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[PMH 4.

1 (2009) 5-21] Popular Music History (print) ISSN 1740-7133

doi:10.1558/pomh.v4i1.5 Popular Music History (online) ISSN 1743-1646

Rory Crutchfield

Discovering authenticity?
Harry Smiths Anthology of American Folk Music

Rory Crutchfield is a PhD student at the Uni- HATII

versity of Glasgow working in the Humanities George Service House
Advanced Technology and Information Institute 11 University Gardens
(HATII) and the Department of Music. His research University of Glasgow
is concerned with the history of folk music col- Glasgow G12 8QH
lecting in America, with particular emphasis on
Harry Smith and the Anthology of American Folk

In 1952 the anthropologist, archivist and artist Harry Smith completed The Anthology of American
Folk Music, three albums of songs collected from commercial recordings from the 1920s and 30s
released on Moses Aschs Folkways label. This article will discuss the development of the concept
of authenticity through the direct or indirect participants in the Anthology, and in what ways
they were complicit in the construction of such a concept. It will trace the lineage of the Anthol-
ogys music, and demonstrate the connections between these creative elements in an attempt
to present a comprehensive picture of how authenticity is fabricated.

Keywords: American folk music, music recording history

In 1952 the anthropologist, archivist and artist Harry Smith finally released the
three albums of folk music collected from commercial recordings from the 1920s
and 30s on Moses Aschs Folkways label. The collection was originally called simply
American Folk Music (Russell and Atkinson 2004: 80) and consisted of three
double-record compilations entitled Ballads, Social Music and Songs which
gathered together 84 individual recordings, just a small selection from Smiths
vast personal collection. It is understood that a fourth volume was planned but
never executed by Smith (Igliori 1996: 126), a characteristic that regularly inter-
ceded in his work. Smiths criteria for assembling songs to include in the Anthology
were based on how different the song sounded. He was searching for unusual
instrumentation, irregular (what some would describe as simply bad) playing

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6 Popular Music History

technique, lyrical digressions or amendments, language or dialect differences, or

a pervasive sense of oddness. In an interview concerning the Anthology with Sing
Out! magazine, Smith remarked:
The Anthology was not an attempt to get all the best records (there are other
collections where everything is supposed to be beautiful) but a lot of these
were selected because they were oddan important version of the song, or one
which came from a particular place (Igliori 1996: 126).

This is the characteristic that seems to have defined the collection over the years
since its release, and has inspired studies like Greil Marcuss The Old, Weird
America in announcing that the collection may not be truly representative, as no
collection can be, but that it can represent in some capacity the weirdness present
in America: The Anthology was a mysteryan insistence that against every assur-
ance to the contrary, American was itself a mystery (Marcus 1997: 96).
The Anthology became an instrumental participant in the folk revival of the
1950s and 60s because it introduced a generation of young people to a music
that seemed especially weird in comparison to the popular music of that period.
As Greil Marcus reflects: The whole bizarre package made the familiar strange,
the never known into the forgotten, and the forgotten into a collective memory
(Marcus 1997: 95). This response induced an intense interest in the origins of this
music, and even encouraged some of these revivalists to attempt to track down
the performers from the Anthology:
It was the Smith collectionwhich sent many other young revivalists into North
Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi to seek long-lost musi-
cians such as banjoist Dock Boggs and Clarence Ashley, or blues singer John
Hurt, whose younger voices had been preserved there, and to coax them out of
retirement; these excursions led into an endless proliferation of new recordings
(Cantwell 1996: 191).

What this appears to be symptomatic of is the discovery of authenticity by the

various people directly or indirectly involved in the Anthology. The talent scouts
from the record companies in the 1920s and 30s, like Columbia, Paramount,
Brunswick, Okeh, Victor, etc., were searching for songs that would be commer-
cially successful, and the appeal of these recordings among the public was based
on a subscription to the notion of authenticity: the more authentic the sound of
the performer and the song, the greater the popularity it seemed to elicit. How
this authenticity could be measured or quantified is difficult to understand, but
the intuitive reaction to the music, much like the response to finding the Old,
Weird America in the Anthology, was what ensured its popularity. A similar
response was what determined Smiths editing decisions during the assembling
of the Anthology, and again what Smith was searching for was a unifying appear-

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Discovering authenticity? 7

ance of authenticity in these recordings. Finally, the audience of the Anthology

discovered this authenticity again when listening to the music that Smith had
selected, and endeavoured to reproduce their own version of this authentic folk
sound through the revival movement. What is accumulating through this process
is fabricating authenticity, which was identified by Richard Peterson in his study
of the history of country music, and is being repeatedly revisited and gradually
constructed through those involved in the Anthology. Authenticity is not inherent
in the object or event that is designated authentic but is a socially agreed-upon
construct in which the past is to a degree misremembered (Peterson 1997: 3).
This article will discuss the gradual development of this notion of authentic-
ity through the most eminent direct or indirect participants in the Anthology,
and in what ways they were complicit in the construction of such a concept. It
will trace the lineage of the music of the Anthology, and exhibit the connections
between these disparate creative elements, in an attempt to present a compre-
hensive picture of how authenticity is fabricated in this case. It will also explore
the apparent distinction between folk and pop culture and the way in which they
are separated further through being branded authentic or inauthentic. The aim
is to demonstrate that everyone involved in whatever capacity in the Anthology
was discovering the same idea of authenticity, vulnerable to the same marketed
authenticity, and complicit in the same fabrication of authenticity.

Origins of the records

In the 1920s and 30s the collecting of folk music was dominated not by archivists
or folklorists, but by record company talent scouts, whose motives did not appear
to be collecting for collectings sake, or an attempt at preservation, understand-
ing or analysis. These collecting projects were motivated by financial gain, and the
talent scouts were looking for music that would sell. One of the people most suc-
cessful in marketing folk music was Polk Brockman, a regional distributor for Okeh
record company, and he is widely credited with involvement in the recording of
the first ever country record by Fiddlin John Carson in June 1923 in a temporary
recording studio in Atlanta. However significant a cultural event this might be,
the motivation behind this endeavour remained financial and as Peterson records:
He never met anyone who had any self-awareness of his role as a preserver of
culture [He and his contemporaries in the business] were simply looking for
something they could sell (Peterson 1997: 28). Despite the reservations of Ralph
Peer, Okehs producer of specialty records, the recording sold extraordinarily well
considering the apparently limited market of specialty music. The proliferation of
the phonograph in the 1920s meant that the less privileged were also purchasing
record players in substantial numbers, and it became clear that a different cata-

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8 Popular Music History

logue would be needed to cater to the rapidly expanding market. Okehs response
to this was to explore the relatively untested arena of releasing jazz and blues
records in an effort to appeal to the African-American populations in rural areas
(this would become known as their Race catalogue), and with the discovery of
Fiddlin John Carson Okeh, beginning with Ralph Peer and Polk Brockman, real-
ized the potential of this old-timey music that would eventually constitute their
Hillbilly catalogue. Benjamin Filene marks the growing importance of these
specialty records:
Although race records always represented a small percentage of the companies
overall sales (perhaps 5 percent) by 1927 the companies released nearly ten race
records per week. They were sold in record shops, mail order catalogues, saloons,
book stores, barber shops, drug stores, furniture stores, and cigar stands, and
they quickly became important elements in African-American community life
(Filene 2000: 345).

One of the most notable aspects of Brockmans participation in this pullulating

trend is the fact that Okeh appointed him as a talent scout because of his success
as a sales manager in the Atlanta Okeh dealership. Brockman became responsi-
ble for recruiting new acts for the recording studio not because of any interest
or expertise in music that the company believed him to have, but because of
his eminent business skills. As Brockman himself reflected in a 1961 interview:
I always try to look at it through the eyes of the people I expect to buy it. My
personal opinion never enters into anything I ever have anything to do with when
it comes to merchandising (Peterson 1997: 28). This differs perceptibly from the
approach adopted by folklorists like John and Alan Lomax, who definitely relied on
their own opinion when determining what to record. Their mission was unmis-
takably some kind of cultural investigation, and they had their own criteria for
evaluating the suitability of a performer or a song. Benjamin Filene explains their
technique during recording expeditions: The Lomaxes would audition as many
singers as they couldafter selecting the best singers, the Lomaxes would set up
their recording equipment and, usually with Alan manning the controls, have the
prisoners sing for the machine (Filene 2000: 51). What characterized the best
singers can be captured in this remark from John Lomax about his first recording
session with Leadbelly: from Lead Belly [sic] we secured about one hundred songs
that seemed folky, a far greater number than from any other person (Lomax
and Lomax 1936: 13). This folky quality seems to be an incipient version of the
authenticity concept that pervades this subject. What the Lomaxes were search-
ing for in these recording sessions, in this example in the southern segregated
penitentiaries, was something that sounded authentically folky enough to justify
its recording and preservation as a representation of an American folk tradition.

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Discovering authenticity? 9

The Lomaxes believed vehemently in the existence of such a tradition, and this is
partially what motivated them to undertake their journeys into relatively isolated
southern and western communities.
However, John Lomax had experience with the marketability of folk music, or a
peculiar branch of it: the cowboy song. John Lomaxs book Cowboy Songs and Other
Frontier Ballads was a compilation released in 1910 that exemplified what Lomax
believed was an indigenous American folk phenomenon: the cowboy. Lomax had
been fascinated with the image of the singing cowboy from a young age, and
when he was doing his graduate studies at Harvard he began assembling material
for this collection. He remarks: I have violated the ethics of ballad-gatherers, in
a few instances, by selecting and putting together what seemed to be the best
lines from different versions, all telling the story. Frankly the volume is meant to
be popular (Wilgus 1959: 161). Lomax was aware of the techniques of editing
and promotion to assist in the marketing and ensure the popularity of a product
like this, and he deployed the image of the authentic singing cowboy to this end.
Out in the wild, far-away place of the big and still unpeopled westyet survives
the Anglo-Saxon ballad spirit that was active in secluded districts in England and
Scotland (Lomax 1910: 1718). Lomax reaches back to an illusory past to enhance
the authenticity of the present in this promotion of his singing cowboy, and in
this romanticized depiction of a cultural expression it is possible to see Petersons
misremembered past intruding quite prominently. Both the picture of the Ameri-
can west, and the British Anglo-Saxon history, is marked by a romantic, distorted
image that is maybe not designed, but is certainly conceived of as representing
idealized authenticity. What Brockman and Peer were looking for to exhibit as
old-timey music conforms to the same misremembered past principle because
the music played by Fiddlin John Carson ostensibly looks backward to another era,
but it is a backward look that is mediated by memory, manipulation, and personal
misunderstanding or romanticism, which invariably alters the image of the past.
The connection between the past and present lifestyle and location is also
integral in the presentation of authenticity, and in the public response to it. The
conception of an authentic folk musician was inextricably linked with where he/
she lived and what they did. Lomaxperhaps best enunciated the lifestyle aspect
in his paper, The Folkniksand the Songs They Sing. Lomax declared To be Folk,
you live Folk (Denisoff and Lund 1971: 396). This understanding of authenticity
having a traceability much like ancestry was what caused so much of the pro-
motion to focus on the fabrication of elaborate stories verifying the authentic
folksiness of a performer, such as the case of Jilson Setters, whose unusual career
is related by Peterson. In 1927 Jean Thomas, a circuit court stenographer, encoun-
tered the blind fiddle player Jilson Setters in Kentucky, and brought him to New

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York to perform on the radio, along the way paying for an operation that restored
his sight. Setters was promoted by the national press for five years and recorded
ten songs for Victor record company in 1928. However, Setters was in fact J. W.
Blind Bill Day, and Jean Thomas had fabricated almost everything about his life
in order to present him as the personification of an authentic folk singer, who
both lived folk and sang folk (Peterson 1997: 623). His first radio broadcast ends
with the announcement: Jilson Setters, whose Elizabethan Ballads broadcast over
a hook-up from coast to coast and relayed half way around the world, delighted
millions last night Jilson Setters is a modern survival of the ancient minstrel
(Peterson 1997: 623). Jilson Setters essentially did not exist, and it is doubtful
whether the broadcasters image of the ancient minstrel existed either, but what
is important is that people believed that they did, and subscribed to a construct that
they were all complicit in the invention of.
What seems to be arising from this examination is that, although the folklor-
ists like the Lomaxes had a different object in mind with their collecting projects,
the conception of authenticity unifies them with the record company scouts and
the public that consumed the records. All of these groups with distinct agendas
were in the constant process of discovering authenticity in folk music. This per-
petual process of discovery meant that public preferences were often changing,
and certain recordings didnt sell nearly as well as others. The public reaction to
the perceived authenticity of a performance dictated its success, and also directly
influenced what talent scouts subsequently searched for when they were record-
ing performers. Despite the concomitant development of the recording industry
and the professional collector, the apparent disregard between them belies their
similarities in attitudes towards the constitution of authenticity. As Filene says of
the Lomaxes:
they produced a web of criteria for determining what a true folk singer looked
and sounded like and a set of assumptions about the importance of being a true
folk singer. In short, they created a cult of authenticity, a thicket of expectations
and valuations that American roots musicians have been negotiating ever since
(Filene 2000: 49).

This misremembered past and fabricated authenticity that Peterson refers to

manifests in different ways here, but the closer connection appears to be between
the folklorist and the general consumer of the specialty records: both seem to be
constructing an idea of authenticity to satisfy themselves and the misremembered
past is an excessively romanticized one that fits with the idealized conception of
authenticity; the record company scouts played upon this misremembered past
to fabricate an authenticity they believed would sell records. It seems incongru-
ous that the appeal of these commercial recordings should be greater than those

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Discovering authenticity? 11

that represent an attempt to collect and preserve folk authenticity. However, the
difference between what sounded authentic to the Lomaxes, and what sounded
like it would sell to the scouts, was obviously quite considerable.

Harry Smiths search for weird music

Harry Smith was nothing if not a prodigious collector and his collections of objects
reached quite improbable levels, such as the hundreds of Ukrainian Easter eggs,
the Seminole Patchwork, and the thousands of string figures, which occupied
most of his living spaces and have added to his image as an eccentric. However,
these objects were again not an example of collecting for collectings sake, but
rather part of an ongoing endeavour to record the connections between cultures
and artefacts of cultural expression. As Smith said in the Sing Out! interview: It
has something to do with the desire to communicate, in some way, the collection
of objects I am interested in getting series of objects of different sorts. Its a
convenient way of finding information (Igliori 1996: 126). Or, as journalist David
Keenan puts it:
Smiths collections feel like attempts to map the flux of ancientmodern con-
sciousness in its most ephemeral manifestationscorrespondences between
temporally and geographically isolated outposts of humanity through seeming
incalculables like rhythms, arcs, colours, movement, patterns of circle and line,
all of which were deep organising factors (Keenan 2006: 2).

Smiths intense interest in collecting these records came from a desire to link
them to something else that American culture had produced, and in doing so
create, or contribute to, a more complete picture of human life. This may seem
like an extremely ambitious agenda, but it is important to remember that this
was also the desire of Moses Asch when he began Folkways Records: things fit
into it and someday well see a whole, it will be a complete thingwhat opened
it up was that the word Folkways means that everything occurring on the earth
and in the contemporary time is being recorded (Russell and Atkinson 2004:
83). Even the organization and packaging of the Anthology is an expression of
this, and the colours assigned to each of the volumes, the illustrations taken
from diagrams by seventeenth-century scientist and mystic Robert Fludd, and
the editing process which grouped certain songs together, all come from Smiths
observations of the links between sounds, images and other cultural edifices. As
Sanjek asserts: [Smith]was not interested in the material in and of itself but as
an element of a larger process or pattern, though he couldnt specify what that
extended context might be (Sanjek 2008: 7). Moe Asch himself recalls: Harry
collected vast information. In addition to that, he is an intellect. He understood
the content of the records. He knew their relationship to folk music, their rela-

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tionship to English literature, and their relationship to the world (Igliori 1996:
100). Indeed, the original accompanying notes to the Anthology were extensive,
and included: a brief history of the records written by Smith; a complete listing of
the collection including the song name, artist(s), recording date, record company,
serial number; a synopsis of the content by Smith; commentary on the prov-
enance of the song by Smith; a comprehensive bibliography and discography;
photographs of certain artists; illustrations of instruments; posters advertising
artists; transcriptions of lyrics; quotations from mystics and anthropologists that
befitted Smiths ideas; a complete artist and song index with more illustrations;
and notes from Moses Asch on Folkways. Clearly this was a work compiled by
someone who wanted to know everything and to connect all the things he knew
together. Nothing was inserted at random into the notes; all the illustrations
were inserted because Smith wanted to reveal the links that he saw between
seventeenth-century mysticism and 1920s disaster songs. What this produced
was a perennially confused reaction to the overall weirdness of this whole col-
lection, which has persisted to the present day.
New listeners are being repeatedly struck by the ineffable strangeness of
all this imagery, commentary, scholarly apparatus, and most of all by the songs
themselves which, back in the 1930s, were received in a very different way. Taking
into account that the market for the specialty records was largely the very people
that lived the same authentic folk existence of the performers, it seems unlikely
that they were responding to the appeal of the unfamiliar that the audience of
the Anthology found. However, since this authenticity was predicated on the old-
timey sound of the records and this sound was in turn derived from the reproduc-
tion of a misremembered past, perhaps unfamiliarity was in fact always central
to the successful production and reception of authenticity. Greil Marcus insists
that: As a document carrying such faraway suggestions, the Anthology of American
Folk Music was a seductive detour away from what, in the 1950s, was known not
as America but as Americanism (Marcus 1997: 96). Marcuss Old, Weird America
seems to be another example of this misremembered past, where the period in
which these recordings were made is idealized as an environment that nurtures
this strangeness. The fact that the music on the Anthology appeared so radically
different from the popular culture of the 1950s increased the appeal of the Old,
Weird America, but this was nevertheless somewhat of a misrepresentation of
the period. This music was still recorded because of its commercial appeal, was
marketed using techniques not entirely dissimilar to the music industry in the
1950s, and most importantly was already revivalist when it was recorded in the
1920s and 30s. Even in this period the music was backward looking, and reflected
the disillusionment with modernity that, as the 1950s audience shows, and as

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Discovering authenticity? 13

Greil Marcus elucidates, was just beginning. So, even when the first Fiddlin John
Carson record was released in 1923 it was old-timey and perhaps spoke to the
audiences then of an Old, Weird America that belonged to a past that had been
OReilly makes a determined bid to destabilize the strength of Marcuss asser-
tions: all this strangeness, this weirdness, this unfathomability of the material at hand
seems to me no more remarkable than the strangeness inherent in much literature
(Russell and Atkinson 2004: 90). He goes on to elucidate examples from English
literary history of things seeming perhaps to represent an Old, Weird England.
OReilly insists that the agenda of the Anthology was one of cultural subversion,
and that the understated, under produced, and sometimes unintelligible sounds
of the songs were an alternative to the increasingly manufactured sounds of 1950s
popular music. What OReilly seems to be finding in the Anthology appears as a
variation of the varying personal conception of authenticity that innumerable
other people have discovered. The arresting unfamiliarity of the performers with
the new recording devices meant that capturing a sincere performance was in
some ways easier. The unaffected manner of the performance commends the
performer immediately to the listener. OReilly ends his article with his own sepa-
rated and numbered contentions, one of which is:
Intense performance styles seemed to reveal authentic inner lives, expressing
unmediated responses to real emotional disturbances and concrete problems,
whether commonplace or bizarre. The restraint that Marcus finds deadpan and
mask-like seemed to me refreshingly mature in contrast with the hit parade
excess of a pop singer like Johnny Ray, whose Cry marked some kind of peak in
histrionic self-indulgence (Russell and Atkinson 2004: 92).

There are several interesting things to note about this response to the Anthology. It
is very surprising that, considering the dearth of critical reaction to the Anthology,
there are such unequivocally varying and often antagonistic interpretations of it
in every discussion, which is symptomatic of a collection that represents so many
different aspects of music and cultural expression. The use of the word authentic
to describe the conjectured inner lives of the performers is significant because it
intrinsically has connotations of performance and fabrication, and this connects
to the apparent recurring discovery of authenticity in this material. The idea of
the musicians expressing unmediated responses to real emotional disturbances
seems to be a misunderstanding of the nature of the recording industry that
produced these songs. The musicians were performing largely traditional songs,
many of which were written a long time before these recording sessions took
place, and the performers themselves were often consummate performers who
knew exactly how to sing their songs to reveal this allegedly authentic inner life.

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14 Popular Music History

The performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, whose rendition of I Wish I Was a

Mole in the Ground is one of the examples that Greil Marcus uses for his Old,
Weird America, and he quotes Robert Cantwell saying: Listen to I Wish I Was
a Mole in the Ground again and again. Learn to play the banjo and sing it to
yourself over and over again, study every printed version, give up your career and
maybe your family, and you will not fathom it (Marcus 1997: 113). The issue with
this statement, and the previously discussed authentic inner life and response to
real situations is that Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a lawyer, folklorist and profes-
sional performer recording a traditional song that had originated quite a long
time before the 1924 session. There isnt necessarily any more sincerity behind
Lunsfords performance than Johnny Rays, and while Lunsfords performance
of this traditional folk song is undoubtedly different from the popular music of
the 1950s and even subsequent decades in which people were writing about the
Anthology, this is another example of the misremembered past influencing the
reaction to what is inescapably a pop record by a pop artist, albeit from another
time and place.
One of the aspects that assists most observably in the discovery of authentic-
ity in Anthology is the accompanying information in the notes. Smiths assembled
information has a self-consciously old-timey appearance, and seems to connect
all the disparate content of the songs in a catalogue of American folk tradition.
Smith includes the all the known provenance of the songs in his collection with
the comprehensiveness of an academic study, complete with the references for
his sources in gathering this information. This distinct academic component of
the notes to the Anthology conforms to the academic notion of authenticity
promulgated by folk scholars like Francis Child and Cecil Sharp, who maintained
that a songs credibility is dependent on its lineage. Although there is no indica-
tion that Smith shared this view, his adoption of this academic folklorist style is
yet another facet for those discovering authenticity in the music of the Anthology.
Some of the other elements, such as the illustrations, are a concordant revisiting
or recreation of the period in which the records were released and are as point-
edly old-timey as the rest of the notes. As previously observed, although they
may superficially appear random, these diagrams, advertisements, artist photos,
and other musically themed drawings, all contribute to the look of authentic-
ity that even the original American Folk Music package had on its release in
1952. If the music had been released in the form typical of popular records of the
1950s perhaps it would not have struck so many listeners with its weirdness, or
its authentic old-timeyness, because it would not have been surrounded by so
much imagery that appears to originate from the 1920s and 30s, but contributes
to this misremembered past.

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Discovering authenticity? 15

In a sense Smith is a participant in the fabrication of authenticity just as the

recording scouts were: he is constructing surroundings in which to place these
recordings that ascribes to them the kind of authenticity that listeners are looking
for. People want to see quaint adverts for archaic products, obsolete instructions
for playing the banjo, the disembodied, illustrative hand that alerts people to the
important things, and everything that transports them back to the past without
explicitly detailing what that past was like, and leaving much to the imagination
inspired by these notes. Marcus says of this layout:
Visually it was dominated by a queer schema: heavy, black, oversized numbers,
marking each of the 84 selections as if their placement altogether superseded
their content, as if some grand system lurked within the elements that Smith
had brought to bear upon each other (Marcus 1997: 9394).

In a sense it seems that Smith did place the connections between the songs over
the actual content of them, since his preoccupation was finding the links between
cultural expressions, and each of these recordings represents a differing mani-
festation of the culture that produced this music. As folklorist and musician John
Fahey says:
Smith was acutely aware of a fairly simple truthcertain musicultural traditions
were sympathetic to each other while others were not Smith had an encyclo-
paedic knowledge of 78s and a preternatural feel for the connections between
themacross race and ethnic boundariesnot only to codify them for us but
also to have this collection persist (Fahey 1997: 9).

Despite the obvious familiarity with the content essential for such a feel for the
connections, Smith was perhaps consciously breaking from the scholarly tradition
he had incorporated into the Anthology by not paying as much attention to the
lyrics and the provenance as to the links he perceived between the songs and how
they tie together a musical tradition irrespective of their lineage. OReilly, however,
does not feel the booklet is a successful device, and does not subscribe to it as
Robert Cantwells Memory Theatre: To me, the occult template never seems to
get off the ground as more than an endearing quiddity; there is no challenging
body of data to master, nothing arcane for the postulant to achieve (Russell and
Atkinson 2004: 85). This clashes quite conspicuously with OReillys complaints
about the misrepresentation of Smith as a two-dimensional eccentric, since he
seems to be dismissing one of the components of the notes as simply a product of
this eccentricity. OReilly contends that the authenticity is discovered in the music
itself and does not appear to ascribe much importance to the packaging that
frames the music. However, it is interesting to note that OReillys discovery of his
own conception of authenticity is dependent on some surprisingly nave assump-
tions about the sincerity of the performances. The discovery of authenticity in the

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16 Popular Music History

Anthology comes from the construct of the Anthology itself, not just the music in
it: it is the combined effect of the packaging with all its determined reproduction
of another era; the song scholarship and investigation; the intuitive connections
between songs and the feeling of seriality (Russell and Atkinson 2004: 85); and
the actual idea of an Anthology of American Folk Music gives this a credibility that
moves it away from the commercial origins of the records and announces it as
something comprehensive, and representing something patently real.

Success stories of the Anthology

Greil Marcus quotes folk musician Dave Van Ronks comment about the music
of the Anthology: The Anthology was our bible, we all knew every word of every
song on it, including the ones we hated (Marcus 1997: 88). The audience that
enthusiastically received the Anthology was not too dissimilar from the audience
that responded to the Leadbelly concerts in New York in the mid-1930s, or the
audience that were enthralled by the photography of the New Deal art projects
around the same time. The Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1950s was popu-
lated by many young people from privileged backgrounds who were becoming
increasingly preoccupied with the idea of the authentic American folk, and one
of the most eminent people in this environment was Pete Seeger. Seeger came
from a reasonably affluent family, and his fascination with the banjo led to he and
his father visiting Bascom Lamar Lunsfords Annual Folk Song and Dance Festival.
Seeger recalls: I discovered there was some good music in my country which I
never heard on the radioin comparison, most of the pop music of the thirties
seemed to me weak and soft, with its endless variations on Baby, baby I need
you (Filene 2000: 188). Again, after the initial effusion regarding the music of
the Festival, Seeger shows that one of his reasons for this fascination was dissat-
isfaction with the prevailing sentimental pop music of the period. It seems to be
another proverbial characteristic of discovering authenticity that there is a belief
in the dignified stoicism of the folk who are singing the folk music: they do not
sentimentalize death, disaster, heartbreak and penury, because they actually expe-
rience them and know there is nothing at all romantic about it. Indeed, Seeger
notices this: The words of the songs had all the meat of life in them. Their humour
had a bite, it was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental (Filene
2000: 188). This echoes OReillys sentiments about the understated revealing an
authenticity more convincing than pop music, but its still essential to remem-
ber that Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a pop artist putting on a pop festival, and
recruiting performers who knew how to play for a crowd, and who were playing
songs about folk tales, or events that had not occurred in their lifetime, or had
been cobbled together from newspaper stories. Folk music has a history of dealing

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Discovering authenticity? 17

with real events in a strikingly non-sentimental way, and this seems to be part of
the attraction when discovering authenticity in the songs. However, this may be
attributable to the fact that songs needed to be transmitted orally, and a fairly
stripped-down narrative was easier to remember than excessive pontificating
about feelings and so on. It is significant how widely Pete Seeger is remembered
as an authentic folk singer despite his background and his exhaustively revivalist
approach to the music he played, and that any attempt he would make to live
folk would inevitably be inauthentic because of his ability to return to a city life
of relative privilege. However, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who Seeger idealized after
visiting his music festival and from whom he borrowed his first five-string banjo,
was also a folklorist, a revivalist, and a college educated lawyer, and yet his record-
ing of I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground is often presented as the most striking
manifestation of authenticity and of Greil Marcuss Old, Weird America.
When examined from this perspective the Anthology is another element in the
contiguous process of revival and reproduction, and also a participant in the con-
stant fabrication of authenticity. As Peterson notes: This tailoring of collective
memory to serve the needs of the presentcan take several forms depending on
who has the power to enforce their distinctive interpretation of the past (Peter-
son 1997: 4). It is arguable who is in the position of power and who performs the
tailoring in the case of the Anthology, but it could be proposed that the public who
demanded the records in the 1920s and 30s were dictating the interpretation of
the past, and the talent scouts were serving this public interpretation, and the
public who received this music through the Anthology 20 years later once again
controlled the fabrication of authenticity based on the same interpretation of
the past. The phrase collective memory is especially apposite in the case of the
Anthology since that is essentially what the collection is: the collective memory
of almost a hundred musicians performing songs from memory, and also the
collective memory of an American folk tradition that may or may not be illusory,
but, like authenticity, the illusory nature is immaterial and the important thing
is that people subscribe to it. It could also be suggested that the talent scouts
were determining the way in which the past was interpreted, or misremem-
bered by their recording selections, and that Smith was in the same position
of control because of his editing and the way he presented the music, and this
had the most influence on the fabrication of authenticity. What is clear from
this is that revivalist folk song seems to be inextricably linked with some kind of
fabrication, and that what they are reviving is a past that may not have actually
existed, but which can be far more appealing and more accessible than the actual
past. Jon Pankakes notes in the Anthology reissue claim: For that generation of
urban youth who began to seek their truer America in its vernacular musics, the

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18 Popular Music History

Anthology became a central and most powerful document (Pankake 1997: 26).
The repeated use of words like true, pure, lost and mysterious in commentar-
ies about the Anthology is very symptomatic of the reaction to the music and the
conception of the past to which it belongs, and it all seems very obviously linked
to the beliefs of the folklorists of the nineteenth century and the preoccupation
with the musical purity that originated before the proliferation of the printing
press. This notion of purity is just as illusory as the belief in the purity of the
music on the Anthology, and both are the product of the misremembered past
that Peterson alludes to.
The appeal of this music to the left-wing urban youth of the 50s derives from
the attraction of the illusory lifestyle that it represents, a lifestyle that is rural,
agrarian, and has an almost anarcho-syndicalist ethos that governs it. This is
in distinct opposition to the pop music of the 1950s that speaks clearly of the
commercialized recording industry and its influence on the authenticity of the
performers. What these revivalists were discovering was an authenticity they
believed was a result of this purer lifestyle that produced purer music. As previ-
ously explored, this music was created at the beginning of the recording industry
that many were disillusioned with in the 50s, and was knowingly recorded to
exploit the same interest in authentic sounding folk songs that people had 20
years previously. It is undoubtedly a testament to the skill of the record company
scouts in finding music that still elicits the same response 20 years later, and
ultimately 70 or 80 years later. The people who praise this music as pure and
true are participating in the same fabrication that Ralph Peer and Polk Brockman
were, and ultimately the motivation of all these people to promote this music
as authentic is fundamentally the same too. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
discovered the marketability of the Anthology when it was preparing to reissue it,
and knew that its cult status could produce a sales success. Their enthusiasm is
obvious: From the day the Smithsonian Institution acquired Folkways Records
in 1986 we knew we wanted to reissue the landmark Anthology of American Folk
Music (Seeger and Horowitz 1997: 3) and OReilly comments on the tone of this
[T]he Anthology is now pitched in the marketplace as a kind of cult classic, but
with its mysteries pre-digested, its provocations tamed. An introductory note
says We hope your experience with this Anthology will be as profound as that
of previous generations, and we encourage you to use this as the beginning of
a voyage of musical discoverypersonal, spiritual, intellectual, academic, or in
whatever direction your experience takes you. Like Ralph Rinzlers Smithsonian
Folkways Festivals and Folkways Records itself, this Anthology is meant to be
a small step towards changing the worldbeginning by changing those who
experience it. It is perilously close to the tone of a school citizenship exhortation
(Russell and Atkinson 2004: 89).

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Discovering authenticity? 19

Although OReilly consistently fails to explicate what the Anthologys provocations

are, this is a very incisive criticism of the way the Anthology is marketed: as a disap-
pointingly neutered version of what it was originally intended as, a vehicle for
revisiting popular culture from another era and to change the way people thought
about music when it was released.

The success of the Anthology is the result of the felicitous and arbitrary assem-
blage of traits that have been discussed throughout this paper, and the direct or
indirect involvement of various people with greatly differing agendas. Ralph Peer
and Polk Brockman were notable participants in the recording boom of the 1920s
and 30s, and may have been personally responsible for some of the recordings
on the Anthology. Their determination to exploit the potential of the specialty
recordings market meant that they were obliged to discover what the public
wanted from the hillbilly and race music, and in catering to their tastes they
discovered what the public believed constituted authenticity in folk music. What
the public subscribed to as this quality was constructed by people like Peer and
Brockman, since they only promoted people that could fit this public conception
of an authentic folk singer and their promotion focused extensively on the old-
timey characteristics of a recording artist. When Smith was collecting records
before the Anthology was conceived he was gradually discovering a heritage of
authenticity in the recordings that had been largely forgotten because popular
tastes had long since moved on, and folklorists were not inclined to pay much
attention to commercial recordings because they were engineered so obviously
with popularity in mind, and this did not conform to a more academic under-
standing of authenticity. The fact that this music was being disseminated as
popular entertainment struck Smith as highly incongruous: It was acuriosity
because something that had survived orally for a long time suddenly turned into
something that Sears Roebuck sold (Igliori 1996: 128). What Smith is highlight-
ing here may be the basis of the old-timey appeal of some folk songs, because
they sounded ancient and distinctly out of place in the early twentieth century,
and to Smith it sounded very strange that music like this had been an important
element in a burgeoning recording industry.
Smiths conflation of the academic and the popular, and the mysterious and
the familiar, in the resulting collection made it extremely memorable among the
people fortunate enough to become aware of it, and a new group of people were
discovering the same authenticity that Smith had before them, and that Peer and
Brockman and their markets had before Smith. However, it seems extraordinarily
nave to suggest that one group are the builders of this fabricated authenticity

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20 Popular Music History

and another group are the consumers: all of the people involved in the Anthol-
ogy directly or indirectly, as creators or receivers, are complicit in the fabrication
of a conception of authenticity. The Anthology cannot dictate to even a minimal
extent how the listener responds to the music, and it is only through the public
fabrication of authenticity that Smiths collection became so influential during
the folk revival. Each listener seems to construct their own version of the past
that this music represents, and in the case of the revivalists they often promote
this misremembered past as the authentic folk tradition that they seek to revive
or restore. One message of the Anthology does seem to have been lost on all the
people who have excitedly discussed its depiction of folk tradition as an antidote
to the emptiness of popular culture: this music was popular culture. It was popular
culture from a period that seemed very unfamiliar, and from regions that did not
as widely consume the more common records of the early 20s, but it was incon-
trovertibly popular culture nonetheless. This laboured division between popular
culture and folk culture, the inauthentic nature of one and the authentic nature
of the other, is entirely artificial. Therefore it seems that all of those involved in
the Anthology were simultaneously discovering authenticity, and fabricating
their own conception of it, and the agglomeration of this expanding tradition of
authenticity has created the Anthology as it appears today.

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