That’s All Folk

In this blog entry, Rachel Clare Donaldson, author of  “I Hear America Singing,” writes about the folk music that inspired her.

In 1997 Smithsonian Folkways released Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music on CD. I was in high school, working at a local record store and my boss proclaimed it to be the best release that year. At the time, folk music was going through something of a resurgence in popularity—Billy Bragg and Wilco had just released Mermaid Avenue, a collection of Woody Guthrie songs that he had never recorded, set to original music by the musicians. “California Stars” became a staple of my local radio station out of Woodstock, New York. (While this was popular with a host of people, try as I did, I could not convince the prom committee of my high school to use it as the theme song.) After learning to appreciate popular renditions of folk songs, I was ready for the “real” thing. I think I received the Anthology for my 18th birthday, and the music was like nothing I had ever heard before.

I Hear America Sing_smThe interesting part about this is that just as the Anthology introduced me to the world of folk music—or, more specifically, commercial recordings by both amateur and professional regional musicians during the late 1920s—it had done the same for a cohort of folk enthusiasts that were at least three generations older than I. The Anthology consists of selections from the massive personal collection of 78s that Harry Smith, a record collector and artist, compiled into six LPs released as a set through Folkways Records in 1952. When this hit the record shelves, or more likely the shelves of public and school libraries, it introduced young listeners to something completely different. Although these recordings were only twenty or so years old at that time, they sounded worlds away from the popular music of era. It was as if they came from an entirely different place—a place that music theorist and critic Greil Marcus referred to as the “old, weird America.” And the places that they did come from—small recording studios in the Mississippi Delta; Louisiana Cajun country; and towns like Bristol, Tennessee, among others—were entirely different from the urban neighborhoods and suburban communities where these young listeners lived. The music had an air of authenticity and oddity that contrasted sharply from the pop music of early Cold War America. The fact that Smith selected these recordings precisely because they were odd, and wrote cryptic liner notes to accompany the collection, only enhanced the Anthology’s aura of mystique.

Indeed, it was the very same scenario for me, growing up during a time when boy bands and Brittany Spears dominated the pop charts. I continued listening to the Anthology (it provides an excellent background for writing papers) throughout college and graduate school, but never with the intention of turning it into a focal point of my first book, “I Hear America Singing.” As my interests turned from Medieval Studies to American Studies to southern labor history and then to the history of the folk music revival, I had the good fortune to study something that I loved. A fellowship at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the home for Smithsonian Folkways Records, brought me back to where it all began. But, even though the Anthology has turned into a key component of my research, it still remains a fixture of my personal music taste. At the end of my wedding, when it took a few moments for our friend who did the music to load up the recessional song, Henry Thomas’s “Fishing Blues” (the last song on Volume Three), I explained to everyone that it was worth the wait, for this was perhaps the happiest sounding song of all time. I still believe that.

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