The Coen Brothers’ splendid new film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” set in the Greenwich Village folk-music scene of the early ’60s, has launched a welcome wave of interest in Northwesterner Harry Smith, whose 1952 six-LP set, “Anthology of American Folk Music,” was the folk singers’ bible.
“Without the Harry Smith Anthology, we could not have existed,” wrote folk singer Dave Van Ronk in his autobiography, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” which inspired the Coens’ new movie. “After a while we all knew every word of every song, including the ones we hated.”
This week, two celebrations of Smith are on tap — a three-hour radio show Wednesday, on KEXP, and a variety concert Friday at the Columbia City Theater. The anthology, still available on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, was where many budding folk artists first heard such blues players as Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Lemon Jefferson or country singers like the Carter Family. The compilation’s 84 tracks, recorded on 78 rpm records between 1927-32, came from what critic Greil Marcus later dubbed “the old, weird America”: haunting, nasal voices of Appalachia; dreamlike tales of murder and metamorphosis; work songs from seamen and sharecroppers; scraping dance floor fiddles and twanging banjos; shape-note and lining-out singing from possessed voices aimed heavenward; and wise and witty blues.
Archivist, experimental filmmaker, visual artist, ethnomusicologist and eccentric visionary, Smith was born in Portland in 1923 and raised in Bellingham and Anacortes by eccentric parents who lived in separate houses and believed in the occult. He seems to have been a compulsive collector. (He later amassed archives of Seminole patchwork textiles, paper airplanes, Ukranian Easter eggs and string figures.) He found the records for the anthology in second-hand stores where, during World War II, record shops bankrupted by shortages sometimes just gave them away.
As a student at Bellingham High School, Smith collected field recordings on the Lummi Reservation, where his mother was a teacher, and in 1943 started studying anthropology at the University of Washington. But after a trip to Berkeley, Calif., introduced him to marijuana and Bay Area bohemia, he dropped out. After a brief stint at Boeing, Smith left Washington in 1947. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Smith made experimental films, but in the early ’50s, down on his luck in New York, he tried to sell his enormous record collection to Folkways Records. Owner Moe Asch suggested the anthology as an alternative.
Smith, who died in 1991, a perennially poor denizen of New York’s bohemian Chelsea Hotel, predicted that his anthology would foment social change, and he was right. By confirming dignity on work that had been marginalized as “race” (black) or “hillbilly” (Appalachian) music, the anthology laid the foundation for rock ’n’ roll and the social revolt that came with it.
Greg Vandy’s Wednesday KEXP tribute to Smith focuses on how songs from the anthology have changed over the years, depending who sings them.
The live show Friday features the great California fiddler Frank Fairfield, as well as an array of locals, including Pepper Proud and Fox and the Law, doing their own versions of anthology classics.
Harry Smith tributes
6-9 p.m. Wednesday, KEXP 90.3 FM
8 p.m. Friday at the Columbia City Theater, 4916 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; $10-$12 (206-722-2009 or www.columbiacitytheater.com)