The Anthology of American Folk Music by Harry Smith
The Anthology of American Folk Music is a six-album compilation released in 1952 by Folkways Records (catalogue FP 251, FP 252, and FP 253), edited by Harry Smith.
The Anthology of American Folk Music is a six-album compilation released in 1952 by Folkways Records (catalogue FP 251, FP 252, and FP 253), edited by Harry Smith. The album is a collection of ninety-six songs recorded between 1927 and 1932 by sixty-four American folk musicians, and sold over a million copies through the 1950s. It is one of the most influential releases in the history of American folk music, helping to spark the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1946, Smith moved to New York City, where he began work on what would become The Anthology of American Folk Music. He compiled the songs from his personal collection of 78 RPM disc recordings, which he had amassed over several years. Most of these recordings were made by unknown or forgotten performers, and all were originally issued on small record labels that were unable to withstand the Great Depression or survive World War II. Many were out-of-print by the time Smith came across them; some had been unavailable for decades and were thought lost. In total, Smith collected nearly three hundred songs on Folkways Records’ budget Gotham label.
The Anthology was first issued in 1952 as three double LP sets; each album contained two discs with sixteen songs per disc (hence, a total of ninety-six songs). The tracks on each album were grouped together thematically by Smith; most fall into one of three categories: “‘Social Music’ (work, play, dance),” “‘Love Songs’ (heartache, marriage),” or “‘Plantation Songs'” (blues and hollers). The fourth album contained instrumentals and religious music; it was not included in later CD reissues due to time constraints.
The music on The Anthology spans a wide range of genres including blues, country music, gospel music, Appalachian folk music, Cajun music, and old-timey music. Some of the better-known artists featured on the anthology include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, Cliff Carlisle, Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs, Furry Lewis, Bill Broonzy,, Frank Hutchison,, Jimmie Rodgers,, Memphis Minnie,, Robert Johnson,, Cannon’s Jug Stompers,,and Uncle Dave Macon.
What is the Anthology of American Folk Music?
The Anthology of American Folk Music is a six-album compilation released in 1952 by Folkways Records (catalogue FP 251, FP 252, and FP 253), assembled by researcher and musicologist Harry Smith. The collection was issued on 78 rpm records at a time when the long-playing record album was just beginning to be commercially produced.
The Anthology drew on commercial folk music recordings that had been originally issued between 1927 and 1932 on 78 rpm records. It compiled songs by 82 individual performers recorded over those years and presented them in thematic groupings (“Ballads”, “Social Music”, etc.), with each disc focusing on a different subgenre or style of folk music. The packaging, devised by Smith, includes an freeform essay about the music written by him, as well as he creatively designed liner notes with quotes from the songs themselves. Though not commercially successful at the time of its release, it is considered one of the most influential releases in the history of recorded folk music, having exerted a powerful influence on both traditional folk performers and the emerging generation of post-war “folk revivalists”.
Harry Smith and the Anthology of American Folk Music
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Harry Smith, an eccentric visionary working in Greenwich Village, transformed folk music with his influential record collection The Anthology of American Folk Music.
Smith painstakingly compiled the collection from his personal holdings of 78 rpm records—many of them rare or obscure—and drew from a wide range of genres, including work songs, blues, Cajun music, and Native American chants. The result was a revelatory overview of traditional American music that was as groundbreaking as it was influential; the Anthology has been credited with sparking the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s.
Smith’s work on the Anthology was far from done when he released it; he continued to tinker with the sequence of songs and add new material up until his death in 1991. In 1997, the original three-volume set was reissued in an expanded edition that included a fourth disc of previously unissued recordings, along with extensive liner notes and other material.
The music on The Anthology of American Folk Music is primarily derived from Harry Smith’s personal collection of 78 rpm records. The collection consisted of three categories of songs: “social music” (dances and fiddle tunes); “religious music” (hymns, spirituals, and shape note singing); and “ballads” (both British and American). Most of the tracks derive from commercial recordings, which were generally made between 1927 and 1930. Many of the artists were obscure at the time and have remained largely unknown. Some, like Deford Bailey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Jones, Gwen Foster, and the Carter Family, have gone on to become well-known figures in the history of American music. Other tracks on The Anthology feature less well-known artists such as Jim Jackson, Frank Hutchison, Carl Martin, Clarence Ashley, Buell Kazee, Ernest Stoneman, Charlesassy Wright & Versey Smith.
The Legacy of the Anthology of American Folk Music
The Anthology of American Folk Music is a six-album compilation released in 1952 by Folkways Records, edited by Harry Smith. The collection, which was issued as three double-LP discs, consisted of eighty-four American traditional folk songs recorded between 1927 and 1932. Many of the artists included were relatively obscure at the time of the Anthology’s release, but the album is now considered one of the most influential recordings ever made in the genre of American folk music.
In his liner notes, Smith described the Anthology as an attempt to document “a centuries-old tradition that lies hidden in people’s daily lives all over this country.” The songs on the Anthology are drawn from a variety of sources, including commercial recordings, field recordings made by government agencies such as the Library of Congress, and private home recordings.
The Anthology was initially met with little enthusiasm from the folk music community, but it gradually gained in popularity and was eventually hailed as a masterpiece. It has been credited with sparking the so-called “folk revival” of the 1950s and 1960s, and it remains an important touchstone for performers and scholars of American folk music.