Thursday, May 10, 2007

Harry Smith Anthology Re-mixed

I recently contributed to my first art show, a visual tribute to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. The show opened on Tuesday in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, and features the work of 84 different musicians and artists who were each asked to illustrate a track from the Anthology.

For those of you that aren't familiar with Harry Smith's Anthology, it is truly a staggering collection of folk songs recorded in the 1920's, and compiled by Smith, an avid collector, in the 1950s. Many musicians in the collection, such as Mississippi John Hurt, experienced a resurgence of interest in their music in the years after it was released, and went on to have successful careers on the folk circuit. (Not surprisingly, Smith collected other things as well! He believed himself to be a leading authority on string figures from all over the world, and his extensive personal collection of paper airplanes can now be seen at the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space museum.)

For my contribution to the show I chose Hurt's Spike Driver Blues, track NO. 80, and this is some of the information that I gathered about it in the process of drawing:

Spike Driver Blues is part of a roster of songs about the working
man's hero, John Henry. These songs are often traced back to an event that purportedly occurred about ten years after the emancipation proclamation, in which a man challenged a steam engine to a race, and won, only to die of exhaustion. In a bittersweet twist of fate, just as freed slaves began to enter the work force, (often labouring in conditions little better than
slavery), their jobs began to be usurped by new forces of technology.

The significance of Mississippi John Hurt's dignified and intimate version of the story lies partially in this balance: refusing to die like John Henry, a hero, he lays down his hammer and walks away from the mountain.

P.S. FYI, there was a mix-up, and the original tracks that my band-mate Kyle and I chose to illustrate were switched! (I am shown and justified as having illustrated K.C. Moan.) The mistake is corrected online, but alas, not in the booklet accompanying the show. You can see both versions of the commentary and works here. (It's actually kind of funny seeing each of the drawings justified as two different things!)

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