Anthology of American Folk Music

The Anthology of American Folk Music is a six-album compilation released in 1952 by Folkways Records (catalogue FP 251, FP 252, and FP 253), comprising eighty-four American folk, blues and country music recordings that were originally issued from 1926 to 1933.

Anthology of American Folk Music
Compilation album by
Various Artists
GenreCountry, folk, blues
ProducerHarry Smith
Anthology of American Folk Music chronology
Anthology of American Folk Music
Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4

Experimental film maker Harry Smith compiled the music from his personal collection of 78 rpm records. The album is famous due to its role as a touchstone for the American folk music revival in the 1950s and 1960s. The Anthology was released for compact disc by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on August 19, 1997.

Compilation and release

Harry Smith was a West Coast filmmaker, magickian, bohemian, and eccentric, who, around 1940, developed a hobby of collecting old blues, jazz, country, Cajun, and gospel records, 78s being the only medium at the time. While mainstream America often considered these records to be ephemeral, he took them seriously and accumulated a collection of several thousand recordings, and over time began to develop an interest in seeing them preserved and curated.

In 1947, he met with Moses Asch, with an interest in selling or licensing the collection to Asch's label, Folkways Records.[1] Smith wrote that he selected recordings from between "1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Great Depression halted folk music sales."[2] When the Anthology was released, neither Folkways nor Smith possessed the licensing rights to these recordings, many of which had initially been issued by record companies that were still in existence, including Columbia and Paramount. The anthology thus technically qualifies as a high-profile bootleg. Folkways would later obtain some licensing rights, although the Anthology would not be completely licensed until the 1997 Smithsonian reissue.[3]


The compilation was divided by Smith into three two-album volumes: "Ballads", "Social Music", and "Songs." As the title indicates, the "Ballads" volume consists of ballads, including many American versions of Child ballads originating from the English folk tradition. Each song tells a story about a specific event or time, and Smith may have made some effort to organize to suggest a historical narrative, a theory suggested by the fact that many of the first songs in this volume are old English folk ballads, while the closing songs of the volume deal with the hardships of being a farmer in the 1920s.

The first album in the "social music" volume largely consists of music likely performed at social gatherings or dances. Many of the songs are instrumentals. The second album in the "Social Music" volume consists of religious and spiritual songs. The third "Songs" volume consists of regular songs, dealing with everyday life: critic Greil Marcus describes its thematic interests as being "marriage, labor, dissipation, prison, and death."[4]

Smith's booklet in the original release makes reference to three additional planned volumes in the series, which would anthologize music up until 1950.[2] In 2000, Revenant Records worked with the Harry Smith Archive to recreate and release a fourth volume, organized around a theme of "work" and entitled "Labor Songs." It includes a selection of union songs, and anthologizes material released as late as 1940.


Smith also edited and directed the design of the Anthology. He created the liner notes himself, and these notes are almost as famous as the music, using an unusual fragmented, collage method that presaged some postmodern artwork. Smith also penned short synopses of the songs in the collection, which read like newspaper headlines—for the song "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" by Chubby Parker, a song about a mouse marrying a frog, Smith notes: "Zoologic Miscegeny Achieved Mouse Frog nuptials, Relatives Approve."

Each of the three two-record sets carried the same cover art, a Theodore de Bry etching of an instrument Smith referred to as the "Celestial Monochord," taken from a mystical treatise by scientist/alchemist Robert Fludd. This etching was printed over against a different color background for each volume of the set: blue, red and green. Smith had incorporated both the music and the art into his own unusual cosmology, and each of these colors was considered by Smith to correspond to an alchemical classical element: Water, Fire, and Air, respectively. The fourth 'Labour' volume (released later by Revenant) is colored yellow to represent the element earth.

In the 1960s, Irwin Silber replaced Smith's covers with a Ben Shahn photograph of a poor Depression-era farmer, over Smith's objections, although others have considered this a wise commercial choice in the politically charged atmosphere of the folk movement during that decade.

Compact disc reissue

In 1997, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, having acquired Folkways Records in 1986, reissued the collection on six compact discs, each disc corresponding to each album of the original set on vinyl, including replicas of Smith's original artwork and liner booklet. An additional booklet included expanded track information for each song by Jeff Place, excerpts from Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus, essays by Jon Pankake, Luis Kemnitzer, Moses Asch, and Neil Rosenberg, and tributes and appreciations by John Fahey, John Cohen, Elvis Costello, Peter Stampfel, Luc Sante, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt, Chuck Pirtle, and Allen Ginsberg. The back cover to this booklet closes with a quote by Smith: "I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music." At the 40th Grammy Awards, the reissue won awards for Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album.

Critical reception

Professional ratings
Review scores
Entertainment WeeklyA[6]
Rolling Stone[7]
The Village VoiceA+[9]

Writing for Allmusic, critic John Bush wrote the compilation "could well be the most influential document of the '50s folk revival. Many of the recordings that appeared on it had languished in obscurity for 20 years, and it proved a revelation to a new group of folkies, from Pete Seeger to John Fahey to Bob Dylan... Many of the most interesting selections on the Anthology, however, are taken from [obscure] artists... such as Clarence Ashley, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and Buell Kazee."[5] In his review for The Village Voice, music critic Robert Christgau wrote "Harry Smith's act of history... aces two very '90s concepts: the canon that accrues as rock gathers commentary, and the compilations that multiply as labels recycle catalogue. In its time, it wrested the idea of the folk from ideologues and ethnomusicologists by imagining a commercial music of everyday pleasure and alienation--which might as well have been conceived to merge with a rock and roll that didn't yet exist... Somebody you know is worth the 60 bucks it'll run you. So are you."[9] Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times, said that the songs "still sound marvelous and uncanny."[10]


The Anthology has had enormous historical influence. Smith's methodology of sequencing tracks, along with his inventive liner notes, called attention to the set. This reintroduction of near-forgotten popular styles of rural American music from the selected years to new listeners had impact on American ethnomusicology, and was both directly and indirectly responsible for the aforementioned folk music revival.

The music on the compilation provided direct inspiration to much of the emergent folk music revival movement. The Anthology made widely available music which previously had been largely the preserve of marginal social economic groups. Many people who first heard this music through the Anthology came from very different cultural and economic backgrounds from its original creators and listeners. Many previously obscure songs became standards at hootenannies and folk clubs due to their inclusion on the Anthology. Some of the musicians represented on the Anthology saw their musical careers revived, and made additional recordings and live appearances.

This document is generally thought to have been enormously influential on the folk & blues revival of the 1950s and 1960s, and brought the works of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Dick Justice and many others to the attention of musicians such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The "Harry Smith Anthology," as some call it, was the bible of folk music during the late 1950s and early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. As stated in the liner notes to the 1997 reissue, the late musician Dave van Ronk had earlier commented that "we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated."[11] In 2003, the album was ranked number 276 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and 278 in a 2012 revised list.[12] It is the earliest-released album on that list and also includes the oldest recordings (dating back to Uncle Dave Macon's recording of "Way Down the Old Plank Road" in April 1926).

Track listing

Volume One: Ballads (Green Singing)
1."Henry Lee" (1932)Dick Justice3:26
2."Fatal Flower Garden" (1930)Nelstone's Hawaiians2:55
3."The House Carpenter" (1930)Clarence Ashley3:14
4."Drunkard's Special" (1929)Coley Jones3:16
5."Old Lady and the Devil" (1928)Bill & Belle Reed3:02
6."The Butcher's Boy" (1928)Buell Kazee3:02
7."The Waggoner's Lad" (1928)Buell Kazee3:02
8."King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" (1928)Chubby Parker3:08
9."Old Shoes and Leggins" (1929)Uncle Eck Dunford2:59
10."Willie Moore" (1927)Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford3:13
11."A Lazy Farmer Boy" (1930)Buster Carter and Preston Young2:57
12."Peg and Awl" (1929)The Carolina Tar Heels2:57
13."Ommie Wise" (1929)G. B. Grayson3:09
14."My Name Is John Johanna" (1927)Kelly Harrell3:12
15."Bandit Cole Younger" (1930)Edward L. Crain2:54
16."Charles Guiteau" (1927)Kelly Harrell3:03
17."John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man" (1930)The Carter Family2:55
18."Gonna Die with My Hammer in My Hand" (1927)Wiliamson Brothers and Curry3:24
19."Stackalee" (1927)Frank Hutchison2:58
20."White House Blues" (1926)Charlie Poole w/ North Carolina Ramblers3:31
21."Frankie" (1928)Mississippi John Hurt3:25
22."When That Great Ship Went Down" (1927)William and Versey Smith2:55
23."Engine 143" (1927)The Carter Family3:16
24."Kassie Jones" (1928)Furry Lewis6:13
25."Down on Penny's Farm" (1929)The Bently Boys2:47
26."Mississippi Boweavil Blues" (1929)Charlie Patton3:07
27."Got the Farm Land Blues" (1932)The Carolina Tar Heels3:16
Volume Two: Social music (Red Singing)
1."Sail Away Lady" (1926)Uncle Bunt Stephens2:56
2."The Wild Wagoner" (1928)Jilson Setters3:14
3."Wake Up Jacob" (1929)Prince Albert Hunt's Texas Ramblers2:52
4."La Danseuse" (1929)Delma Lachney and Blind Uncle Gaspard2:54
5."Georgia Stomp" (1929)Andrew & Jim Baxter2:44
6."Brilliancy Medley" (1930)Eck Robertson and Family2:59
7."Indian War Whoop" (1928)Floyd Ming and his Pep-Steppers3:10
8."Old Country Stomp" (1928)Henry Thomas2:52
9."Old Dog Blue" (1928)Jim Jackson3:01
10."Saut Crapaud" (1929)Columbus Fruge2:47
11."Acadian One Step" (1929)Joseph Falcon2:57
12."Home Sweet Home" (1933)The Breaux Freres (Clifford Breaux, Ophy Breaux, Amedee Breaux)3:00
13."Newport Blues" (1929)Cincinnati Jug Band2:55
14."Moonshiner's Dance Part One" (1927)Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra2:39
15."Must Be Born Again" (1927)Rev. J. M. Gates1:28
16."Oh Death Where Is Thy Sting" (1927)Rev. J. M. Gates1:26
17."Rocky Road" (1928)Alabama Sacred Harp Singers2:42
18."Present Joys" (1928)Alabama Sacred Harp Singers2:50
19."This Song of Love" (1932)Middle Georgia Singing Convention No. 12:56
20."Judgement" (1927)Sister Mary Nelson2:23
21."He Got Better Things for You" (1929)Memphis Sanctified Singers2:52
22."Since I Laid My Burden Down" (1929)Elders McIntorsh and Edwards' Sanctified Singers3:16
23."John the Baptist" (1928)Moses Mason3:02
24."Dry Bones" (1929)Bascom Lamar Lunsford2:58
25."John the Revelator" (1930)Blind Willie Johnson3:18
26."Little Moses" (1932)The Carter Family3:11
27."Shine on Me" (1930)Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers3:01
28."Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" (1931)Rev. F.W. McGee2:40
29."I'm in the Battle Field for My Lord" (1929)Rev. D.C. Rice and His Sanctified Congregation3:19
Volume Three: Songs (Blue Singing)
1."The Coo Coo Bird" (1929)Clarence Ashley2:54
2."East Virginia" (1929)Buell Kazee2:58
3."Minglewood Blues" (1928)Cannon's Jug Stompers3:05
4."I Woke Up One Morning in May" (1929)Didier Hebert3:01
5."James Alley Blues" (1927)Richard Rabbit Brown3:05
6."Sugar Baby" (1928)Dock Boggs2:56
7."I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" (1928)Bascom Lamar Lunsford3:19
8."Mountaineer's Courtship" (1926)Ernest Stoneman and Hattie Stoneman2:42
9."The Spanish Merchant's Daughter" (1930)The Stoneman Family3:15
10."Bob Lee Junior Blues" (1927)The Memphis Jug Band3:08
11."Single Girl, Married Girl" (1927)The Carter Family2:44
12."Le vieux soûlard et sa femme" (1928)Cleoma Breaux and Joseph Falcon3:08
13."Rabbit Foot Blues" (1927)Blind Lemon Jefferson2:55
14."Expressman Blues" (1930)Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell3:01
15."Poor Boy Blues" (1929)Ramblin' Thomas2:22
16."Feather Bed" (1928)Cannon's Jug Stompers3:13
17."Country Blues" (1928)Dock Boggs2:56
18."99 Year Blues" (1927)Julius Daniels3:04
19."Prison Cell Blues" (1928)Blind Lemon Jefferson2:44
20."See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (1928)Blind Lemon Jefferson2:52
21."C'est si triste sans lui" (1929)Cleoma Breaux and Ophy Breaux w/ Joseph Falcon2:59
22."Way Down the Old Plank Road" (1926)Uncle Dave Macon2:58
23."Buddy Won't You Roll Down the Line" (1930)Uncle Dave Macon3:15
24."Spike Driver Blues" (1928)Mississippi John Hurt3:14
25."K.C. Moan" (1929)The Memphis Jug Band2:31
26."Train on the Island" (1927)J.P. Nestor2:57
27."The Lone Star Trail" (1930)Ken Maynard3:12
28."Fishing Blues" (1928)Henry Thomas2:44


Production personnel

  • Moses Asch: Liner Notes, Transfers
  • Peter Bartok: Transfers
  • Joe Bussard: Transfers
  • Philip Coady: Producer
  • Pat Conte: Transfers
  • Evelyn Esaki: Art Direction
  • John Fahey: Liner Notes
  • David Glasser: Mastering, Audio Restoration
  • Amy Horowitz: Executive Producer, Reissue Producer
  • Luis Kemnitzer: Liner Notes
  • Kip Lornell: Liner Notes
  • Michael Maloney: Producer, Production Coordination
  • Greil Marcus: Liner Notes
  • Mary Monseur: Producer, Production Coordination
  • Steve Moreland: Producer
  • Jon Pankake: Liner Notes
  • Charlie Pilzer: Mastering, Audio Restoration, Transfers
  • Chuck Pirtle: Liner Notes
  • Jeff Place: Liner Notes, Reissue Producer, Transfers, Annotation
  • Pete Reiniger: Mastering, Transfers, Compilation Producer
  • Neil V. Rosenberg: Liner Notes
  • Luc Sante: Liner Notes
  • Peter Seitel: Editing
  • Harry Smith: Producer, Editorial
  • Stephanie Smith: Research
  • Peter Stampfel: Liner Notes
  • Alan Stoker: Transfers
  • Scott Stowell: Art Direction, Design
  • Jack Towers: Transfers
  • Eric Von Schmidt: Liner Notes

See also


Because of their potential public domain status, some of these recordings are legally available on the Web:

Tribute recordings


  1. Asch, Moses. "The Birth and Growth of the Anthology of American Folk Music," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
  2. Smith, Harry. "Foreword," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1952 edition, Folkways Records.
  3. "Notes on Harry Smith's Anthology," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
  4. Marcus, Greil. "The Old, Weird America," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
  5. Bush, John. "Anthology of American Folk Music > Review". Allmusic. Retrieved July 9, 2011.
  6. Grad, David (September 19, 1997). "Anthony of American Folk Music Review". Entertainment Weekly. New York (397): 85. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  7. "Review: Anthology of American Folk Music". Rolling Stone. New York: 101–2. September 18, 1997. 5 Stars (out of 5) - is impossible to overstate the historic worth, sociocultural impact and undiminished vitality of the music in this set, and of Smith's idiosyncratic scholarship and instinctive wisdom....a bedrock of our national musical identity...
  8. Christgau, Robert (October 1997). "Anthology of American Folk Music". Spin. New York. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  9. Christgau, Robert (December 30, 1997). "Consumer Guide". The Village Voice. New York. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  10. Pareles, Jon (December 14, 1997). "Pop/Rock/Soul; A Flurry of Boxed Sets Wraps Up the Year". The New York Times. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  11. Marcus, Greil. "The Old, Weird America," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
  12. "500 Greatest Albums of All Time Rolling Stone's definitive list of the 500 greatest albums of all time". Rolling Stone. 2012. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
  13. Internet Archive
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