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'Secret' Volume of Folk Anthology Finally Emerges

Harry Everett Smith's seminal 1952 compilation is extended by a chapter.

May 28, 2000|GEOFF BOUCHER | Geoff Boucher is a Times staff writer

A half-century ago, an eccentric bohemian and onetime anthropology student named Harry Everett Smith dug into his vast collection of vintage 78-rpm records looking to preserve musical moments from pre-World War II America. The resulting labor of love, the "Anthology of American Folk Music," accomplished far more--it became a flash point of inspiration for a generation of fans and artists, not least among them a young fellow named Bob Dylan.

Now the story of the quirky Smith (he collected paper airplanes, Ukrainian Easter eggs and medical texts along with his treasured vinyl) will be extended by a chapter: Revenant Records has just released a fourth, "secret" volume that Smith compiled at the same time as the famed three-volume "Anthology," which was issued in 1952.

The 28 songs on the two discs that make up the fourth volume map the same musical landscape--folk, blues, gospel and country, from a period of American history (1927-1940) when regional stylings and strains were far more distinctive. The artists on Vol. 4 include Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, the Carter Family, Sleepy John Estes, the Mississippi Jook Band and Bukka White.

"This is a thrilling thing, a big piece of musical history, part of a work that turned on a whole generation to this type of music," says John DeFore, manager of Austin-based Revenant Records.

So where has this Vol. 4 been all these years?

The irascible Smith, who died in 1991, offered contradictory answers to that through the years. But DeFore says that while Smith completed the song selection and track order for the fourth volume about five decades ago, he did not finish the accompanying notes and history (a component for which the other three volumes are often praised).

While the famed three volumes of "Anthology" mostly mined the music between 1927 (when new recording technologies delivered unprecedented sound quality) and 1932 (when the Great Depression gutted the music industry), Vol. 4 finds its core more in the late 1930s.

"It's a different chapter to the story," says Phillip Smith, a former book editor who has spent years studying the life of the man who shares his last name (and is no relation). "This music is more socially conscious coming during the New Deal era."

The songs of Vol. 4 are also "less rusticated, more prescient of popular music" because of the advent of radio and motion pictures, and their "fusing" impact on regional music, Phillip Smith says.

About "Anthology," Rolling Stone magazine has written that "it is impossible to overstate the historic worth, sociocultural impact and undiminished vitality of the music and Smith's idiosyncratic scholarship and instinctive wisdom."

Harry Everett Smith began cataloging music as a youth in his native Oregon with field recordings of Native American rituals. After immersing himself in the Berkeley intelligentsia of the early 1940s, he moved to New York and hatched an idea to make money--working with Folkways Records, he would plumb his 20,000 records for unique slices of the roots music that shaped regional life before a media-driven national identity took shape.

How will this new chapter fit into the "Anthology" legacy? Phillip Smith says that while this newly available volume may be the most accessible to modern audiences, it will be just a footnote to the watershed moment created by the original "Anthology" release.

"This volume, as a listening experience, is just as compelling," he says, "but this time it won't be a monumental historical event."

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