Harry Smith Anthology Remixed
- Neil Cooper
- 19 June 2008
The Harry Smith Anthology Remixed features the responses of 84 leading artists and musicians to a seminal music compilation. Neil Cooper explores this bold premise
When American song-collector, artist, ethno-musicologist and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith released The Anthology Of American Folk Music in 1952, it was a labour of love which had a huge influence on the 1950s so-called Folk revival. Without this three double album set of rare recordings by then forgotten singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, pop, politics and protest might have made the Greenwich Village coffee house scene a very different place.
Half a century on, the Anthology has been repackaged as a six CD box set, and a brand new generation are getting in touch with tradition. Some, such as ‘Bonnie’ Prince Billy and Alasdair Roberts, make such old time tunes sound thrillingly contemporary. Meanwhile, Newcastle’s alt.gallery, set up to interface the links between sound and vision, is spreading the word even further by touring their show of pictorial responses to each of the Anthology’s 84 songs to Glasgow. Like the music, the roots of the exhibition lie in chance encounters.
‘I’d come across Smith before,’ remembers curator Rebecca Shatwell. ‘That was through a film in which visual art and music came together in a way that captured the whole ethos of alt.gallery.’
The next step was to approach a hundred artists and musicians culled from Shatwell’s own networks. These included Ross Sinclair, Luke Fowler, Bill Drummond and Michael Nyman, who chose a song each.
‘It’s a very intimate idea, and I tried to employ the same instinctive strategies as Smith did with the Anthology,’ says Shatwell. ‘As soon as I started sending out invitations it became this mad erratic idea.’
One early incumbent was Alec Finlay, who chose ‘Frankie’ by Mississippi John Hurt. As ‘Frankie and Johnny’, this mixture of love affair and pulp fiction shootout was brought into the mainstream by the likes of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Finlay’s response is two photographic close-ups of a man and woman in pants, with the names of Frankie and Johnny woven onto them as name-tags.
‘I loved that song growing up with my grandfather and hearing Johnny Cash,’ Finlay says. ‘It was about sex and wickedness, but put into a popular context.’
Finlay likens the Harry Smith Anthology to his own experience working with poet, folkloricist and founder of the School of Scottish Studies, Hamish Henderson.
‘Hamish was also interested in collecting, and was one of the first people to use tape recorders rather than just writing the songs down.’
Since The Harry Smith Anthology Remixed opened at alt.gallery a year ago in a room at the back of a suitably eclectic record shop, there have been shows by Johnston, German conceptualists Die Todliche Doris and sonic collagist People Like Us. This ties in with a widening of interest in sound-based art. Harry Smith too taps into a resurgence of something no-one’s willing to call Folk music.
‘It happens every ten years,’ Finlay observes. ‘Frankie and Johnny has so many associations with people, so for me it’s about taking something traditional and making it contemporary.’
Harry Smith Anthology Remixed, CCA, Glasgow, Sat 21 Jun–Sat 26 Jul.