Old Weird America



"Old Weird America" is the term writer Greil Marcus coined to describe the great lost world of old time rural music, which existed before post WW2 modernization and the inevitable move towards a more homogenized American culture.

No more accurate a label has ever been assigned to any period or genre of music. From today's standpoint, the ancient shellac records, cylinders and gramophone recordings that constitute the legacy of pre-war Country Music sound like artifacts from another planet. Distant voices sing strange songs of love, disaster, rapture and murder, half-buried in a netherworld of age and hiss. In one song, a dead girl returns from the grave to comfort her grieving lover. In another, a rose grows from the heart of a corpse to entangle itself in the brier that grows from the body of the girl who jilted him. Primordial badmen live again in these old ballads, as do the heroic lawmen who laid them low, and the poor wives and mothers who buried them. Brave soldiers charge into destiny while moonstruck seamen sing of their beloved girls at home.

Recordings of this music usually date back no further than the advent of practical electric recording devices in the 1920's. The songs and styles of performance, however, date back much, much farther than that. The Civil War was fought against the backdrop of fiddle tunes such as can be found on these sides .The Hatfields and McCoys drank and whooped to the banjo breakdowns we hear on the dusty grooves of an old 78 RPM record. The ballads of ghostly happenings and daring feats reach all the way back to medieval Europe.



The Anthology of American Folk Music

The granddaddy of all old time country anthologies is Harry Smith's ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC. Released at a time when pre-war Americana was already vanishing from the collective memory, Smith's collection of old 78 RPM recordings, compiled on LP by the fledgling Folkways Records in 1954, awakened a re-interest in the old sounds among intellectuals and college students, many of whom would act as catalysts in the folk revival of the 1960s.

"Harry Everett Smith (1923-1991) was an American born in Portland, Oregon; he was an archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, bohemian and Kabbalist... (Smith's) Anthology of American Folk Music, a vastly influential collection of early 20th century American music, was released in 1952 on Folkways Records. It consisted of three volumes of two vinyl records; it is currently in print as a boxed set of six compact discs on Smithsonian Folkways Records, as reissued in 1997. A fourth installment of the anthology became available on Revenant Records in 2000.

"This document is generally thought to have sparked the folk & blues revival; it brought the works of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Dick Justice to the attention of important musicians such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and featured such legendary acts as The Carter Family and Clarence Ashley. The Harry Smith Anthology, as some call it, was the bible of folk music during the late 1950s and early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. As stated in the liner notes to the 1997 reissue, the late musician Dave van Ronk had earlier commented that 'we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated..." Selections were culled by Harry Smith from his amassed personal collection of vinyl 78 rpm records, picked for their commercial appeal within a set period of time, 1927 to 1932. Smith chose those particular years as boundaries since, as he stated himself, '1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Depression halted folk music sales."

From Wikipedia's article on Harry Smith (see link below)

Read the entire Wikipedia Biography here

"Old, Weird America Returns on CD" - a very informative review of the CD re-issue of the "Anthology..."

Wikipedia Entry for "Anthology of American Folk Music"

Extensive online liner notes for the "Anthology of American Folk Music"

A Tribute to Harry Smith by Peter Stampfel, John Fahey and Allen Ginsberg

The Harry Smith Archives


John and Alan Lomax

The most prolific compilers of American rural music were John A. Lomax and his son, Alan. Between the two of them, the Lomaxes collected over 5,000 hours worth of audio recordings. Many of the old-time country and blues anthologies available, including THE ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC, draw from the Lomax Archive.

John Avery Lomax Jr. was a long-time collector of Cowboy songs when he and his teenage son, Alan, undertook a series of expeditions for the Archive of American Folk Song in Washington, DC. Beginning in the Summer of 1933, the two traveled throughout the South, recording singers of traditional folk songs, gospel-belting church congregations, country string bands and singing prisoners.

John and Alan met many great characters on their journeys. On one trip to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, the pair met and recorded an inmate named Huddie Ledbetter. Known to those around him as "Leadbelly," Ledbetter was a powerful singer and an accomplished songwriter, who had already written dozens of songs he could perform from memory. The Lomax recordings of Ledbetter's original compositions would eventually win the singer's early release, and pave the way for his canonization as titan of American folk music.

After John's Death in 1948, Alan would continue the work he and his father began, discovering such luminaries as Muddy Waters, and Son House, and taking his musical research overseas to study the European and Island musics which had influenced the development of the American folk tradition.

Click Here to Visit "The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip," an exhaustive online archive of field recordings (MP3 format) and texts.

Click here for The Alan Lomax Database - MP3 audio and Texts

An Abridged List of Lomax Related Recordings (Links)







John Cohen

The Latter-day Saint of American Vernacular music, John Cohen began recording the mountain music of Kentucky in the 1950's. A founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers in 1958, Cohen was on the vanguard of artists concerned with the preservation of American folk and bluegrass traditions. In marked contrast to more commercial groups of the day, such as the Kingston Trio, Cohen and the Ramblers played their string band music straight, bringing the spirit of the Harry Smith Anthology to the youth of the early 1960's.

Soon after forming the Ramblers, Cohen began traveling to the mountains of Kentucky to record unschooled native musicians playing vernacular music in their native setting. Like the Lomaxes before him, Cohen would drive and hike out into the country for weeks at a time, hauling his recording equipment to remote houses, farms and churches to collect common songs, fiddle tunes, and banjo tunes both old and new.

An avant garde film-maker, Cohen created the movie, "High Lonesome Sound," in 1963. An abstract document of Cohen's journeys through Appalachia, the film uses stark, black-and-white imagery and disembodied voices to create an iconic, dream-like ambiance, re-enforcing the apparent ancientness of mountain music and culture and the heroic struggle of its practitioners against their environment of poverty and hardship.


The most striking character in "High Lonesome Sound," for many viewers, was Roscoe Holcomb, a haggard, ex-coal miner from Daisy Kentucky. A self-taught banjo picker and songwriter, Holcomb sang both folk ballads and original compositions in a high, accented yelp that proved an influence on a young Bob Dylan, who came to admire Holcomb's "untamed sense of control." Through the auspices of John Cohen, Holcomb would become a celebrity of the folk circuit during the 1960's. His performances would take him as far as Germany, where fellow performer Ralph Stanley would remark that you could hear, "the smell of wood smoke in that voice."

Cohen would also travel to North Carolina, where he would document the folksingers of Sodom, NC. In addition to a wealth of field recordings, Cohen released the film, "The End of an Old Song," in 1972.

Cohen's field recordings are widely anthologized, and his work as a film-maker and music archivist continues.

Click here to visit John Cohen's official site, which provides a wealth of information on his photgraphy, and films, along with a complete discography of his field recordings, as well as hiswork with the New Lost City Ramblers.



Jimmie Rodgers

The Carter Family

The Skillet Lickers

Blue Sky Boys

Delmore Brothers

Emry Arthur

Dock Boggs

Roscoe Holcomb

Bascom Lamar Lunsford

Hiram Stamper



The Traditional Ballad Index and Bibliography of folk songs

Wikipedia Entry for "Ballad"

Max Hunter's Folk Song Collection (online audio library)

"Deathly Lyrics: Songs of Virginia Tragedies"





Wikipedia Article on Murder Ballads

Eric Zorn: Murder ballad lyrics and breakdown


Two Versions of "Barbara Allen with Detailed Commentary"


Variations on "Pretty Polly"

Murder Ballad's Connection to Virginian folk tale




Yazoo Records - official site

An Illustrated Guide to Yazoo LPs

Blue Goose Records

Document Records

The Orchard: Listen to MP3 Excerpts of Document CDs online

Smithsonian/Folkways Records

Revenant Records