This book does a fabulous job of fleshing out Smith's life and work, for those who are unfamiliar with him, or who like myself, simply knew him as the compiler of the AAFM, a work that would inspire a host of folk music revivalists in the 1960's, not least of whom was Bob Dylan. Understanding Smith's obsessions with collecting and pattern-discovery shed some light on the origins and meaning of the AAFM. The story of the AAFM as it is described here is that Smith was commissioned by Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records to assemble a compilation of folk music. Smith, in essence became a deejay, selecting tracks from his massive library of 78's. The tracks he selected were from records produced "between 1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932 when the depression halted folk music sales" (30). His primary selection criteria were songs that were odd or exotic "in relation to what was considered to be the world culture of high class music" (30).
Smith, the authors included in this volume observe, was the quintessential modernist - living and working largely in isolation. Thus, Greil Marcus is led to characterize the AAFM as Smith "imposing his oddness, his own status as one who didn't belong and who may not even have wanted to, his own identity as someone unlike anyone else and someone who no one else would want to be, on the country itself" (184). This imposition, when added on top of the record companies' original commodification of folk music, was undoubtedly the death blow to folk music as a phenomena of local culture. Marcus describes it in this way:
In folk music, as it was conventionally understood when Smith did his work, the song sung the singer. The song embodies tradition; the singer's body was simply the vehicle that delivered the song. He or she could not intervene in the song, or in the story or predicament it described. The performance was not an event; when the song played, there was no history. But Smith's work is modernist: the singer sings the song (184).
It comes as little surprise, then, that the oddity embodied in the AAFM was embraced by the counterculture movement of the 1950's and 1960's. The peculiarity once representative of particular places and people became a commodity that could be sold and purchased as a sign of one's oddness. Robert Cantwell describes the ultimate conquest of the AAFM: "[Its] color blindness....is only an aspect of a more comprehensive effacement that yields up an imagined people of no-race, no-time, no-place" (199). This triad of "no-race, no-time, no-place" has, of course, become familiar to us today as a fundamental and oppressive falsehood of modern global consumerism.
Smith was born in 1923 and raised in the Northwest by theosophists, who instilled in him the idea that all elements are derived from one another. This notion guided his life's work, which aimed to "synthesize universal patterns into a unified theory of culture," writes Rani Singh, Smith's former assistant and one of the editors of Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular: Smith's heroes were alchemists and anthropologists, and his goal was "the magical conversion of common materials into precious objects." Singh and coeditor Andrew Perchuk are striving to canonize Smith; the question is, which canon?
While the Anthology was provoking a tectonic shift in American culture, Smith labored in bohemian obscurity, embarking on grand experiments with painting and film. The contributors to this volume—all academics, though hailing from disciplines as varied as Smith's output—make a compelling, if overbearing, case for his status as a modern artist with outsider tendencies. The Anthology may be the foundational document of the Greenwich Village folk scene and the nationwide revival of old-time music it spawned, but it is also a signal achievement of modernist collage, "one of the first times that a collection of music was curated and presented as a unified work of art," Singh writes. It's an argument that has been made before, yet this is the most comprehensive book on the subject to date, and the most strident in its claims (the best single volume for Smith study remains 1999's Think of the Self Speaking, a collection of interviews with him). According to Singh, a new label is necessary to describe Smith's chronic hoarding in relation to his erratic creative output: "ethnographic modernist." Thus the collector redeems the artist.