The Anthology of American Folk Music is one of the most influential recordings in history. The Anthology brings together American roots music that was saved from destruction by a local man in the days before World War II.
Born in Portland, Ore., and raised around Bellingham and Seattle, Harry Smith was an eccentric painter, film maker, and anthropologist who convinced gathered music from forgotten 78 rpm records originally released between 1927 and 1932 at the dawn of popular culture.
As World War II approached, vinyl records were being melted down for war material. Smith bought as many examples of folk, blues, spirituals and other neglected non-hit records as he could.
Then in 1952, Smith convinced Folkways Records to release an anthology of his recordings. The elaborate package, accompanied by Smith’s detailed notes and illustrations, featured 84 recordings eccentrically sequenced – for example murder songs followed by suicide songs.
The Anthology helped introduce many to roots music they never knew it existed. It’s credited with inspiring the folk music craze of the 1960s that begat Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and many more.
Singer songwriter Dave Van Ronk said, “We knew every word of every song, even the ones we hated.”
Critic Greil Marcus called the Anthology a rare look into old weird America that, “Made the familiar strange, the never known into the forgotten, the forgotten into a collective memory.”
In 1991, shortly before he died, Smith was given a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. In accepting the award he said, “I’m glad to see my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music.”
The Anthology was re-released on CD to great acclaim in 1997. It went on to sell a half million copies and earn a gold record. Since then there have been tribute concerts all over the world with contemporary musicians performing the music on the Anthology.
This Friday (Dec. 13) at the Columbia City Theater in Seattle, KEXP DJ Greg Vandy will curate a performance of every song from the Anthology, in order from start to finish, along with videos and stories about Smith.