Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
By: Zach Diamond
Becoming a foundation of the American folk revival of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music acted as a bible for the Greenwich Village folk singers. As Dave Van Ronk wrote in his memoirs, “we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.” Understanding the histories and meanings of these songs became a rite of passage for those who pursued folk music. Recounted below are brief overviews of six songs from different chapters of the Anthology.
In this volume, most of the songs derived from English and Scottish roots, carried over to the Appalachian by their European ancestors. Many of these songs are American versions of Child ballads, often telling stories of misfortune and hardship.
This murder tale, sometimes titled “Naomi Wise,” is played on a fiddle and sang by G.B. Grayson in this version. In the narrative, John Lewis deceives Omie into following him to a deep river, where he kills her by throwing her into the water. He tries to appear innocent by inquiring about her location at Adam’s Hall; however, he ends up being put in jail. After spending six months in jail, he escaped and joined the army. While the general story is taken as folklore, the story has roots in Randleman, North Carolina. There was a woman named Naomi Wise who was killed, and there was a man named John Lewis who was arrested, but the story connecting the two remains tenuous. John Lewis was arrested in 1807 and escaped in 1811, at which time several men, including the county Sheriff, were arrested for helping John Lewis escape. Lewis was put back in jail in 1813; however, escaping from prison, not murder was his indictment. Naomi Wise, on the other hand, was murdered in 1808. She was substantially older than John Lewis and her killer was never found. At the time of her death, she had two children, both birthed out of wedlock. While having children out of wedlock was largely condemned, it was customary for the father, in secret, to bring gifts to support his illegitimate children, explaining the lyric, “bring her some money and some other fine things.” Because the life histories of Naomi and John caused quite a stir for such a small town, it is likely that both stories were told over the years. The first published ballad conjoining the two tales appeared in a newspaper in 1851 by Braxton Craven. While his story was fabricated, it left a long legacy.
In Frank Hutchison’s version of this ballad, he accompanies his lyrics with strummed guitar and ends with a harmonica solo. This ballad tells the tale of Lee Shelton, given the name “Stagger Lee” or “Stack Lee” for inconclusive reasons. It is known, however, that he was known for his prostitution business. During a fight, Billy Lyons stole Shelton’s hat. At the end of the night, Shelton shot and killed Lyons to reclaim his hat. He was subsequently put in prison in 1897. Because Stagger Lee was already a local celebrity in St. Louis, the story spread quickly amongst the African American community. Earliest versions of the song were likely ad libbed call and response hollers between laborers. It wasn’t until Mississippi John Hurt’s recording in 1928 that there was a concrete version of the song. Since then, there have been several more versions. Unlike most ballads, the history of this tale is largely documented and historically accurate. With the story occurring in the late 19th century, and the song becoming popular in the 1920s, there were still people living who could explain the meaning of the song.
This section of the Anthology consists of songs played at social gatherings, mostly either at dances or religious events.
Since I Laid My Burden Down
This classic tune comes from religious origins. In the Elders McIntorsh and Edwards’ Sanctified Singers’ version, several singers are howling in unison, suggesting the emotional and spiritual ties to performing such song. The lyrics are frequently repeated throughout the song - “Glory, glory, Hallelujah!” allowing people who weren’t already familiar with the song to join in when they feel the spirit running through them. The first versions of the song originate in African American communities around the Mississippi area. Later versions were recorded by legends such as Mississippi John Hurt and Odetta. This tune represents a song that a young child may hear at a social gathering that drives his or her musical inspiration. It is tunes like this one that engendered the musical creativity, spirit, and desire in the African American community, leading to the soulful sound still heard today.
Home! Sweet! Home!
Unlike many other songs in the Anthology, the Breaux Frere’s version of this song is accompanied by a full band, including fiddle, guitar, and accordion. This song originated from a 1823 opera, and has remained well known for over 150 years. In the original arrangement, the melody was written by an Englishmen, while the lyrics were written by an American. However, in this particular version, the lyrics are sung in French. The song spread across America during the Civil War, where it was widely sung in Army camps by homesick soldiers. I speculate that it was during the war that the lyrics were brought down to Louisiana, translated to French and played with obvious Creole/Cajun influences. It is interesting that Harry Smith chose this version with French lyrics to be in the Anthology, while the original version is in English. However, his decision to do so remarks on the epitome of the American condition. It is only in this country that a song can be written in the native language, and translated to a foreign language out of the need to satisfy a subculture wanting to sing along. In a sense, the lyrics being in French makes the song all the more American.
In this chapter, Harry Smith collects songs dealing with everyday life. Songs in this volume tell stories of love, work, and heartbreak.
James Alley Blues
This song, recorded by Richard “Rabbit” Brown, is the quintessential tune of the Anthology’s third volume. While it doesn’t tell of a narrative or specific incident, it expresses the everyday angst felt by a person not completely satisfied with his life’s current state. “Yes I buy some groceries and I pay the rent / She try to make me wash her clothes but I got good common sense,” it sings. The singer is not desperately poor nor a witness to a murder, just a common man fed up with his lover’s demands. This song represents one of the first twelve-bar blues songs to sing of being dissatisfied with a lover and likely served as a precursor to Delta blues songs of the 1930’s. Rabbit Brown has been cited as one of the first guitarists to learn twelve-bar blues. Coming from the same town as Louis Armstrong, Rabbit Brown acts as a driver in the shift in the African American community from jazz to blues.
Spike Driver Blues
This song is one of the many folk songs signing of the tale of John Henry, an African American folk legend tasked with hammering a steel nail through a mountain to make way for a railroad. He completed the task, but died immediately afterwards from heart failure. Songs about John Henry come in two varieties: ballads that tell his story, and work songs with a common chorus sang by laborers on the railroad. This derivative falls in the latter category. The refrain, “his old hammer killed John Henry / but it won't kill me,” was sang in unison by laborers so that they could keep a steady tempo as they hammered nails into the road. It also served as a reminder to not work too fast or too slow. Workers who worked too fast got winded and fell behind, while workers who worked too slow could never keep up. The legend of John Henry represents the exploitation of African American labor. They were assigned impossible tasks yet had no choice but to put forth their full effort. Laborers could relate to John Henry and, therefore, sung songs like this one everyday during work, preserving it through generations.