By David Werther.
The Harry Smith Project Live, DVD, Shout Factory, 0-7389-3439-9
In 1952, Folkways released Harry Everett Smith's (1923–1991) Anthology of American Folk Music consisting of 84 of his favorite 78 RPM records that spanned the years 1927–1932. That collection influenced many folk singers in the 1960s, not the least of which was Bob Dylan. Dylan covered "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" on his first album, "The Coo Coo Bird" on Live at the Gaslight 1962, and for Blonde on Blonde's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" he lifted a line from Smith's "I Wish I Were A Mole in the Ground": "the railroad men drink up your blood like wine." Dylan also created some original music on The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding reminiscent of recordings from Smith's anthology.
The Harry Smith Project Live boasts a wide variety of artists, including: Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Todd Rundgren, Sonic Youth, and Nick Cave, performing songs from the anthology. This is not folk-music for the faint-hearted. The opening track is Elvis Costello's cover of "The Butcher's Boy," a song about suicide. Other topics include murder, "Ommie Wise Parts I and II;" desertion, "The House Carpenter;" and despair, "Frankie." Lou Reed himself seems at death's door as he performs "See That My Grave is Kept Clean." Gospel songs do provide a contrast to this bleakness and despair, but not any easy comfort. Nick Cave's rendition of "John the Revelator" is appropriately apocalyptic, and Roswell Rudd's wide-eyed rendition of "Dry Bones," aided by Sonic Youth, is anything but tame. Even so, the concert is not entirely Sturm und Drang. The Folksmen lighten things up with "Old Joe's Place" and Richard Thompson's delight in performing "The Coo Coo Bird" is contagious. Given the wide variety of players and songs, even those who find the concert largely satisfying will be reaching for the fast-forward button once or twice.