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A Folk Music Pied Piper

Music * Harry Smith's celebrated 1952 anthology and his other work will be explored during UCLA and Getty Center events.


When it comes to authenticity in music, many people will point to Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music" as a pipeline to the deepest roots of Southern culture.

The sprawling collection of 84 spooky country blues, Appalachian murder ballads, Cajun dance tunes and rousing gospel pleas resonated with some listeners when it was released by Folkways Records in 1952 as an antidote to the post-World War II consumer culture. The anthology not only rescued such names as Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Lemon Jefferson from obscurity, it also helped spur the '60s folk boom and inspired such artists as Bob Dylan.

Reissued in 1997 as a six-CD boxed set via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, it was once more hailed as a beacon of authenticity.

"I think of it in terms of purity and rawness," says Beck, one of more than a dozen performers who will pay tribute to the anthology as part of a Harry Smith Project stage presentation next Wednesday and April 26 at UCLA's Royce Hall.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 20, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Concert lineup--Michelle Shocked is not performing at the Getty Center's concert Saturday as part of "Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular." Her name was mistakenly included in an article about the event in Thursday's Calendar Weekend.

Only one problem: Smith, who died in 1991 at age 68, was anything but a purist, and he wasn't really interested in authenticity. He was interested in impact and context and art--no less in his presentation of folk music than in his recordings of poet Allen Ginsberg and dada-rock band the Fugs or in his minimalist paintings and experimental films, which will also be part of a Smith symposium at the Getty Center this weekend.

That's the view of record producer Hal Willner, organizer of the Royce shows and a friend of Smith's.

"There was a connection between the films and the music," says Willner, who met Smith through Ginsberg in 1987. "The people he chose to record, the films, the music, there was something connecting them. I'm not sure exactly what, but he was a montage maker."

That is the fundamental premise of the Royce evenings, for which Willner recruited not just folk-related performers (Richard Thompson, Kate and Anna McGarrigle) but also representatives of pop music's arty territories (Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Gavin Friday).

The impurity of Smith's approach, rather than any perceived purity, is even more explicitly the root of "Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular," a symposium being held Friday and Saturday at the Getty Center. Participants include Harry Smith Archives director Rani Singh, pop culture critic Greil Marcus and UCLA ethnomusicology professor Anthony Seeger. Smith films will screen Friday, and a Saturday concert will feature Robert Lockwood Jr., Geoff Muldaur, the Handsome Family and Michelle Shocked.

"Smith wasn't down in Appalachia with a tape recorder," says Tom Crow, director of the Getty Research Center. "He wasn't interested in pure tradition like there was a source. He was interested in commercial recordings that were already packagings of music that he could organize. This is reproduction."

The fact is that the tinny, scratchy sound of those old records is a big part of the appeal--a symbol itself of authenticity--along with the dark emotions of the lyrics and the unschooled rawness of the music. It's not much different from the way photographer Edward R. Curtiss a century ago dressed Native Americans in anachronistic outfits and posed them to portray the "reality" of a lost culture.

Beck, who like Smith slides between roots-folk and avant-garde and whose grandfather, Al Hansen, was a key figure in the Fluxus conceptual art movement, has no illusions about the anthology and his emotional response to the music.

"Smith was an artist in the era where a lot of art was defined as how you framed it," says Beck. "The way he took the music and framed it and told the viewer how to view it, the listener how to hear it. He framed it in a way that would connect with the audience."

Is the music as presented by Smith any more authentic than Moby's framing of similar recordings in the affecting songs on his hit "Play" album or the re-creations of earlier styles in the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack? Not by this line of thinking.

And who's to say what music of our own time--dismissed as trash or primitive or unsophisticated--might eventually be seen as being as resonantly authentic as the music Smith repackaged?

Beck envisions 50 years from now that an eclectic array of performers could stand on a stage and do a tribute concert to the '80s music that formed the inspiration for his 1999 album "Midnite Vultures," and art and culture scholars could hold a symposium on the relationship between that crude, trashy pop music and the sophisticated, cutting-edge art of the first half of the 21st century.

"For that album a major influence was Egyptian Lover . . . from the '80s," he says. "It wasn't the mainstream popular music. But it was popular in its way--the music people went to dance to in Glendale on the weekends."

Today's trash, tomorrow's treasures. It just depends on how it's framed.


* "Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular," Friday and Saturday at Harold M. Williams Auditorium, Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, 9 a.m. Sessions and 7:30 p.m. Friday film screening are free, reservations required, (310) 440-7300; concert Saturday, 7:30 p.m., $30; Tickets LA, (323) 655-8587.

* Hal Willner's Harry Smith Project with Elvis Costello, Beck, others, next Wednesday and April 26 at Royce Hall, UCLA, 8 p.m. $30 to $70. (310) 825-2101.

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