Judge Neal Solon digs this self-referetial homage to a notable music collector.
The Anthology of American Folk Music revisited…
It always surprises me how few people have heard of Harry Smith. His influence on popular music in the 1950s and '60s was immeasurable, and much of the music we listen to today still bears the marks of his work. This influence is all the more impressive because Smith collected the music of others. First released in 1952, Harry Smith's legendary contribution to music was the Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of American folk and blues tracks culled from obscure 78s released between 1927 and 1932. Upon its release, bohemia rejoiced. Late night listening parties ensued. Greenwich Village bars were filled with the sounds of musicians covering songs from the collection, and as hackneyed as it may sound, the face of American popular music was changed forever.
It is fitting that this tribute to Harry Smith is formed of concerts and recordings by various artists performing songs from the Anthology of American Folk Music. This is how Smith's influence and this music spread. Organized by record producer Hal Wilner, The Harry Smith Project Live contains the following performances:
• "The Butcher's Boy" (Elvis Costello)
The only inexplicable track of the lot is "Old Joe's Place" by The Folksmen. The song is a recent composition and its performer's are the so-called folk trio from the Christopher Guest film A Mighty Wind. Perhaps this was included in the live concert as a way of implicitly demonstrating the reach of the folk revival or as a bit of humor to break things up, but it feels out of place. It is delivered well, but why it was included on this DVD when so many other performances weren't?
The only other tracks listed above that aren't modern performances of songs from the Anthology of American Folk Music are Ed Sanders' spoken word tribute and Philip Glass's performance of "Etude No. 10," which accompanies exhibitions of a handful of Harry Smith's short, experimental films. But unlike the Folksmen track, both of these make sense.
Of the other performances, the most notable are from performers that one wouldn't immediately associate with folk music like Nick Cave, Lou Reed or David Johansen (most famous for his time as the front man for the New York Dolls). The best track comes from voices further on the fringe of popular music: Roswell Rudd and Sonic Youth. Most will have heard of Sonic Youth, even if they're not familiar with their music, but Rudd is a bit more obscure. He's made a name for himself over the last few decades as an avant-garde jazz trombonist.
It seems odd to combine Sonic Youth, avant-garde trombone, and a folk standard, but whoever came up with the idea is genius. "Dry Bones" alone is reason enough to seek this disc out. That said, there isn't a performance on The Harry Smith Project Live that falls flat. Despite its diverse cast of players it works—from stars like Elvis Costello and Beck down to Petra Haden, who is best known for her one-woman, layered, a cappella re-recording of The Who's classic The Who Sell Out.
The Harry Smith Project Live is most likely to appeal to those who are fans of the artists who perform on it, or at least those with a passing familiarity to their music. Few of the artists perform their songs to sound as they might have on Harry Smith's records. Instead, they make the songs their own. In other words, Beck, Nick Cave and Steve Earle are still Beck, Nick Cave, and Steve Earle; but their respect and care for the music is obvious. It might be a tougher sell, but those who are generally interested in Americana and traditional American music should check this out as well. In a sense, it helps to connect the dots between folk music and the fringes of American pop.
Beyond the concert film, there is one brief extra on the disc: an excerpt from The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. This documentary about the collection is sold as part of a two CD, two DVD set called The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology Of American Folk Music Revisited. This larger set includes the DVD reviewed here, the documentary from which this extra is excerpted, and two CDs with more performances. Fans of this project should seek it out.
The Harry Smith Project Live is better than one might expect from a performance video. The full frame visuals are clean with few artifacts or defects, other than when showing cut-in, old interview footage of Harry Smith. The audio, available in both stereo and 5.1 surround, is crisp and unblemished. Ultimately, the disc puts the performers and the music center stage—and really, that's the point.
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• Excerpt from The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
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