The Harry Smith Project: Who Is Harry Smith – And Why Does He Deserve A Project Anyway?

The Harry Smith ProjectHave you ever heard a song that seemed to move from the ether – through the performer – and directly into your soul? A song that said exactly what you were feeling – at the very moment you were feeling it? The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited is a collection of songs that will do that to you – performed by artists who have done that to you many times before…

In 1952, Harry Smith tried to sell Folkways Records some old 78s because he needed the cash. At the behest of Moses Asch, founder of Folkway, he was persuaded to put together an anthology for the label – and he not only put together an anthology, he researched it and provided discographies and biographical material, as well as succinct blurbs for each song. He arranged the songs according to themes and the result was three two-LP sets consisting of eighty-four songs.

At the 1991 Grammys, after the reissue of the set, Smith received the Chairman's Merit Award for lifetime achievement, for his contributions to music. His response? "I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music." His anthology had not only kept alive music by many great artists of the late twenties and early thirties, it served as a source of inspiration for many of the artists that have touched our lives right up to the present.

The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited is an odd duck – not unlike Smith, himself. It began with a London concert built around songs from the anthology and grew to encompass four North American concerts – two in New York City, two in Los Angeles – in which a wildly diverse group of artists not only performed songs from the anthology, but in many cases, songs that were given them to learn in a very short time.

The result was five concerts that ran from five-and-a-half to six hours in length. Concerts that brought new [and often troubling] arrangements to many of the songs, but all within the spirit of Harry smith whose fondest hope was that these songs would reach "…people who would want to sing them and improve the version."

Harry Smith

When you hear free jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd and Sonic Youth deconstruct Dry Bones, or ultimate pop artist Todd Rundgren harmonize with Robin Holcomb on The House Carpenter, you know you're hearing something unique. When glam-punk-lounge lizard David Johansen dives into Old Dog Blue, or Beck wails Robert Johnson's great Last Fair Deal Gone Down [with Smokey Hormel providing exquisite slide guitar – or Lou Reed's searing, mesmerizing See That My Grave Is Kept Clean – it becomes clear that all of these artists have been inspired by the music that Smith collected into his Anthology of American Folk Music.

Contributors to the concerts include legendary artists like Richard Thompson, Bill Frisell, The McGarrigle Sisters, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithful, Lou Reed, and Geoff Muldaur – and soon to be legends like Beck, Beth Orton, Joel Zifkin, and Eric Mingus [son of the late jazz great, Charlie Mingus]. Each brings something special to the concert and each is] at the top of their form.

The two-CD, two-DVD set that comprises The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music is a collection of highlights from the five Smith-based concerts and will amaze, amuse, bemuse and antagonize. As Hall Willner [who provided the concept that blossomed in the concerts] noted, "You will love some of it; you will hate some of it – but you will be a different person when you've heard it all."

There are thirty-two of Smith's selections performed on the two CDs; the concert DVD contains 23 performances. The second DVD is a documentary that both follows the creation of the concerts and delves into the life of Harry Smith. Both DVDs feature at least one of his groundbreaking experimental films – films that leave top animators from every generation in awe – and the documentary DVD features two more as a special feature [HS Films]. There is also a forty-page booklet that sheds more light on Smith as well as the genesis of these concerts – and features song lists for the CDs and concert DVD, as well as photos of Harry Smith and a recreation of the poster for the Los Angeles Concerts.

It may well be an understatement to say that this is an important package. It is definitely an understatement to call The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music a masterpiece. Even more importantly, this is a collection of performances that will reach you where you live. And, yes, you will love some of it; you will hate some of it. You may or may not be a different person after you've gone through the complete set, but I'm betting you will feel things you've never felt before.

Grade: A+

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