A Response to Jon Smith’s “Weird Americas Old, New, and Ongoing”

The article discussed can be accessed here.

A thought struck me as I was reading Jon Smith’s article “Weird Americas Old, New, and Ongoing” from CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2010. Smith mentions that Greil Marcus quotes Bruce Conner in suggesting that part of the supposed magic of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music is that the anthology is “like field recordings” (101). Later, Smith notes that the anthology is “itself a commodity, and ultimately a very popular one” (104), before suggesting that, for Marcus, the anthology is an antidote for materialist consumerism (105). As such, Smith asserts the hypocrisy of Marcus’s position insofar as Harry Smith’s Anthology itself is a successful consumer product; however, I believe that this criticism could be taken one step further. Unlike collections such as Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South, Harry Smith’s Anthology is not composed of field recordings. The Anthology aggregates commercially released singles from Harry Smith’s private collection of 78s, including numbers by such commercially successful artists, in the “race records” market at least, as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton, appearing in the anthology as the Masked Marvel. That Patton appears as the Masked Marvel in this collection is a token of this commercialization. Early blues artists often recorded under a variety of pseudonyms in order to subvert their contractual obligations to different record labels. Conner is right in his suggestion that the anthology is only “like field recordings” because in point of fact they aren’t. Accordingly, the belief, from Marcus’s perspective, that the “musicians on Smith’s anthology [are] denizens of a populist world” (105) is completely untenable as at each stage, from the original release and recording, to the subsequent anthologization and re-releases, the songs of the anthology were motivated by commercial interests. As such, Marcus’s antidote for American materialism isn’t false simply because he uses a contemporary commercial product to gain access to an “old, weird” emblem of a “populist world,” but rather that he uses a contemporary commercial product to retrieve “old, weird” commercial products.

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Filed under Field Recordings, Folk, Music

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