The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited – various artists
Shout! Factory 826663-10041
Looking for something that will stimulate the mind, present a sense of history and provide a wealth of strong performances by a series of artists, many of who rest on cult status because critical acclaim rarely translates into commercial dollars? Then, search no further than the musical projects produced by Hal Willner. In the past, he’s put together concerts and albums celebrating the music of Leonard Cohen (some of the footage ended up in the documentary I’m Your Man), Neil Young, Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and Disney Films.
In celebration of the re-release of Anthology of American Folk Music, the compilation of early roots music by folklorist/archivist/taper/artist Harry Smith, Willner decided to stage not one or two, but three concerts dedicated to the songs on that release.
Originally coming out in 1952, the six album collection went on to inspire numerous artists of the late 50s/early 60s folk scene: Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Uncle Tupelo/Jeff Tweedy and many many more over subsequent decades. Smith compiled selections by such historical figures as The Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt, and other artists who fell within the realms of country blues, bluegrass, Cajun and gospel. Many of the tunes were later covered and reinterpreted from one generation to the next and beyond, which makes Smith the most influential mixtape creator that’s ever been.
In the case of The Harry Smith Project, it’s as much about offering tribute to the man whose compilation work opened the floodgates for so many others as it is pushing the folk tradition forward. Here, we have two CDs and two DVDs of live performances with bonus features that present films made by Smith.
There are contributors who have shown a distinct influence from the Anthology and/or rest as likely candidates to be part of the Project Elvis Costello, Beth Orton, Steve Earle, Wilco, Nick Cave (who helped put the initial show together in 1999 at the Meltdown Festival in London), Bob Neuwirth, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Garth Hudson and Geoff Muldaur.
But, what makes Willner’s projects so interesting is that he brings together artists with compositions that make little sense on paper yet work well upon listening. Those few who have followed the solo career of David Johansen (of the New York Dolls) would know that he’s been doing blues sets for quite awhile (under the name "The Harry Smiths"). So, his deep growl of a voice fits perfectly in this setting. Beck finds his inner stripped down musical being on “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.” David Thomas of legendary avant-garage Pere Ubu brings his own vibrant eccentricity and, upon further review, his arrangement sounds like a precursor to Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions band. Then, there’s Sonic Youth treading its musical terrain as Roswell Rudd adds trombone, Mocean Worker slicing and dicing DJ style, Todd Rundgren making a nice duet partner with Robin Holcomb, and Lou Reed molding a song into a hypnotic electric workout.
Strangely, for an album that works so well moving from track to track, it ends on a surprising whimper. Not that the Petra Haden performance on disc two is lacking, just that the Nick Cave one shortly before it, with its “Good Night” seems much more fitting.
Hearing and seeing these artists take part in The Harry Smith Project, you find not a display of reverence that would lend the material as freeze-dried in time but respect for Smith and his collection of artists that comes through in consistently striking performances that adapt the material of the past and, consequently, display its vitality in the 21st century.