AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC evolves as a shared expression, primarily among musicians: the repertoire passes among — and is altered by — performers in a sort of musical communion. Chronicling the multifarious history of folk music are a few iconic books and records: Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag (1927), which features transcriptions of the nation’s best-loved tunes; Ruth Crawford Seeger’s smart arrangements in the John and Alan Lomax volume Our Singing Country (1941); and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952 by Folkways Records.
For his Anthology, Smith chose one side of 84 two-sided 78 rpm discs and called the selections the “A” sides. The recordings, made between 1926 and 1932, were transferred to long-playing discs, grouped as Ballads, Social Music, and Songs, and packaged in three LP-sized boxes with individual booklets. In his “liner notes,” Smith cataloged each song’s variant titles, added a discography and bibliography, and provocatively summarized in all-caps each piece’s essence: “FATHER FINDS DAUGHTER’S BODY WITH NOTE ATTACHED WHEN RAILROAD BOY MISTREATS HER.”
Since 2000, record aficionados John Cohen, Eli Smith, and April and Lance Ledbetter have batted around the idea of The Harry Smith B-Sides — that is, collecting and releasing the flip sides of the A tunes. Such a project meant finding the original records, remastering them, and securing permissions where necessary. Last September, The Harry Smith B-Sides came out from Dust-to-Digital Records in a set of four CDs packaged in a cigar box with a bendably fine rawhide booklet featuring brief commentary, witty or serious, from a range of folk musicians and scholars.
The package is every bit as aurally transcendent and esoterically inscrutable as Smith’s A Sides — and why not? They are more tunes from the same lineup. The only difference between the A and B sets is that, for seven decades, musicians have known the original compilation via study, devotion, and procreative performance. The salty ferment among latter-day singers and players of the Anthology’s tunes sparked the Folk Music Revival of the 1950s and ’60s.
The Harry Smith B-Sides features mostly male performers, black and white, soloists and groups, many then-current professional entertainers. Nearly all were born in the late 19th century, a few as early as 1870. Many claimed their tunes, often appropriated with new lyrics, gestated within singing families and spread by vagabond troubadours, camp meetings, and Saturday night fiddlers. With this material, we have as near a representative history of rural American music as we are likely ever to get.
Let’s start with singer/banjoists Clarence Ashley and Buell Kazee. These southern Appalachians, experts at the clawhammer style, were great rivers of song, their repertoires running into the hundreds. Both men’s vocal sonority is unembellished, artless. Their voices may sound matter of fact, but their bluntness highlights the literary mystery of these tales. Both recorded the true-to-life story-song “John Hardy” — “a desperate little man” who murdered a fellow in a crap game, was baptized the morning of his hanging, and died at peace.
Kazee’s “The Butcher’s Boy” is a hauntingly tragic revenge ballad in reverse: a girl hangs herself due to her boyfriend’s unfaithfulness. Kazee uses additive time signatures to “long-tone” the vowels, increasing the anguish as he embodies the girl’s rejection. For centuries in song, girls have been killed for infidelity, and almost always it was the boy or man who was betrayed. “The Butcher’s Boy” tells us that she has died, but it hides any simple or clear justification. Kazee’s locomotive drive underscores the mourned and fateful outcome of one unlucky girl.
In the summer of 1927, Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter family (A. P., Sara, Maybelle) separately recorded four songs that established the melodically direct verse narrative as the Rosetta Stone of country music. The style is defined by historian Ted Olson as “a concise and imminently singable verse-chorus encapsulation of a powerful emotion.” Imminently singable is a lovely phrase: it suggests listeners participate in what the song may manifest, now or soon or eventually, in their own lives.
On the B-Sides is the Carter family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” a left-at-the-altar masterpiece. Maybelle and Sara rake over the strings of a cheap Stella flattop guitar and a mail-order autoharp, respectively; the mechanical thrum seems to wash the emotion clean, then wring it out to dry. The instruments mesh with the voices, and the effect is a kind of impassive honesty one must bring to a woebegone life.
Blind Lemon Jefferson was billed as the “king of the Texas blues guitar.” Christian street proselytizer, virtuoso fingerpicker, and country blues “race” artist of the 1920s, Jefferson had a summoning wail, with a big range and a bigger volume, and his blue-note turns and preternatural syncopation offer, for my money, the most musical of all Smith’s picks. A Paramount Records best seller until he died at 36 in 1929, Jefferson is still beloved for his morosely lyrical “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” (a rendition matched only by Lou Reed’s).
On the B-Sides is another of Jefferson’s darkly luminescent tunes, “Lemon’s Worried Blues.” This song, recorded in 1928, dispenses with the persona of the folk performer as Jefferson declares that he’s the man who has suffered — behold his signature, his personal testimony. Jefferson’s musicianship is forcefully idiosyncratic, with phrases sung over the bars and intricate starts and stops of the guitar accompaniment. His fingerpicking, strumming, plucking, and damping style, energizing the off-beats, destabilizes, playfully, his vocal complaints: “Worried so bad can’t tell my stockings from my shoes.” It all lopes along, a polyrhythmic stream few singer/players have ever achieved, blind or sighted.
Travel through the B-Sides and you will find many artists of the true vine — such as Mississippi John Hurt singing serious ironic gems like “Nobody’s Dirty Business” with kitchen-table intimacy and thumb-thumping pump. Space precludes me from relishing other folk legends collected here: Charley Patton, Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, the Reverend J. M. Gates, or Bascom Lamar Lunsford (who, so he claimed, was the composer and prodigious swiller of “Mountain Dew”).
My ear keeps returning to the uniqueness of the voices. Each balladeer or bluesman has an uncanny delivery, a raw vitality, an eerie tone. A prime example of this allure is the last tune in the collection, Henry Thomas’s “Texas Worried Blues.”
As in many blues standards, Thomas addresses the Lord regarding his troubles and lousy condition. At first, his tremolo shivers from the cold-heartedness he’s endured. He admits, tongue-in-cheek, that “you can box” him up and send him to a succession of people and places: his ma, his pa, his girl, the sea, and the fish and the whales. Each recipient discards him as though he’s merely a gifted whiner too intractable to change.
The rejections pile up, but the accumulation prompts a post-inventory realization. “I’m going to build me a heaven of my own,” Thomas sings, his tremolo now searingly joyful. The tempo kicks up a notch. Heaven-building on earth is sweet release once he’s given “all good-time women a home” — that is, I think, made amends. The spell of sorrow is broken, and he sings with an open-window breeziness, telling his (new) woman to get “your hat and coat, get shaking it all down the line.” The final verse bids “fare thee” to his honey — the new one, an old one, who knows?
The strength Thomas has garnered from rejection allows him to “build” his own heaven — a metaphor for psychological independence or a guilt-free card with the ladies. Either way, there’s agency here, a remedy that boosts his heart-rent listeners. Building his own heaven, he and his gal continue their “shaking,” and he moves on, the music having moved him from self-pity to self-invigoration.
“Texas Worried Blues” enacts an emotional escape from seemingly inalterable personal bondage. Thomas suggests that we must first be severely attached — and severely worried because of it — before we can detach. It’s a bit Zen-ish, a Texas-style Buddhist enlightenment. Anxiety runs us because of our attachments; to disenthrall from our habitual patterns is to transform ourselves. Only then can we “shake it” and “say farewell.” Only then can we learn that shaking it is farewell.
Thomas Larson is a 20-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader, the author of four books (one on music: The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”), former music critic for The Santa Fe New Mexican, and the author of hundreds of essays, articles, and commentaries on literature, art, and music. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.