Various Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4

The re-release of Smith's monumental Anthology Vols. 1-3 two years ago may not have had the same impact it did in 1952 when the collection virtually kick-started the American folk revival and set the stage for Bob Dylan. However, it did confirm in many young minds that music from the early part of the 20th century still had much to say, and in this respect, Smith was a true visionary. This long-rumoured fourth volume is based on a working tape he had circulated decades before Smith's death in 1991. While most of the tracks from the previous volumes came from the recording boom of the '20s, Vol. 4 is largely drawn from the 1930s, when the Depression made recording a frivolous enterprise. Artists became more skilled to earn the right to record, thus we have more household names like Robert Johnson and the Monroe Brothers, return appearances by the Carter Family and Uncle Dave Macon, and newcomers to Smithville, Memphis Minnie and the Blue Sky Boys. Although Smith's thematic focus is narrowed to the impact of the Depression, his genre-defying, narrative formula is retained beautifully. Some adjustment is therefore required for fans that marvelled at the recklessly innocent performances on Vols. 1-3, but it is the overall impact of hearing songs like Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," Bukka White's "Parchman Farm Blues" and the Heavenly Gospel Singers' "Mean Old World" in succession that ultimately makes Vol. 4 a worthy coda. This also makes it less surprising that many of these songs have become standards, compared to the few on the previous volumes. Also endlessly fascinating are the essays on Smith by Ed Sanders, whose band, the Fugs, Smith produced; and John Cohen, whose 1964 article on Smith for The Little Sandy Review brought Harry national attention for the first time. Although his pursuits left him virtually penniless most of his life, Harry Smith stood alone as an influence in 20th century popular music. Vol. 4 can only add to his legend, although it cannot be fully appreciated without a familiarity with Vols 1-3. (Revenant)