regardless of the style of contemporary music you listen to (and I ravenously devour current music), whether it be Radiohead, Fishbone, Wilco, D'Angelo, Dr. Dre WHATEVER, if you listen to this collection, you will hear the roots of modern music. Somewhere I read a review of TAAFM and it called it a "genetic code" for modern music, which is entirely appropriate.
As a collection of songs and performances, this collection is entertaining, educational, shocking, delightful, scary (try listening to the first few tracks of disc 2-B alone in the dark...) revelatory, essential. As a stand-alone document, The Anthology is a kind of Rosetta Stone, having influenced every aspect of popular music through the years both directly and indirectly (subconsciously, even).
It makes me think that perhaps these songs already exist in everyone's psyche...they are there, but you do not know it until you hear them. The songs are both familiar and strange, and at times some selections seem so fragile and precious, they might crumble if you listen too hard (yet you always do).
And by the way, even if initially you absolutely HATE a FEW selections (and trust me, you will...I did!), they will be internalized nonetheless, and you will subsequently embrace them, and come to love them. Like a blemish on your lover's otherwise perfect breast, they are as much a part of the collection as the selections you love, and just as essential to the whole.
The packaging is perfection, by the way. From the huge book of essays and analysis, to the repro of Harry Smith's original book, to the way they organized the selections on the CD's (resisting the temptation to condense the music onto fewer discs, even though they would have fit), it is all true to Harry's original vision. There could be no more appropriate way to present this material other than what Smithsonian Folkways has done. I have played this for people, and when they ask me to record it for them (and they always do), I steadfastly refuse. Not because I work for RIAA or anything like that, but because a document this grandiose, this important and this properly packaged, should not be trivialized by being disassembled in such a fashion. It needs to be consumed as a harmonious whole to be fully appreciated. It would be like emailing someone a JPG of the Mona Lisa's smile and expecting them to fully dig it and appreciate the whole.
If you have not noticed, I admit that I have acquired a near religious obsession with this collection. Having owned it now for two and a half years, I find myself still seeking any and all information about this remarkable collection.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2003
I dont think there is a need to go into to much detail about this *6 CD* set. If you can fork over the cash, just buy it. If you have any interest in roots music, just buy it. If you thought ol' Bobby Dylan and the Band made some great weird music in the basement of big pink in '67 .. for the love of god, BUY THIS! strange, unadorned, raw music , just buy it.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
You should buy this just to hear where all those folk and blues revivalists of the 60s got a large chunk of their material. Back then, these albums were the only way to hear these recordings unless you were willing to go to great lengths to collect old records (like the compiler of this Anthology, Harry Smith).
If you enjoy the Anthology music you can hear a lot more of the same style on Yazoo Records' various "rural music" anthologies. Nearly every disc they issue has an Anthology track or two on it, or other work by artists who appear on this Anthology. I actually find Yazoo's "Before The Blues" series more enjoyable, track for track, than this collection. It's likely, though, that there would be no Yazoo records today if the AAFM hadn't come along in the early 1950s. Also, this Anthology includes secular, spiritual and "social" music in a rather comprehensive way, so understandably there don't seem to be many people who like EVERY song. Even Harry Smith didn't like every song in the collection (read the liner notes).
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Much ink & many electrons have been devoted to explaining both Harry Smith (and a lot of explanation is necessary -- very interesting man) and this wonderful collection of recordings from the 1920's and 30's, so I won't go into too much detail here. If you'd like a good treatise on the work itself as a cultural object, and how it relates to other thematically similar items, I would reccomend Griel Marcus' book Invisible Republic.
This is the greatest mix tape ever made, and an essential cultural artifact, not only of the vernacular music of the hills & highways of pre-electrification America, but also of the folk movement ofthe fifties and sixties (the primer fromwhic all else was derived) and by extension of the hippy movement following closely thereafter.
SOme of this music is really wild...
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
This collection led to the "re-discovery" of many artists who had dissapeared after when the depression crippled the recording industry. Mississippi John Hurt is probably the most famous as of now, but others, like Clarence Ashley were major finds at the time - and when Folkways sent a field crew to do a new record by Ashley he requested some assist from a young friend named Doc Watson. Watson was unknown outside his home town at the time but went on to become a major star in a field which has very few stars.

Listening to many cuts on this album you can hear the source of much material for folk groups as diverse as the New Lost City Ramblers and The Holy Modal Rounders, rock groups like Canned Heat, and The Grateful Dead. Some of the melodies will be familiar to fans of Dylan, others to Jorma Kaukonan listeners. There are otehrs -- many many others.

This set is the source, the headwaters of reissues, and revivals. An essential part of any folk music collection.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 1999
The power of this set to change your outlook on music cannot be overstated. My third grade teacher had the set in vinyl and a turntable in the back of the room (1959) and I would rush through my work to listen to this beautifully human yet alien stuff. It made me a musician.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Greil Marcus writes in this anthology's liner notes about(and I paraphrase)this collection of songs capturing the essence of "old, weird America". True. Harry Smith's gorgeously repackaged anthology serves as a genetic code for the music we listen to today. The pathos and passion of these songs runs deeper than anything I've ever heard on the radio. These songs were made out of necessity, not for the sole purpose of entertaining.
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 1999
This box set unearths the desolation and beauty of rural America through songs that evoke lonliness and a happiness, which at best seems fickle. This is the roots of modern pop which was so carelessly swept under the rug and neglected by the break down of ruralism through the advent of mass media. The songs on this compilation are wonderfully idle, innocent, weird and dirty . Not only is the music eerie and mythical, but the box set itself is a conceptual masterpiece. Harry Smith's collection forces the listener/observer to re-evaluate her or his perception of the true identity of 20th Century American culture.
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