Over 50 years after proto-crate-digger Harry Smith released his Anthology of American Folk Music comes Shout! Factory's The Harry Smith Project: a double CD/DVD set of highlights from Hal Willner's Harry Smith Project concerts, where modern KCRW-approved artists re-interpret the folk music of the '20s and '30s. Greil Marcus used the phrase "old weird America" to describe the feel of the original, and you can still sense the weight of years in the scratchy sawing of fiddles, the black-lung-raspy voices, and the ill-tuned homemade guitars of the Anthology.
But in the liner notes for the Harry Smith Project, No Depression magazine co-founder Grant Alden takes Marcus to task. Those guitars were not always homemade and those lungs were not always black, and unlike the field recordings of the Lomaxes, this music was performed by professional musicians hoping for professional success. Though "old, weird America" is a "wonderfully descriptive" term, says Alden, it's also a typical example of Northern academics marginalizing Southern folk music—as if it's irrelevant to modern times and somehow detached from the collective "civilized" American experience.
But it's precisely this alien quality that made the anthology so intriguing to a generation of musicians unfamiliar with this shadowed aspect of American culture. Unfortunately a lot gets lost when you listen to these haunted songs accompanied by electric bass and sung by professional rock stars.
"Harry Goes a Courtin'" by Mocean Worker is a new song made from samples of the original anthology, but the snippet of Clarence Ashley's "House Carpenter" makes the spine contract in a way that the contemporary performances are unable to match. Robin Holcomb and Todd Rundgren's "House Carpenter" offers a moment of menace, while Pere Ubu's David Thomas certainly honors the "weird" part. Beth Orton's rendition of "Frankie" benefits from sparse arrangement, her voice accompanied only by guitar, cello, and harmonies, and Sonic Youth and Roswell Rudd turn in the most iconoclastic performance with noise textures that would have given the original performers a stroke. While this set certainly proves that this music is, at its heart, timeless, unfortunately it also shows that sometimes these songs just sound better in their older weirder incarnations.