Of his many feats of daring, Harry Smith is likely most well known for his Anthology of American Folk Music, an act of assemblage that threw back the gray flannel curtain of the fifties and offered a glimpse into a weirder America, inspiring a generation of songwriters and listeners. Here’s Charley Patton’s growl like the plea of a ravaged crop on ‘Mississippi Boweavil Blues.’ Uncle Dave Macon is unhinged if not ingenuous, pledging, “Won’t get drunk no more…” on ‘Way Down the Old Plank Road.’ The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers are ethereal, like ghosts trapped in wax. Here’s the fatalism and syncretic religion of an America where strange spirits roamed the land from the Dockery Plantation to Appalachia. This isn’t an America you can straitjacket into the fifties forever, not when conjurer Mister Smith reincarnates the armies of what we were. Upon accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammies, he said “I’m glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by music.” And so he did. Because he changed America with music. We’re celebrating the life of Harry Smith — a one-time resident of the building that has now become Ace Hotel New York — later this month on his ninetieth birthday, with music and readings by people who knew him and people he changed.
The songbook picture was lovingly defaced by Harry Smith.