on 6 June 2013
There is so much information available about this set, not only in the amazon reviews but also in the booklets that come with this Smithsonian edition, in books on rock music like Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes and in other sources, that I'm not sure how helpful it would be to give yet another description of it here. Instead, let me just give concise advice to anyone wondering if this is something they should buy: if you are interested in folk music, rock music, or American popular culture or society, you want this. This anthology is arguably, I would say undoubtedly, the most influential musical recording ever issued. Its impact on the popular music of the 20th century, and on popular culture in general, has been incalculable: Dave van Ronk said that "We all knew every song on it by heart, including the ones we hated," the "we" being his fellow folk musicians in those early Greenwich Village days like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Paul Clayton. As is usefully noted in the Smithsonian's accompanying booklet, song after song was covered or adapted by famous folk and rock artists. Those very familiar with Bob Dylan's work will find that, though so far as I remember Dylan never strictly speaking covered any of these songs, yet song after song resonates with and probably influenced Dylan's work, especially in the pre-Nashville Skyline albums.
The Smithsonian's packaging, including a very informative booklet and a facsimile reproduction of Harry Smith's original notes, is wholly admirable.
And one minor personal note: as Smith, I think, gives hints of, this anthology can be looked at not only as a collection but as a unified work put together to tell a story. You need to listen to it a lot for the story to become clear,and the story you find may not be the one I found, but there is a story there.
Some of the songs in this massive collection make you shake your head with wonder - surely this one can't have been released as a record for people to buy in a record shop? Imagine the conversation from 1929 - "Excuse me, have you got I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground, by Bascom Lamar Lunsford?" "Why certainly young sir, it's right here, that'll be 30 cents!" But apparently ALL of these songs, ballads, fiddle tunes, gospel shouts, shape-note choirs, blues, string bands, cajuns and hot sermonising were indeed issued on 78s, and the public did buy them. Well - the rural folk in the Southern states, not those sophisticates in New York.
A guy called Ralph Peer found out by accident that white people down in the South would buy records by Uncle Bunt Stephens in their hundreds and thousands - he couldn't understand it either, being a city slicker himself, but he knew a good thing when he saw it. So what became the country music industry started up. Then Ralph deduced that the black folks would also like the opportunity to buy their own kind of music, and so began to issue country blues. Between 1925 and 1933 an amazing kaleidoscope of country, folk, blues and jazz was released and some of it's right here in this big box.
And at least half is just as enjoyable now as it was then - although you probably need to be a bit of a folkie or a blues fan to really love it. Or maybe you went to see O Brother Where Art Thou and got the brilliant soundtrack album - well, Harry Smith's Anthology is where you find the original recordings of that kind of stuff. It's often raw and harsh, but it cuts through. It has power and magic, and a crazy happiness to it. This music is not show business.
on 24 January 2001
If you thought that Bob Dylan's sound was new way back in the early 60's (as I did) then think again. That sound goes back much further to an even wierder time. Harry Smith pretty much bootlegged this cross section of American music ranging from blues through jug and gospel to early Dylan style harmonica howls from recordings on obscure labels, which begs the question, how did this very strange music attract a commercial audience in the USA of the 20's and thirties? The roots of all modern music are here and this stuff certainly did influence a generation or two or three. It's a good game spotting who subsequently ripped off what. To own it is to love it. Peg and Awl defies description, but Smith has a go at it, as he does all of these tunes with wonderfully concise tongue in cheek summaries.
on 1 December 2000
This is the collection of songs and music that inspired almost everybody on the hip side of life in the 60's. Published in 1952 by Folkways, this has survived brilliantly and is still a major source of inspiration for roots musicians. This 6 CD set was compiled out of true love to the music, and has made Harry Smith a legend like Ralph Peer, Sam Phillips or Don Law - For the record collector , this is a "MUST HAVE!"
This collection gives most people a huge culture shock on first hearing. The music comes from a different time and place. Weird does not cover it. These people lived different lives and believed different things from most of us who dodge along today.
The cds are by no means easy listening. You would hardly get back from work on a Friday night, grab a beer and stick this on. Despite myself I cannot help but treat this as an academic resource. It is a historical document rather than entertainment.
I find it to be essential however, for anyone wishing to understand how American music developed in the 20th century.
on 30 October 2014
This was my Birthday present to me, and it was worth every penny! I don't really need to tell fans of this music how brilliant this collection is, they'll already know. The large booklet that comes with it is really informative. It's just a wonderful item, all round!
on 16 November 2010
...but who wants a box set whose box is too big for most shelves?! As other reviewers have said, this is a fabulous piece of musical history. But if the manufacturers are reading this - it'd be better if it wasn't packaged to look like a box set of albums as guess what? most people buying CDs have CD shaped vacancies on their shelves, not LP ones. Still worth every penny though.