[JPL] New Documentary Highlights Lost Americana

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Fri May 4 12:10:55 EDT 2007


The Daily Californian

New Documentary Highlights Lost Americana
BY Kristina Mody
Contribution Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

In one sense, Harry Smith, record collector subject of the new documentary
³The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith¹s Anthology of American Folk Music,²
compiled the most important mix tape of American history. The Anthology of
American Folk Music, handpicked from Smith¹s own record collection, captures
an essential slice of Americana that would have otherwise disappeared
forever. The film tries to show both the man behind the collection and the
historical significance of the music itself, but waffles between them and
does disservice to both.
Recognized as a cultural artifact, The Anthology makes for an intriguing
listen, with songs ranging from the lively, the blues-y, the hokey and the
ghostly. It¹s a strange mix, intensely foreign yet familiar, with a
persistent crackle that transports the listener back in time, even when
played on an iPod. Smith says he chose songs "exotic" when recorded in the
1920s and 1930s.

The songs¹ eclectic nature reflects the man who compiled them. As the film
shows, Smith was a dedicated collector of folk music in the 1940s and 1950s,
but also dabbled in experimental filmmaking and ran with the likes of Allen
Ginsberg in beat-era San Francisco. Smith was, as one friend recalls, a true
eccentric, whose artistic collages can be seen in The Anthology¹s liner
notes. Although clips of his films are shown, the movie largely ignores the
bulk of his life after the release of the Anthology in 1952 until his death
in 1991, implying the recordings were his real legacy. Yet as Smith passed
away before the movie was filmed, the viewer is left with archived
interviews and his friend¹s impressions, almost all of which relate back to
his seminal work.

That Smith¹s Anthology deserves its place in the history of American culture
is accepted by musicians, fans and ethnomusicologists alike. ³Old, Weird
America² shows (with the help of some cheesy graphics) how his musical
selections came from an era of music that was rapidly disappearing as the
Depression limited recording efforts, then as existing records were melted
down for their shellac content during World War II. Looking for musical
authenticity, college students of the 1950s enthusiastically picked up
banjos and fiddles in response to The Anthology, sparking the folk boom of
the 1960s.

Composer Philip Glass, one of many musicians interviewed, says he saw The
Anthology not as a collection of anthropological field recordings, but as
the "dawn of popular music." Ravi Singh, the film¹s director and longtime
Smith archivist, shows pictures of Bob Dylan and suggests a vague musical
causality: Smith¹s Anthology brought folk, folk went pop, and pop went rock
and roll!

Yet The Anthology¹s importance also comes from its capacity to inspire
today¹s musicians. Much of the film¹s footage comes from a 1997 concert that
honored the collection¹s re-release, and includes covers of songs from The
Anthology by performers such Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and Beck. Many of the
musicians explain how listening to The Anthology changed their understanding
of song-writing. Costello, for example, describes how he admires the songs
for their lack of "irony" (for those familiar with Costello¹s own heavy use
of it in his own music, the statement seems, for lack of a better word,

Greil Marcus, the cultural critic who coined the term "old, weird America,"
eloquently describes Smith¹s records as "round, black ghosts," each
containing myths and memories of the American psyche. The constant praise
actually backfires in the movie, for with each clip of an original song, or
a glimpse of blurry, ancient footage, the viewer is left hungry for more of
the authentic recordings and the stories behind them. ³Old, Weird America²
preserves the history of a musical artifact and the man who made it for a
new generation, but ignores the most tantalizing aspect of The Anthology:
the music itself.

Warm up your turntable with Kristina at arts at dailycal.org

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