Outside & subterranean poems, a mini-anthology in progress (61): Harry Smith, 'American Folk Music: A Collage'

[In the final stages of preparing Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Assemblage of Outside & Subterranean Poetry with John Bloomberg-Rissman, I’m continuing to post excerpts on Poems and Poetics.  Publication of the full volume is scheduled later this year from Black Widow Press as the de facto fifth installment of Poems for the Millennium.  Earlier excerpts continue to be available in these spaces, most of them prior to final editing & recomposition. (J.R.)]



Prison Cell Blues

Blind Lemon Jefferson 

tired of sleeping in lonesome cell, wouldn’t been here if not for nell.  awake at night, can’t eat bite, used to be rider, won’t treat me right.  red eyed “captain” squabbling fore: mad dog sargent won’t knock off! asked governor knock off time way i’m treated lose mind. wrote governor, turn me loose, no answer, no use.  hate turn over find rider gone, how i’m on.



See That My Grave Is Kept Clean

Blind Lemon Jefferson

favor I ask you, see my grave kept green.  long lane, no end, bear away with silver chain. two white horses in line, take me to burying ground. heart stopped, hands cold.  you heard coffin sound? poor boy in ground. dig grave with silver spade, lead down with silver chain. you heard church bell? poor boy’s dead and gone.



Way Down That Old Plank Road

Uncle Dave Macon

rather in richmond with hail and rain, than georgia wearing ball and chain.  went mobile, get gravel train, next i knew: ball and chain. what makes treat so, wear ball, chain, ankle sore. nashville Pretty, mempshis beauty, see pretty girls – chattanooga. (fare you well i’m gone].  build scaffold on mountain, see girl riding by. wife died friday, saturday buried – sunday, my courting day. monday – married. [kill yourself]. 18 pounds meat a week, whisky to sell, can young man stay home, girls look so well, won’t get drunk no more on plank road.



Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line

Uncle Dave Macon

in tennessee, lease come, work in coal mine against free labor, made ‘em rise and shine. monday morning march them to lone rock looking in that mine (hole), ‘captain’ say “beter get pole”.  beans halfdone, bread not so well, meat burnt up, coffee black as heck, but tastes good. boss, hard man; if don’t get done, carry you to stockade, on the floor you fall, next time have pole. buddy roll down line, yonder comes my darling, coming down line.



SOURCE: Liner notes from Harry Smith, editor, American Folk Music, handbook, Folkways Records & Service Corp., 1952.

A nearly outsider figure & an avant-garde filmmaker in his own right, Harry Smith (1923-1991) worked as a collector & assembler of a wide range of works & artifacts outside the accepted boundaries of art & literature: Seminole textiles, Ukrainian easter eggs, paper airplanes, & an unprecedented collection of commercially recorded folk music & country blues from the 1920s & 1930s.  It was from the last of these that he drew materials for his multi-volume Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952), a gathering with reverberations into a range of new musics & poetries, both popular & avantgardist, over the next several decades.  The genius of the work was its exploration of a vernacular poetics – a hard core of realism & an unflinching presentation of experiences & ways of life that a softer lyricism had too often obscured.  In the process & through an accompanying handbook of numbered inclusions & fragmented, elliptical synopses, Smith both brought this vision to surface & created a dark & uncompromising assemblage of his own.

            Writes Stephen Fredman in summary of Smith’s accomplishment therein:  “As assemblagist and editor, providing not only an introduction to the collection but also a comic headline summary for each song, Smith undermines the authority of musicological and folklorist conventions by taking on some of the functions of an author. This role is especially evident in the way he orders the songs by number rather than by any known method of classification. Eschewing generic, sub-regional, and, especially, racial classifications (which were ubiquitous not only when the recordings were made but also when Smith edited his anthology), his juxtaposition of the songs proceeds by an occult, serial logic based upon stylistic features or subject matter.”  (S. Fredman, “Assemblage as Archaeology & History,” in Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art, Stanford University Press, 2010)


[For more on Smith’s contribution see the posting on September 11, 2011: “Harry Smith, Charles Reznikoff, & the Art of Outsider Assemblage.”]