Thursday 29 January 2015

Harry Smith issues his famous Anthology

1952: Number 13 in our series of the 50 key events in the history of world and folk music

There is a famous photograph taken by Allen Ginsberg of "painter, archivist, anthropologist, film-maker and hermetic alchemist" Harry Smith "transforming milk into milk" in a New York hotel room in 1985. The cranky-looking figure with large spectacles and wispy hair and beard was never a household name; nor were the bulk of the figures whose work he rescued from the dusty half-light with his Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. This compilation featured recordings from a motley assortment of pre-war characters, such as Dock Boggs or Floyd Ming and his Pep-Steppers. The selection seemed to be made on the songs' strangeness – in the later words of the critic Greil Marcus, it revealed "the old, weird America". Smith wrote synopses of the songs and created his own artwork, including an etching of a monochord taken from a mystical treatise by 17th-century English astrologer Robert Fludd. The release became the bible of the Greenwich Village folk revival of the late 1950s and early 60s – feted by the likes of Dave Van Ronk and Dylan.

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