The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
2007Director: Rani Singh
Cast: Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Philip Glass
ou know the story of the Anthology by now: 84 songs from the ´20s and early ´30s on three double-discs, compiled by the bony Harry Smith, released in 1952, posthumously re-released to great fanfare in 1997 (with an often-overlooked fourth volume following in 2000). The coffeehouse kids had never heard anything like the initial appearance, which was a catalyst for the folk boom and blues revival later in the ´50s. Directed by Rani Singh, Smith's assistant during his last years, the documentary is unsurprisingly deferential—and yet I wish there were more of him in it. Singh's approach is PBS-conventional: authorities talking over archival footage are interspersed with performance clips from a series of Anthology-cover concerts organized by well-connected tribute maven Hal Willner, featuring everyone from Lou Reed to Beck. (The documentary is available as part of The Harry Smith Project box, which also includes two CDs and one DVD of concert material.)
The film doesn't attempt to break new ground in its music discussion. The musician interviews are gush (Steve Earle credits the Anthology with enabling Sgt. Pepper, via some guy from Duluth), while Greil Marcus covers his usual bases. Old: though the recordings were only a generation old on first release, they seemed far more ancient, partly because many of the artists were reaching back into the traditions of the unrecorded nineteenth century. Weird: if, like Smith, you had a half a dozen good variations of "In Old Virginny" to choose from, you too would choose the most idiosyncratic (Buell Kazee's "East Virginia Blues"). America: not the cities, but the mountains, the swamps, the endless railways. Taken in sum, the Old, Weird America is as much a construct as, say, John Ford's Old West, but Smith's vision is more inclusive (specifically in terms of race) and probably more fun.
The concert clips are the mixed bag typical of tributes. The performers who try to play it straight (the McGarrigles, Beth Orton) tend to sound bland, and the performers who go for weird (Beck, Sonic Youth backing Roswell Rudd) tend to seem forced. There are several highlights, including a couple from Brits unencumbered by the need to do justice to national myth: Richard Thompson, master of a divergent folk tradition, has the sweetness to make "Dog and Gun" work, and Jarvis Cocker's "Coo Coo Bird" is genuinely cuckoo, Elvis Costello has the cheek to graft a new ending on to "John Lewis," while David Thomas plays himself. Still, the math works out thus—number of classic performances in the Harry Smith Project: zero. Number of classic performances on the Anthology of American Folk Music: maybe twenty-something. So yeah, I would have preferred Blind Lemon Jefferson to Lou Reed on the soundtrack.
The documentary best succeeds as illustration. Just in case we never visualized what a collection of ten thousand 78s looks like, we see a picture of Smith’s cluttered Berkeley apartment. We see Smith at the end of his life in 1991, accepting a lifetime achievement Grammy, appearing uncomfortable while speaking slowly but proudly: “I saw America changed by music.” We see Allen Ginsberg, himself now long-departed, shed tears over his late friend. We get a genuine sense of Smith’s personality: his weirdness for sure, but also his frailty, his anger and compassion, his humor. We only get a glimpse of his genius.
The most tantalizing footage comes from Smith's own films, including a clip from Heaven and Earth Magic, regarded as his masterpiece and surely due for re-release. But in general Singh glosses over Smith’s more esoteric work. (I haven't seen Paola Igliori's doc American Magus, which reportedly explores Smith's oeuvre more completely, though maybe no less hagiographically—he did die in her arms). The Old, Weird America is made for a certain audience, including the bozo in the row behind me, who, I kid you not, hissed when DJ Spooky claimed "turntables are like the folk music of the 21st century." (Even though they're not: graffiti, maybe.) What this shows is how much of Smith's musical dream has been absorbed into chardonnay boho culture. It’d be nice for the mixtape-hawking kids to know how much they owe Smith. But it’s enough that they’re living his dream.
The Old, Weird America is currently in limited release.
By: Brad Luen
Published on: 2007-05-17