April 9, 2014
Portland’s Mississippi Records oversee definitive reissue of the record that Bob Dylan thought was the greatest ever made.
Highly anticipated since news of an impending reissue compelled us to include it in our collection of the most exciting releases of early 2014, Mississippi Records’ loving reissue of folk archivist Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music has finally begun to filter onto the shelves.
Originally released in 1952 in three volumes, and described by Mississippi Records founder as responsible for changing America “more than maybe any other record ever made”, the latest incarnation of this essential piece of cultural history has been expanded to four volumes to reflect the breadth of Smith’s vision – a voracious record collector and committed field recordist who, with the help of the Smithsonian developed the anthology as an alternative to the marginalised narrative of American vernacular society.
The first record of any kind to present black and white musicians side-by-side without distinction and a collection peppered with idiosyncratic and avant-garde juxtapositions, Isaacson is under no illusions quite how influential it was in shaping the country’s post war identity.
Speaking to OPB, he says: “It’s a game changer, because the minute you hear it it makes a lot of things sound a little cheest or bland… Particularly in 1952, it would open your head to all kinds of things. So I feel like it really started a revolution; you could link it directly to a lot of social revolutions that happened in the 60’s and late 50’s.”
Spanning the full gamut of forms, from gospel chants to murder ballads and cajun dances, the Anthology is split into four parts – Ballads, Social Music, Songs and Rhythmic Changes – but despite this ostensibly archival approach, Smith, like Isaacson, was in the first instance compelled by his emotional connection with the music.
Himself a Portland native, Smith has provided a blueprint for Isaacson’s Mississippi Records (he describes the collection as “something to aspire to”), who explained the ethos of his label to The Vinyl Factory in a rare and extended interview last year. At that time he’d released 162 records (with hand-made covers) in under ten years and studiously avoided courting publicity of any kind on the way to creating his own unique and personal archive of the world’s forgotten folk musics. It’s an ongoing endeavour of which Harry Smith would have been proud.
The Anthology Of American Folk Music is available as separate double LP volumes or a single box set complete with beautiful original liner notes. Each volume is cloth-bound, pressed on 200gram vinyl (beware the shipping costs!) and limited to 2000 copies. It’s a one-time pressing so act no or forever hold your peace.
You can watch an extensive unboxing of the lavish set here.
Main image courtesy of the Harry Smith Archive. “Harry Smith ca. 1965 [Photo by John Palmer]”