In a recent CD review of "Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music" I made the following comments that apply to this well-done concert (or rather concerts, done in 1999 and 2001) film documentary based on that anthology, some of Smith's own creative work and some Fugs, an off beat old time folk/rock group, material. I will comment on some individual performances from the concerts below. Here is the CD review:
"It is no secret that the reviewer in this space has been on something of a tear of late in working through a litany of items concerning American roots music, a music that he first `discovered' in his youth with the folk revival of the early 1960s and with variations and additions over time has held in high regard for his whole adult life. Thus a review of musicologist (if that is what he though he was, it is not all that clear from his "career" path that this was so) Harry Smith's seminal "Anthology Of American Folk Music" is something of a no-brainer.
Since we live in a confessional age, however, here is the odd part. As familiar as I am with Harry Smith's name and place in the folk pantheon, his seemingly tireless field work and a great number of the songs in his anthology this is actually the first time that I have heard the whole thing at one sitting and in one place. Oh sure, back in the days of my ill-spent youth listening to an old late Sunday folk show I would perk up every time the name Harry Smith came up as the "discoverer" of some gem of a song from the 1920s or 1930s but to actually listen to, or even attempt to find, the whole compilation then just didn't happen.
In 1997 Smithsonian/Folkway, as least theoretically in my case, remedied that problem with the release of a high quality (given the masters) six CD set of old Harry's 80 plus recordings. Not only that but, as is usual with Smithsonian, a very nicely done booklet with all kinds of good information from the likes of Greil Marcus and the late folklorist Eric Von Schmidt (of songs like "Light Rain" and Joshua's Gone Barbados", among others, fame) accompanies this set. That booklet is worth the price of admission alone on this one. But here is the funny thing after running through the whole collection. I mentioned above that this was the first time that I heard the collection as a whole. Nevertheless, over time I have actually heard (and reviewed in this space), helter-skelter, most of the material in the collection, except a few of the more exotic gospel songs. So I guess that youth was not so ill-spent after all. If the "roots is toots" for you, get this thing.
Note: For a list of the all the tracks in the entire collection just Google "The Harry Smith Collection" and click onto Wikipedia's entry for Harry Smith."
That said, these concert presentation cover about twenty-something of the eighty four items in the Smith anthology. Here is my take. Folk music is meant to be passed on to future generations and those generations will place their own spin on the material. That is the case here. Some have been done successfully like Elvis Costello's cover of "Butcher Boy", Geoff Muldaur's "Poor Boy Blues", Bob Neurwith's (with Eliza Carthy playing a great fiddle) "I Wish I Were A Mole", Kate and Anna McGarrigle's "Sugar Baby", Beth Orton's "Frankie and Albert", Nick Cave's "John The Revelator" (Son House might have rolled over in his grave on that one), Lou Reed on Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean". The real knock out here is David Johansen performing "James Alley Blues" a song that I went crazy over when I first heard it long ago and that I went crazy over here. Other more jazzy or gospelly renditions did not fare so well. Some of the efforts set my teeth on edge. But here is the real secret of the Smith collection. Not all the material that Harry Smith collected was unalloyed gold. Some of that material also had the same effect on my poor teeth. That collection was a historic archive, good or bad. And this concert DVD will share that same fate. Watch this one more than once.