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Influential Harry Smith Anthology Gets an Addendum

December 22, 2020

It would be hard to overestimate the profound influence of the original Anthology of American Folk Music released by Folkways Records back in 1952. The six-album set included 84 recordings of American folk, blues, and country music that were originally issued from 1926 to 1933, when the invention of the microphone and more portable recording equipment allowed the nascent record industry to go into small towns and rural areas to capture regional performers that would never have made it to the big-city studios. For that brief period, blues artists, Appalachian string bands, ballad singers, Cajun groups, and more had a platform to share their music, and local fans, displaced migrants, and far-flung enthusiasts could buy 78s of the Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, or Cannon’s Jug Stompers.

Just a few decades later, though, such vernacular styles had vanished from the record bins and radio waves, and their legacy was limited to grandma’s old Victrola or the small band of record collectors who kept archives of the earlier music on hoarded 78 rpm platters. One such collector, experimental filmmaker, bohemian, and all-around eccentric, Harry Smith, decided to share some selected sides from his extensive collection in the anthology, which was organized in three two-album volumes: “Ballads,” “Social Music,” and “Songs.”

The set went on to become the Rosetta Stone for generations of folk musicians such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, John Baez, Dave Von Ronk, and countless string bands and revivalists who were seeking more authentic American roots music than what they were hearing on the radio at the time. Critic and author Greil Marcus famously described the Anthology as the story of “the old, weird America,” and folk icon Dave van Ronk said, “It was our Bible ... we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.” Peter Seeger was rumored to carry his copy of the box set with him wherever he rambled. A reissue on CDs in the ’90s made the touchstone available to latter-day enthusiasts.

Sixty-eight years after that the Anthology came out on Folkways, the Dust-to-Digital label has released The Harry Smith B Sides, a deluxe box set offering the flip-sides of the 78s included on the original release. The label, founded by Lance Ledbetter in 1999, is operated by Ledbetter and his wife April in Atlanta, Georgia. Dust-to-Digital’s mission is creating access to hard-to-find music by producing high-quality books, box sets, CDs, DVDs and vinyl records. A recent Terry Gross interview with the Ledbetters provides a fascinating glimpse of the work they do and about the challenges of curating and releasing this significant addendum to American music history.

The new Harry Smith set features 81 newly-remastered recordings on four CDs with a full-color, 144-page, cork-cover book in a cigar-style box, with archival images, original artwork by Harry Smith, and essays by John Cohen, Lance Ledbetter, and Eli Smith. The extensive liner notes include contributions from 80 artists, writers, and musicians that have been inspired by Harry Smith’s work including Daniel Bachman, Devendra Banhart, Sarah Bryan, Rosanne Cash, Dom Flemons, Steve Gunn, Will Oldham, Amanda Petrusich, Steve Roden, Art Rosenbaum, Nathan Salsburg, Peter Stampfel, and many more.

Paul Kotapish is the managing editor for SFCV.  You can learn more here or at guitarfish.net.