It’s hard to avoid hyperbole when talking about the Anthology of American Folk Music. The 1952 compilation was spearheaded by Portland-born Harry Smith, who spent years collecting recordings originally recorded between 1928 and 1932 in Appalachia and the American South. The Greenwich folk revival — and Bob Dylan’s early work — would not have been the same without it, and it has served as an influence on countless musicians over the past six decades, from Jerry Garcia, the Byrds and Bruce Springsteen to contemporary acts like Sonic Youth, Wilco and Beck.
Portland’s Mississippi Records recently reissued the Anthology of American Folk Music. Owner Eric Isaacson discovered the collection as a teenager by checking it out at the Multnomah County Library. He’s spent a lot of time digging into the collection and its influence, and says he thinks “it changed America more than maybe any other record ever made.”
“It was huge. It set a lot of people on a journey. You could say everyone from Bob Dylan to John Fahey … The minute they heard this, it changed the game … It makes a lot of things sound cheesy and bland and boring that you’ve heard all your life … it would open your head to all kinds of things.”
We’re taking the occasion of Mississippi Records’ reissue of the Anthology to look at some of the artists the collection has inspired over the years.
If you want to hear all of the songs back to back, check out our Spotify playlist with these songs and more.
1. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is probably the easiest artist to trace back to the Anthology, directly and indirectly. He recorded plenty of straight-up covers of the Anthology’s songs, and the collection has continued to influence Dylan throughout his career. One of the better early takes is “Hard Times in New York Town” — an urban re-imagining of the Anthology’s rural “Down on Penny’s Farm.
2. Joan Baez
Joan Baez was right there with Bob Dylan in the Greenwich folk scene and similarly has covered a number of Anthology songs. Her eerie version of Clarence Ashley’s “House Carpenter” is a highlight.
3. The Grateful Dead
“Ballad of Casey Jones” is not the Grateful Dead’s most famous song involving ill-fated railroad engineer Casey Jones. That credit goes to the massive hit from Workingman’s Dead simply titled “Casey Jones.” But Furry Lewis’ “Kassie Jones” not only influenced the Dead to write their classic, but also inspired a few more straightforward covers of Lewis’ tune before they landed on their version.
Jeff Tweedy’s pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo used the Anthology as partial inspiration to kick-start the alternative folk movement in the ’90s (The Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven” — featured on the fourth volume of the Anthology — was coincidentally the title track of Uncle Tupelo’s influential 1990 debut album, No Depression). Dock Bogg’s “Sugar Baby” has become a regular in Tweedy’s solo sets, though it’s worth seeking out a performance organized by the Smithsonian when Wilco’s Tweedy and Jay Bennet joined with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn to cover several Anthology songs, including “Sugar Baby.”
5. John Fahey
Perhaps the most vocal ambassador of the Anthology, John Fahey once stated, “I’d match the Anthology up against any other single compendium of important information ever published. Dead Sea Scrolls? Nah. I’ll take the Anthology.” Isaacson says Fahey has even been rumored to be the person who actually put together the fourth volume, rather than the original editor Harry Smith. Here, he covers “Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand” with the simple title, “John Henry.”
6. Janis Joplin and Big Brother
The Coo Coo Bird may be the most-covered song on the Anthology, but it’s hard to find a version that rips as much as the one by Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company.
7. Canned Heat
Henry Thomas’s “Bull-Doze Blues” wasn’t on the Anthology, but Thomas was rediscovered by a new generation thanks to his tracks on the collection: “Old Country Stomp” and “Fishing Blues” (well-covered in its own right). Canned Heat’s Al Wilson (a friend and bandmate of John Fahey’s) made his way to Thomas’ “Bull-Doze Blues” and adapted it as “Going up the Country.” Swap a note-for-note flute solo for Thomas’ original quills solo and you’ve got a ’60s classic.
8. Sonic Youth
Not everyone who was inspired by the Anthology is an artist of the ’60s. A tribute to the Anthology featuring artists like Beck, Wilco, Nick Cave and Steve Earle came out a few years back. Perhaps the most surprising connection was a Sonic Youth-Roswell Rudd collaboration on “Dry Bones.” Sonic Youth has also drawn inspiration from Harry Smith’s avant-garde film work.
9. The Everly Brothers
The Everlys tried their hand at the “Coo Coo Bird,” like so many others. But the song that perhaps best shows an influence on the Everlys wasn’t technically a part of the Anthology until the fourth volume, released in 2000. Nevertheless, the Blue Sky Boys’ performance of “Down by the Banks of the Ohio” serves as a forerunner to the Everly Brothers’ “Down in the Willow Garden.” Both songs’ chilling stories of murderous lovers are belied by gorgeous harmonies.
We already have a Grateful Dead track in the list, but Jerry Garcia also pays tribute to the Anthology in his solo work. Check out this cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver’s Blues.”
To listen to Think Out Loud’s full conversation about the Anthology of American Folk Music, click on the audio player at the top of the page.