You might not think you know Harry Smith, but if you have even a passing familiarity with the last fifty years of traditional folk music, you certainly know his work. A fanatical record collector, archivist, and ethnomusicologist (as well as an artist, filmmaker, and all-around eccentric), Smith compiled the three-volume, six-disc Anthology of American Folk Music for Smithsonian Folkways in 1952, arguably the first such collection of obscure folk, blues, and hillbilly 78s on LP and certainly the most influential. A mere glance at the songs brought to public attention by Smith's Anthology is enough to prove its monumental impact on popular music as we know it: "John the Revelator," "The House Carpenter," "Single Girl, Married Girl," "Frankie [and Johnny]"; the list goes on and on.
The goal of The Harry Smith Project, the latest in record producer (and, like Smith, noted eccentric) Hal Willner's seemingly endless stream of tribute projects, is to shed more light on both the brilliance of the original Anthology and its lasting influence. And true to form – this is, after all, the guy who compiled a Mingus tribute with Vernon Reid, Keith Richards, Robert Quine and Chuck D – Willner has assembled a decidedly motley crew. The Harry Smith Project Live features performances by Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Van Dyke Parks, Beck, Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello, Todd Rundgren, David Thomas, and a hell of lot more besides. And the amazing thing is, all of it is good.
Lou does his Popeye and his Blind Lemon Jefferson – c. 2006 Shout! Factory Or at least, about 95% of it is. The beauty of Willner's approach here is that it's often the combinations of artist and material which sound positively wince-worthy on paper that end up coming off best – like the shuddering version of "Dry Bones" performed by Sonic Youth and avant-garde jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, or the eerie duet on "The House Carpenter" by Rundgren and Robin Holcomb. Most surprising of all is a Blind Lemon Jefferson cover by the man who once preclaimed that the only rule he made for the Velvet Underground was "no blues licks." Reed's "See That My Grave is Kept Clean," though admittedly mining the same old fuzzed-out noodling and phrasing gymnastics which have long gone from his stock in trade to a depressing self-parody, is somehow shockingly good.
Yet even The Harry Smith Project's more "obvious" triumphs make for some excellent music. Cave's "John the Revelator" could have sat comfortably on the track list of his mid-'80s classics The Firstborn is Dead or Kicking Against the Pricks; Costello's "The Butcher's Boy" finds the punk-era troubador in a cathartic British folk mode I wish he'd return to more often; and every time Kate and Anna McGarrigle take the stage, their haunting Carter Family-style harmonies command one's complete and undivided attantion.
Indeed, there are so many musical highlights to be experienced here, it seems more effective to point out those rare moments when the show falls flat: most problematically with the appearance by A Mighty Wind's fictional folk trio "The Folksmen" ( a.k.a. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), which is funny enough but feels incongruous amongst the other performers, more like a live-action trailer for Guest's movie than a tribute to Harry Smith – especially since the song they sing, "Old Joe's Place," bears a Guest/McKean/Shearer writing credit and has decidedly little to do with the Anthology of American Folk Music.
In a sense, though, that bizarre cameo by Guest and company does say something about Harry Smith, simply because the good-natured, gee-whiz folk festival schtick of the Folksmen is about as far from Smith's vision of traditional American music as it got. Though it undeniably inspired '50s and '60s folk revival acts like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary, the Anthology of American Folk Music had much more in common with the "Old Weird America" enshrined by Greil Marcus and upheld by everyone from late '60s Bob Dylan to Will Oldham, Lambchop, Captain Beefheart, and even Jandek. This is passionate, spectral, violent and often desperate Americana, and as such, it makes sense to cast idiosyncratic artists like those already mentioned in its reenactment; there's even a good chance that Smith, far from a folk purist himself, would have preferred it.
And let's not forget that this is a tribute to Smith we're dealing with, as much as it is a tribute to his legendary anthology; thus two of the most fascinating moments in The Harry Smith Project Live end up straying away from the topic of folk music and into the oddball personality of the archivist himself. There's a recollection by the Fugs' Ed Sanders of a visit from Smith which ended in the destruction of a few "learned journals," coupled with some video footage from the 1980s of a wheedling, elderly Smith on the phone, complaining about being taped. Even more revelatory is Phillip Glass' performance of his "Etude No. 10" over footage taken from one of Smith's various experimental film shorts: an abstract animation sequence in the tradition of Oskar Fischinger. It's sequences like these which remind one that Harry Smith was more than just a footnote in folk music history – he was an influential artist in his own right, as well as a living, breathing person, with as many flaws and idiosyncrasies as the indelible records he compiled.
Frankly, the only real misgiving I have about the stand-alone Harry Smith Project DVD is that it's almost too tempting a preview of Shout! Factory's full-length four-disc box set to be justified. If you're a fan of more than a handful of the artists above and want to see what they can do with one of popular music's most beloved songbooks, or even if you just love American roots music and aren't afraid to see some daring modern interpretations, you'll want the extended version; especially since it features a smattering of tracks which the DVD does not, including appearances by Wilco and Marianne Faithfull and additional tracks by Cave, Thomas, Sanders and others. Granted, the single-disc edition is a lot easier on the old pocketbook. But after getting a taste of The Harry Smith Project, I can say for certain that my Christmas list just got one item longer.
by Zach Hoskins