The Harry Smith B-Sides

The Harry Smith B-Sides
Various Artists
Dust-to-Digital Records DTD-51 (4 CDs). 2020. John Cohen, April Ledbetter, Lance Ledbetter, Eli Smith, prods.; Michael Graves, audio mastering and restoration.

Few music anthologies have been as influential as Harry Everett Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40090), which was first released in 1952 as an 84-track, 6-LP set. Without it, it is possible that many of the musicians represented would have languished in obscurity—including such artists as Mississippi John Hurt.

The anthology's impact, though, goes beyond the individual careers of the musicians whose work was collected. Whole genres of American music were discovered or rediscovered via the anthology, some heard by most listeners for the first time: Cajun, Appalachian string, Delta blues, jug band, cowboy songs, Sacred Harp hymns, sanctified gospel, and the deep-well waters of old English and Celtic folk song. Anthology was a many-layered parfait of music most Americans were unaware of or had forgotten about. It's the founding document of the meta-genre that, decades later, would come to be known as "Americana."


Harry Everett Smith, the man responsible for the collection, was not a producer or a recording engineer. In contrast to such musical anthropologists as Alan Lomax, Chris Strachwitz, and Moses Asch—the founder of Folkways Records—Smith wasn't involved in making new recordings. All 84 songs on Anthology of American Folk Music were transfers from existing 78rpm records that Smith had collected.

In those days, most 78s contained two songs, one per side. Smith anthologized only one of those sides, the one he considered especially important. The record label Dust-to-Digital has posed and answered an intriguing question: What if we take these recordings, which history has shown to be important, and flip them all over? What's on the other side? Hence the title of the new set: The Harry Smith B-Sides.

Harry Smith is a hard person to sum up. He was a collector, a mystic, a visual artist, one of the first experimental filmmakers, an ethnographer, and a difficult, freeloading roommate. Allen Ginsberg housed him on many occasions, as did others in Greenwich Village. I own a print of a photograph of Smith, taken by Ginsberg, with an inscription by Ginsberg: "Harry Smith laughing in the kitchen, East Twelfth St."


The creation of The Harry Smith B-Sides was a multiyear process, and a number of people contributed. Robert Nobley, a collector, self-produced a CD-R of possible Harry Smith alternate recordings. When Nobley passed away in 2005, Eli Smith and John Cohen—the latter was a member of the Lost City Ramblers—got in touch with April and Lance Ledbetter, co-owners of Dust-to-Digital Records. The process of clearing rights and assembling useable, original copies began: Some of these records are extremely rare. According to the liner notes, copies were sourced from Joe Bussard, Frank Mare, Roger Misiewicz, and Nathan Salsburg. The first three are noted collectors; Salsburg is a curator of the Alan Lomax archive.

From about 1895, the standard formula for 78rpm records used shellac. Shellac, a product of the female lac beetle that's excreted onto the bark of trees and sourced from India and Thailand, was mixed with fillers including slate, limestone, and cotton fiber. Carbon was added for color. The compound was not standardized, so quality varied from one manufacturer to the next—indeed, from one record to the next. Sound quality from 78s played today thus depends not only on their condition and the quality of the recording but also on the composition of the discs.

Mastering engineer Michael Graves, who has won multiple Grammy awards for his work with Dust-to-Digital, performed the audio restoration for The Harry Smith B-Sides. In an interview, Graves summed up the critical part of that process: the audio transfer, or "capture," from the original releases. "The most important thing in terms of sound is the stylus used. There are many types out there for 78s, but there's only one company, Expert Stylus in the UK, which makes 'truncated' styli.


"Think about the groove of a record. Over years, it's the bottom of that groove that gets the most wear and tear. Dust [falls] on top of it, and then you play it with a needle that grinds it in there. The bottom of the groove gets trashed. A truncated stylus has a point that has basically been chopped off, so it rides high in the groove and avoids all that noise." It's not unlike using an old-fashioned stylus shape with your used LPs—conical or elliptical instead of a more modern stylus with a narrower profile.

"I've got 20 or 30 of these truncated styli in different sizes, widths, and shapes. When you find the right needle for the ... record, [there] is a dramatic improvement. You might put one on and all the clicks go away, but you also want one that will reduce the broadband surface noise. My first goal is to reduce the overall noise floor. Specific pops and clicks are easy to remove."

Graves also employs sophisticated digital-processing tools. "I use something that is called a spectrum editor. I can remove noises within a frequency without removing any time. So, I am not removing musical events. ... It's like you were working on restoring a painting and just want to touch up a particular spot of charcoal. I can get super granular. There are things I want to leave in, [such as] the creaking of a chair. If you use a declicker program too much, you will remove the beautiful ambience that puts you in that room in 1932. The noise is mostly at 8kHz and above, but our ears like that frequency region. So, if we take it all out, it sounds like we've dulled the music. It comes down to the aesthetic of the restoration engineer."


In 1997, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings reissued The Anthology of American Folk Music as a 6-CD boxed set; the LP sets had become hard to find. The Smithsonian Folkways box faithfully reproduced Smith's notes from the original Folkways albums and added new information and essays, notably Greil Marcus's article, "The Old, Weird America."

Dust-to-Digital's Lance Ledbetter described his first encounter with the set. "When I read about The Anthology of American Folk Music, it was treated as a holy grail. I didn't think there was any way a release could live up to that. I bought my copy in 1997, and I listened to it all the way through, start to finish. For me, it exceeded the hype I had been reading. The Anthology blew open a world of music that I didn't know; it was exciting and thrilling and hauntingly familiar. The way the Anthology was sequenced, the way Harry's handbook was assembled, hit me hard."

Those who have yet to enter the musical world of Anthology and these B-Sides are in for a treat. Taken together, the collections feel and sound like a portal to other times and places: American as all get-out, that's for sure, except for the European tracks. There is dancing and happy energy alongside lonely and mysterious moods, dark stories of hard times next to the most innocent and youthful expressions and everyday humor. The focus is tilted toward the rural American experience, away from the urban. Only a handful of the records include piano, more expensive and less portable than fiddles, guitars, flutes, and handheld percussion. Instrumental music from urban saloons—early jazz—is less well-represented than secular and religious song and early folk music from Europe.

The Harry Smith B-Sides' 4 CDs are presented in a cigar-sized box with a 144-page book handsomely bound in some sort of crushed cork. Picking up on the layout of Smith's original notes, the tracks are notated by different contributing authors with a newspaper-style headline summing up the lyric stories. Three essays are included, by (producer and banjo and guitar player) Eli Smith, Lance Ledbetter, and John Cohen. A concluding article by Dr. Michael Hickerson employs a "phylogenetic method" to analyze the frequency of word use in the lyrics, echoing Smith's interest in ethnography. Many fine historical photographs are sprinkled throughout (some reproduced here with permission).

Most of the record labels that originally released this material now fall under Sony Music and Universal Music; those companies own the catalogs of Columbia, Victor, Okeh, Brunswick, and other labels from the early era of music recording.

Due to licensing restrictions, these recordings are not available for streaming or downloads—just the 4-CD box and a multi-LP set that will be issued soon in the US. Quantities are contractually limited, so grab a copy while you can.

Herb Reichert's picture

That's a fine piece of writing about a man all music and art-loving humans should venerate. Harry Smith was a man of genius and deep spiritual understanding. Whether we remember or not, Harry's original bootleg anthology dramatically impacted America's postwar music evolution. Even more, Harry Smith's 'abstract' films (and paintings) impacted postwar visual art. I remember watching his groundbreaking hand-painted films in art school. He lived at the Chelsea Hotel until 1977, and showed his films in art galleries and performance spaces in SoHo where I and my friends would hear him speak and show his films 'for a small donation.' He died broke and pretty much homeless.

According to Wiki, at one point, Smith found himself " at Francis House, a home for derelicts on the Bowery." Where he continued to tape ambient sounds, including "the dying coughs and prayers of impoverished sick people in adjacent cubicles."

Thank you Sasha for your help keeping his flame burning.

peace love and understanding