Culture Rover

#117 - The Celestial Monochord at the Bottom of the Closet

Brett and Rennie Sparks' brief but apt comments about the Anthology of American Folk Music in the "Inner Sleeve" column of The Wire put me in mind of the first time I came across Harry Smith's strange compilation.

It was before Smithsonian Folkways released the CD reissue, when I was a college disc jockey for a bluegrass and old-timey music radio show. Because the station mainly (and wonderfully) focused on jazz, the station's recordings for my show were stuffed into a closet far too small for the collection. This meant that on the floor of the closet were piles of LPs.

One day, cleaning these out, I finally got to the bottom of the pile. There, underneath it all, was the Anthology, so different from the rest. It was dusty and mysterious, iron ore at the bottom of a gold mine, oddly out of place among the fabulously chintzy covers of glittering mandolins and banjos on lonesome country roads and Hee-Haw cross-marketing attempts and campy, corn-fed good ol' boys in the utterly mixed symbolism of Appalachian cowboy hats.

These were all so of a time, while the Anthology was so dissociated and out of time, with its celestial monochord cover and its thick red box, its fragmented pastiche of liner notes and its oddly-organized set of LP records.

It was hip, bohemian, and weirdly futuristic in an archive of nostalgic kitsch (which was great in its own mid-twentieth-century way, I should say).

The Anthology was a strange meeting of the beatnik coffeeshop, the hobo jungle, the mountainside homestead, and a spaceship from Mars: everyone gathered around the 78 as it moved onto the 33 1/3 long player, all players in an imagined world where mediation between the old and the new, the listeners and the makers, the lost and the found, counted for more than any fixed authentic truth.

Alchemy at work: music as a malleable conductor, a magic spell, an incantation with the powers of the imagination, a shadowbox of forms, a gold standard of transmutability, a time machine, a spook in shape-shifting disguises, a piece of coal in regalia.

The Anthology was a buried utopia, a dawning no-wheresville for everyone, out of sight, brightening the corners, waiting to be discovered, still waiting.

30 October 2006

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