By the time Bob Dylan first arrived at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, folk songs had been peppering the pop charts for years. The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley,” a 19th century murder-ballad-turned-into-a-sing-along, went No. 1 in 1958. Peter, Paul & Mary had a Top 10 single with Pete Seeger’s “If I had a Hammer” in ’62. And Trini Lopez took a souped-up version of Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” to No. 3 in 1963.
If these performers mined folk for commercial gold, a new wave of folk artists led by Dylan were in it for the art. The scene coalesced in Greenwich Village in New York City, and songs were the coin of the realm. The new kid from Minnesota was welcomed by a community of young idealists, who saw folk as revolutionary: Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and countless others. Their spiritual godfathers included Dylan’s hero Woody Guthrie, sidelined by a disease that would kill him in 1967, and the still-vital Seeger. Artists from the worlds of bluegrass, country and blues such as Doc Watson and the New Lost City Ramblers also figured in the revival.
What lit the fuse? For many, it was the “Anthology of American Folk Music," a 1952 box set that compiled 78 r.p.m. recordings issued commercially from 1926 to '34 by gospel and blues singers, Cajun fiddle players, hillbilly yodelers and Gothic balladeers.
There is little doubt that music as we know it would not be the same if an eccentric record collector named Harry Smith had not pieced together the 'Anthology of American Folk Music.'
In his 1997 book "Invisible Republic" on the creation of "The Basement Tapes" by Dylan and future members of The Band in the ‘60s, Greil Marcus describes the anthology as the "founding document" of the folk revival. It is a huge claim, given the groundwork laid by musicologists and musicians such as Guthrie, Seeger’s Weavers and John and Alan Lomax — whose recordings of blues shouts, chain-gang chants and cotton-field spirituals also deserve some of the credit for inspiring the new wave of folkies. But there is little doubt that music as we know it would not be the same if an eccentric record collector named Harry Smith had not pieced together the "Anthology."
Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, the Lovin’ Spoonful's John Sebastian, Elvis Costello, John Fahey, Nanci Griffith, Ry Cooder, Beck and, of course, Dylan and The Band, as well as countless others have made "Anthology" a cornerstone in their musical development. Smith's work may be the true "basement tapes," a record of antique songs made by forgotten singers that still sounds positively postmodern today.
The set includes a number of major artists, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sleepy John Estes and the Carter Family, but it's populated largely by misfits, oddities and obscurities who adopted the voices of presidential assassins, drunkards, murderers, train men, psychotics and widowers. It captures a vision of another, different America than had been depicted in most folk music available in the early '50s. As Marcus writes, Smith created a mythical village "whose citizens are not distinguished by race. There are no masters and no slaves. The prison population is large, and most are part of it at one time or another." In Marcus' "Smithville," everyday life is transformed into myth or revealed as a joke.
It was a vision of a secret Americana that resonated first among a few hard-core collectors and denizens of the emerging urban folk scenes, then seeped into the rock ‘n' roll culture that would redefine mainstream thinking in the '60s.
‘It opened all sorts of doors by exploding the definition of what folk music was.’
"Think about the musical climate in the cities at that time (1952)," the late John Cohen once told me in an interview. Cohen was a member of the seminal folk group the New Lost City Ramblers and a Yale University student at the time of the release of Smith's anthology. "Rock ‘n' roll wasn't out yet, rhythm and blues was barely heard, and folk music was the Weavers and Woody Guthrie. It definitely wasn't this thing that Harry Smith came up with. It opened all sorts of doors by exploding the definition of what folk music was. It put into question everything we heard, and the music we were making. ‘If this is American music, than what are we?'"
It’s a question that haunted Dylan and by extension everyone who was inspired by him for the last half-century.