Songs About Vegetables and Death

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

My interests in weird history, old music, and RPG geekery combine:

In the UA game last night, the PCs got a hold of an occult text in the form of six vinyl LPs: the Anthology of American Folk Music. The version you can buy from Amazon on 6 CDs might not be quite as unearthly as the one I imagine in our game world, but it’s pretty darn close.

You can read about it here and here and here, but the best source for the Anthology as occult text is Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America (and how could I not pick up a book with that title?). Marcus writes about music the way Reese Beulay talks about roads. Some people can’t stand it (note the little dig in the Salon article); I like him a lot.

The Anthology was a mystery … an occult document disguised as an academic treatise on archaic musicology. … It was an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America was itself a mystery.

The original Anthology was a collection of eighty-four performances on six LPs. The records, colored to represent symbolic elements (air, fire, water—and in our game also earth, silver, and gold), are illustrated with an alchemical etching of something called “the Celestial Monochord.” The original liner notes contain quotes from seventeenth century alchemists like Robert Fludd. (“In Elementary Music The Relation Of Earth To The Sphere of Water is 4 to 3, As There Are In The Earth Four Quarters of Frigidity to Three of Water.” ?!?)

Again, Marcus writes:
On the covers of the Anthology volumes the monochord was shown being tuned by the hand of god. It divided creation into balanced spheres of energy, into fundaments; printed over the filaments of the etching and its crepuscular Latin explanations were record titles and the names of the blues singers, hillbilly musicians, and gospel chanters Smith was bringing together for the first time. It was as if they had something to do with each other: as if Pythagoras, Fludd, and the likes of Jilson Setters, Ramblin’ Thomas, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and Smith himself were calling on the same gods.

It’s called an anthology of folk music and was a big influence on the folk revival of the 1960s, but it’s much more the O Brother old-timey music than what I think of as 1960s folk (hang down your head Tom Dooley, poor Charlie on the MTA, that sort of thing). It throws together Delta blues and Southern gospel and Appalachian murder ballads and supernatural English and Scottish love songs going back two hundred years at least. Smith organized it all by subject, not by chronology or musical style or race, so we have a selection of women-murdering-their-children songs, then tragic accident songs, then judgment day songs, and so forth. The ballad of John Henry is on there, and the sinking of the Titanic, and Casey Jones’ last ride. President Garfield gets shot by a hobo evangelist, Jesse James is laid in his grave, Stagger Lee shoots Billy Lyons in St. Louis, goes to Hell and shoots the Devil too.

Bob Dylan says:
Folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s never been simple. It’s weird. … All those songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels … I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death.

If all this wasn’t cool and weird enough, there’s Harry Smith himself, the guy that put this little collection together. According to Marcus, he was a notorious moocher, a dope fiend and an alcoholic, a hunchback stunted from his youth by rickets. Smith’s parents were Theosophists, friends of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant. On his twelfth birthday, Smith’s father gave him a lump of coal and told him to turn it into gold. Smith’s grandfather was a leading Mason, and his great-grandfather, John Corson Smith, was one of many nineteenth-century mystics to refound the Knights Templar. Smith’s mother sometimes claimed to be Anastasia, last of the Romanovs, and she told Smith that his true father was Aleister Crowley, with who she had a long affair in the 1910s and 20s. Harry studied Indian tribes in the 1940s and then fell in love with early recordings of blues and hillbilly music, which he collected in bootlegs of dubious legality that eventually became the Anthology. He roamed the country for years with no fixed address, though when he died in 1991 in New York, he had become known as “the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel.”

Glen: It’s a crazy world.
H.I.: Somebody oughta sell tickets.
Glen: Sure, I’d buy one.
Raising Arizona