In the first half of the twentieth century, the American record industry was purely about ‘the now’. Music was recorded, records pressed and sold, and everybody moved on to the next thing. There was little attempt to go back, take stock, and put the growing recorded legacy into some kind of context (with the possible exception of jazz). That changed in 1952 when experimental filmmaker and record collector Harry Smith compiled the groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music, a series of three double vinyl albums issued on Folkways Records. It’s a project that was only made practical by the invention of the long playing microgroove record just a few years before. Smith took as his parameters the period between 1927, when electrical recording became standard thus allowing a far better sound quality, and 1932 when the music industry had retracted to almost a tenth of its previous size due to the Depression, and folk music recordings had almost ceased completely.
The 84 recordings he chose were split into three broad themes – Ballads, Social Music and Songs (a fourth collection, Labor Songs, remained uncompleted until 2000 when it was issued alongside the others by Revenant Records. It’s not been included in this project.). Each song was accompanied by a short liner note written by Smith, under a tabloid newspaper style headline which acted as a witty encapsulation of the story told within. Many of the songs are now very familiar – “Single Girl, Married Girl”, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”, “Henry Lee”, “The House Carpenter”, “Kassie Jones” etc etc. This is hardly surprising since the collection was extremely influential on the fifties folk revival, and songs were plundered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Joan Baez and virtually everybody else on the Greenwich Village coffee house scene. Van Ronk put it best when he said “we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.”
Harry Smith Anthology Remixed has a simple premise: take each of the 84 songs, and ask an artist to create a visual representation of it. The result is an exhibition that’s as witty, moving, innovative and human as the songs themselves. Contributors to the exhibition include musicians like Michael Nyman, DJ Spooky, Yamantaka Eye, Vashti Bunyan and Jad Fair, as well as a whole host of established and up-and-coming visual artists. Media used includes graphic art, collage, photography, painting and sculpture – but each piece is uniformly sized and framed.
Bill Drummond’s response is typically anti-art, coming in the form of an e-mail message suggesting that he couldn’t think of a suitable artistic statement. But most of the artists have taken the challenge seriously and come up with something thoughtful and original. Some I particularly like include Mark Vernon and Barry Burns’ spoof medicine show poster for Coley Jones’ “Drunkard’s Special” which includes a whole host of made-up entertainers and entertainments including a paper aeroplane competition. New York musician Jeffrey Lewis has turned Uncle Eck Dunford’s “Old Shoes and Leggins” into a very funny comic strip, which reminded me a bit of Robert Crumb. In complete contrast, :zoviet*france: illustrate Joseph Falcon’s “Arcadian One-Step” with a small metallic sculpture inspired by the accordion.
It’s a fascinating project. Smith died in 1991, but were he still alive today I think he would have been thrilled with the varied and original responses to the tunes he collated.
Earlier, I attended the annual degree show at the Glasgow School of Art. It’s something I’ve meant to do in previous years but never have. I was very impressed by the general standard. Cynically, I expected to be confronted with a lot of sculptures consisting of a load of crap strewn on the floor, and semi-abstract paintings created with all the feeling and skill of a bored three year old, intermingled with a few oases of inspiration. OK, there was some of that – a few things that reeked of “will this do?” following three years spent in the pub, but on the whole, the standard of work was very high indeed – easily as good as many things I’ve seen at GoMA or the Tate Modern. The sheer volume of work on show meant that even spending a whole afternoon there was not enough to give many pieces more than a cursory glance. I probably missed a good deal completely. There was a lot I liked. Jonathan Barr had a series of sky photos that were almost featureless, and yet somehow very involving – like a visual equivalent of ambient music. In contrast, Susan Kennedy’s cannibalistic paintings were deeply disturbing. Technically they reminded me of Goya’s ‘black period’, but the subject matter was even darker – ordinary looking people holding severed heads, limp body parts, and in a couple of cases eating them.
Star of the show was undoubtedly James Houston, who also won the top prize. His video remix of Radiohead’s “Nude” using obsolete computer peripherals and a ZX Spectrum has quickly become an internet legend. It is fantastic, although not a million miles away from the work of established cut-up artists like EBN and especially Hexstatic. His short MTV indent piece is, to my mind, even better.
The artist I left most impressed by was Akiko Ueda. Her series of landscapes were inspired by a winter visit to northern Sweden. Some are simple charcoal lines on white paper, and some a combination of paper and painted glass which gives a misty 3D effect. They capture perfectly the icy, grey-white stillness of the Arctic winter. I found them absolutely stunning.
The Harry Smith Anthology Remixed is on at the CCA, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow until July 26th. The GSA degree show has now finished.