When Harry Met Sammy
I don’t normally like to these posts to be long, but as a piece of writing this is too good to edit down. This reminded me again that things are rarely as they seem, rarely as simple as outsiders perceive—those at the centre of events always have a much more complex perspective. And also it reminded me of the importance of primary recollections…
It started when Barney let me know a couple of months ago about an upcoming Harry Smith Conference, America Changed Through Music: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music at 60, a one-day conference this Saturday September 15th. It’s hosted by the University of East Anglia’s School of American Studies at UEA London, and will explore the impact and ongoing legacy of an extraordinary cultural artefact—whew! I emailed one of the co-directors, Thomas Ruys Smith, as I’d been talking to Sam & Ann Charters about their time with Moe Asch at Folkways Records, and offered to put him in touch. He said he’d be delighted in Sam’s view. And then Sam emailed me with his view, which is brilliant (if off-message…)
“I’ve had a long, complicated relationship with Harry’s set. I first heard it in New Orleans in 1952 just after it first came out—a folk singer named Billy Faier in the French Quarter had it—then when Annie and I first began living together in 1957 the first thing we bought together was the Harry Smith set. $35 dollars—a lot of money for us. I liked some of it—some of it I already knew—and it all seemed to be to be just part of what had been going on with the reissues of old jazz and blues recordings since the 1930s. Fred Ramsey was doing a twelve volume LP reissue for Moe Asch of the history of jazz at the same time and his volume 1 had a lot of the same kinds of material. When I began working with Moe he said that he had been helping support Harry and they both were junking old 78s on 6th Avenue, just around the corner from the Folkways office. All the records in the collection were up in the office and half of the records that went into the set were his. He said that he and Harry had talked a lot about what they wanted from the set and of course it followed the outlines that the Lomaxes had set up in their folk song anthologies. The LPs were fine and fun—but no big deal.
But—for all those sixties teenagers the world began with Bob Dylan, and if he listened to the set it had to be the roots of everything that ever happened in America. Harry was living in the Chelsea Hotel all this time and in all my experiences with him he was a genuine horse’s ass. I had to shut him up sometimes when I was trying to record people in the Village and he kept drifting into Moe’s office begging for money. All his films were there as well, but I had seen a lot of experimental film and I didn’t think these were very exciting. His great things seemed to be the collection of painted Russian Easter Eggs in his hotel room, and his unending repertoire of string games. I edited an album of Allen Ginsberg’s readings and singing from tapes that Harry made in the hotel room, and at least he got a decent sound.
He made some scrawled notes for a Volume 4 and I was given the luckless task of trying to figure out what he wanted to include from his list—which drew down upon my head the wrath of everyone whose lives had begun with the original three volumes. Harry finally couldn’t pay his hotel bill, so Allen moved him in and supported him, which meant that Harry now became an iconic figure, since Allen always made it known that he only hung out with important figures. Before he died Allen set up in his will a legacy to pay for promotion of the Harry Smith legend. The woman who had the job was a fire-eater who often expressed her dislike for me, but I always felt that she was just doing what she was paid to do. There was eventually a Harry Smith celebration at the St. Marks Church on the Lower East Side where Harry was presented as the only person anyone knew who was probably at least as important as Jesus.
So that’s me and Harry—I wish some of these people could somehow see that what happened in the 1950s was just a continuation of the gathering and collecting of vernacular music in the South that had been going on for nearly a century. Everything I learned was from what people like Fred Ramsey and Bill Russell had done in New Orleans and the South in the 1930s—their recordings of musicians like Leadbelly and Bunk Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton—the books and articles and eventually LPs and films. Why does Harry get the credit for something that was much larger than his set? I dunnow.
I did a radio interview yesterday with someone in America who had just read The Country Blues and he wasn’t really aware that these things could have happened so long ago. At least the people obsessed with the blues don’t go on about Harry—they want to talk about the Stones and the other Brits. I try always to talk about other things, but there is always a silence. At least he didn’t ask me about Dylan.
You can certainly pass this on to Tom—a small muted protest.”
Thankfully, Tom felt that it was “a priceless perspective to get on things—a rich account from a significant individual.” As it is. My dad used to include a couple of the tracks when he did record recitals around the country in the late fifties. I found these notes he made about Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s James Alley Blues.
Art Garfunkel: Walking/Singing interface
Reports MSN Music: We did not know that Art Garfunkel has been walking as part of his therapy. He’s currently walking across Greece, en route to Istanbul, a journey that began in Ireland and has continued in 100-mile installments over the past 10 years. He tells us: “I am singing while I walk! I sing because I need to find my voice—I’ve had trouble with it over the last two years—and I can’t live without singing.”
Duquesne by Bob Gumpert
Following last week’s mention of Duquesne, Bob sends these fantastic photos.
On My iPod, Danny O’Donoghue, Metro
Fire and Rain by James Taylor. “This is such an emotional song and without doubt one of his best. It’s about the time he spent with junkies, in particular a girl called Suzanne.” Ah, Danny, with his simple, inaccurate view of the world…
The song actually chronicled Taylor’s experiences in mental institutions, such as McLean Hospital in Massachusetts as a senior in high school and his battle with drug addiction (The fire in the title refers to his shock therapy). “Suzanne the plans they made put an end to you,” refers to Suzanne Schnerr, a childhood friend of his who committed suicide while he was away in London recording his first album for Apple Records. Friends at home, concerned that it might distract Taylor from his big break, kept the news from him, and he only found out six months later.
Where’s My Harmonica, Albert? Why, In Beak Street, Bob, At Your Pop-Up Shop…
…just around the corner from Carnaby Street. Underwhelming. I bump into Mark Ellen, whose two-time-listen opinion of Tempest is “Five good songs.” Dead on. Or as my friend Lloyd said, “It’s like one of his theme time radio shows—but just him…”