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.More