The old old thing

Malvina Reynolds and Harry Smith argue for folk's historical authenticity. Whatever that is.

Hooray for the little mouse indeed, but you know what? The poor thing probably got electrocuted. That plays into Reynolds' other legacy, that of the unrepentant optimist, where "love is something if you give it away" ("Magic Penny") and even if "this old world is mean and cruel / Still I love it like a fool." Even when she was being harshly ironic, she was never that harsh: "Boraxo," a song about the 1969 tear gassings at People's Park--when a flip then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan said he'd wash the blood off his hands with that brand of soap--doesn't finger Reagan explicitly.

Reynolds' is a vision that runs contrary to our inherited notion of a folk singer, naming names and shouting her anger. But those charged with preserving her legacy say that was her greatest asset--and just as valid as any other approach. "I certainly picked up her songwriting ideas, particularly the idea of keeping it particular," says Reynolds' daughter Nancy Schimmel, a Berkeley songwriter herself. "She was writing about an incident instead of the abstract, and there are people who will talk about that kind of influence. Her influence may not always be visible, but it's there." Tackling that question, Seeger opts for Reynolds' own words, the start of a poem she wrote: "If this world survives (and every other day I think it might) / In good part it will be because of the great souls in our community."


"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
John Palmer
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
John Palmer
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
John Palmer
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
John Palmer
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
John Palmer
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.
John Palmer
"I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio," Harry Smith once said. Which pretty much went against his life's work.

If that sensibility seems overly romantic today, then part of the blame for our changing perceptions of folk music can be laid at the feet of the late Harry Smith. While Reynolds was living in the Berkeley flats, chasing down Seeger, and studying at UC Berkeley, Smith was living in a cluttered apartment in the Berkeley hills, on Panoramic Way, conning people out of their old 78s and starting an ambitious project that would essentially define folk music as we know it today. Artist, filmmaker, music fan, and anthropologist, the time Smith spent in the Bay Area in the late '40s would lead to the creation of the three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952.

Broken roughly into the categories "Ballads," "Social Music," and "Songs," the Anthology betrayed a wealth of research, but it would be a mistake to call it an act of musicology. Smith had too much fun with the thing, from the fake newspaper headlines he used for each song's description to the way the songs were arranged, talking to each other instead of walking a narrow historical path. In carefully picking songs from a patch of just five years (1926 to 1931), Smith covered just about every feeling and concept that songwriters wrestle with today.

Mainly, though, the songs focus on stuff like loss and hard work and tested faith, subjects at the heart of the new Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four, a long-rumored collection, finally released on Revenant, that dives deeper into the musical response to the Great Depression. It would seem the much-celebrated and Grammy-winning reissue of the original Anthology, which sold over 30,000 copies, inspired a rush to get the fourth volume out, but little related to Smith works so simply. "Several years ago Harry Smith Archives passed us a somewhat mystery-shrouded tape containing the Volume Four tracks, a number of which had yet to be identified as to artist and title," says Revenant spokesperson John DeFore. "We and HSA began trying to uncover more about the background and, two or three short years later, here we are. In 'Revenant time,' our response was practically instantaneous."

The volume has the imprint of Smith's fascination with spectral voices slogging their way toward some version of truth: the oddly detached, but not resigned, sound in Blind Alfred Reed's voice when he sang "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" in 1929, or Minnie Wallace stomping her anger out at "The Cockeyed World" in 1935. "Anything Harry supposedly collaborated on with others can be immediately ruled out as legitimate, of course," says DeFore. "Collaboration was not in Harry's nature." Looking at the Anthology that way, with Smith as the sole author passing down messages, the messages got passed oddly, mutating and finding themselves in weird corners of music. Sister Clara Hudmon's "Stand by Me" shades Ben E. King's later hit; Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" got telegraphed not to folkies but guitar students; the Carter Family's "No Depression in Heaven" would spawn the sensibility (and title) for a bad album by a good band, Uncle Tupelo, that would then inspire a whole genre mucking with tradition throughout the '90s.

That isn't the same simple path of songs passed down whole from generation to generation, but it's no better or worse than Smith's intent, and probably even the way he would've liked it. If you want to hear the past, you might as well listen to the present. As he told interviewer John Cohen in 1968: "I don't think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records--it's better to switch on the radio."

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