“You pick your cast and you work with them.”
One of the great ironies of the folk revival of the late 1950s is that one of its central texts emerged from the avant-garde. So many folk artists were characterized by an earnestness that was nowhere to be found in The Anthology of American Folk Music, three two-album sets collected by filmmaker, archivist and ethnomusicologist Harry Smith. Smith collected 78s that were released between the first and second world wars, then assembled the albums according to his own personal classifications. His accompanying notes weren’t always the singers’ or songs’ histories, instead presenting the songs’ plots as a series of newspaper headlines. His collections presented songs that were full of mystery, stories of love, loss and frequently murder that were made real by a missing detail or two.
Smith and The Anthology returned to the public consciousness when Greil Marcus wrote Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes in 1997. The book—since reissued as The Old, Weird America: the World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes—was itself odd, examining Dylan’s complete basement tapes and The Anthology, neither of which were commercially available at the time. A year later, Smithsonian Folkways re-released the anthology as six-CD box set. Marcus was drawn to the set because Dylan had started recording songs from it, and that coincided with Dylan’s entrance into the current, dynamic phase in his career. He wasn’t the only artist to find inspiration there. Any singer with a taste at all for the gothic found murder ballads from the anthology irresistible, and actor/singer David Johansen went so far as to form a band called the Harry Smiths. In 1991, Smith was recognized with a Chairman’s Merit Grammy, then died later that year.
Hal Willner is the music supervisor for Saturday Night Live, but for many, he’s better known for eclectic, star-studded albums that offer new, sometimes irreverent takes on an artist or a body of music. He has recorded albums that present reinventions of the catalogues of Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus, as well as Stay Awake,an album of songs from Disney movies, and Rogue’s Gallery, which presents sea shanties sung by Nick Cave, Richard Thompson and Bryan Ferry among others.
Willner recently produced The Harry Smith Project: the Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited (Shout! Factory), a two-CD, two-DVD box set packaged to emulate the Smithsonian reissue of The Anthology. It features Elvis Costello, Beck, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, Lou Reed and many more recorded live at a series of Harry Smith tribute nights presented over a two-year span. As Willner recalls the shows by phone, one of his dominant memories is that they were long.
These shows—I learned the best way is to do it was to make a script of what the night is going to be. Pick all the material first and order it. Then you present that to the artist, so they have a framework to work with. If you go the other route, what happens is they see the whole list [of songs on the anthology] and before you know it, the show’s seven hours long. Of course, people seem to have good memories of the shows because they saw a happening. The backstage scenes are amazing, and the music itself is amazing, too. I’m really happy through all that that people seem to like the set. I have no perspective because it was seven years ago the first show happened.
For the first show, did you have artists in mind right away?
Well, obviously, Nick Cave. [Cave was musical curator for the Meltdown Festival in London in 1999 and asked Willner to organize a Harry Smith show for the festival.] The first group of people is a combination of people that I guess Nick Cave liked that couldn’t fit into his festival and my people. Some people that were in my life were obvious choices even though they had more of a background in that type of music, like Bobby Neuwirth and Jeff Muldaur. From that point on, Nick brought in a lot of people that aren’t on the record because they were more performance pieces, and the London shows had faulty tech problems as far as the filming and the recording went.
I don’t always think these things out that much ahead of time. I have a few people in mind and then as the research continues, new people come to mind. And some people happen to call on the right day or I run into somebody. I keep it open.
There is a certain formula obviously to our version of a full meal. You got the entrée, the soup, and the vegetable that you don’t really like but it’s good for you. Then you have the ice cream. It’s unfortunate that so many older rock bands these days are pressured into bringing newer rock bands with them, so you have ice cream and ice cream.
The shows are in the spirit, too, of Phil Graham and ’70s radio. It’s obvious we’re exploring the work of Harry Smith, so what’s also there is a look at his films with people like Philip Glass, DJ Spooky, and Sonic Youth doing music for them. All the producers I have admired, there is a connection between everything they did including John Hammond, George Martin who had done the Goon Show and classical music before the Beatles, but those were all incorporated. Same thing here. Harry collected string after string and made designs. It is his own version of that Escher and Bach thing—the arts are all connected. That’s what I was feeling and that’s what I wanted to explore. I approached it to look at the man.
Listening to them now, I wonder how people responded to that when those albums first came out?
It was a cult thing. The free folk movement knew those records. Some are more upfront than others. Bob Neuwirth and Jeff Muldaur, people like that are more upfront about it: “That was our Bible.” Dylan goes back and forth on it. He had those records anyway.
What did you think of Elvis Costello’s final verse to “Ommie Wise”? [Costello added a new verse, giving the song a less ambiguous ending.]
I thought it fit. I thought it was cool. Sometimes people bring things to these projects that might be curious, but it is something that they felt belonged and did fit into the show. We did an homage to Tim Buckley years ago which is pretty well-known because that is where Jeff appeared in New York, but Richard Hell—the day of the show, Johnny Thunders died and Hell mixed the Tim Buckley song with “Chinese Rocks,” and you go, “Yeah that kind of works.”
It’s a Robert Altman approach to movies. You pick your cast and you work with them, but if they show up with something like that, you fit it in some way. You figure out how.
I found it odd that he tried to fill in the blanks in the narrative that give the song much of its magic.
You have in this case one of our premiere songwriters of our time. He will, of course, look at the pieces as a songwriter, and he felt that was missing. I think if you look at it from the point of a songwriter, it is kind of interesting.
Were there songs that everybody wanted to do?
Yeah. Initially there was a loose reign, but after that I kept a little stronger reign on what was done. There were certain songs that were completely obvious for certain people. “Ommie Wise” for the McGarrigles is an example. Or “Sail Away” for Van Dyke Parks. Lou Reed doing “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” was an obvious choice.
What were the most in-demand songs?
“The Butcher Boy.” “Poor Boy.” “James Alley Blues.” “Little Moses.” “Mole in the Ground.” Bob Neuwirth did “Mole in the Ground” I actually gave Roswell Rudd “Dry Bones,” not knowing what was going to happen. That was very spontaneous. I thought of that at the moment at St. Ann’s Center. Roswell was walking around like, “Who is going to back me?” [He ended up with Sonic Youth.] That makes sense. They are all big fans of Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, ESP Records. Boy, that came out of nowhere.
I have to give kudos to Sonic Youth. They are often accused of pretentiousness, but they are not pretentious at all. I love artists that will throw themselves into something which has a large probability of not working. I don’t think you can be great if you don’t take the chance on failure.
Were there artists you couldn’t get?
Of course. Big Bob.
I’m always accused of not having enough African Americans or world musicians, but I can’t tell you how many people turned us down. The people that I do like in the hip-hop world, it is just difficult to bring that element into this. Jazz is a little easier. There are just a lot of people from that whole world that turned us down. Some people didn’t return our calls or we couldn’t figure out how to get them down. Now New Orleans people like Aaron Neville, I guess it was just too foreign for them.
It is a different thing to go to a studio because you can go to them. Dr. John’s itinerary just never worked because he works a never-ending tour. The live show was a little more problematic.
This is a different project because it is a show rather than getting people into a studio.
It is a little different. Tom Waits, for example, is on many of my records. To actually get him to a location to do two songs, it is rough.
Is it difficult to get musicians to take a chance in front of an audience?
Nick Cave is a perfect example. He goes, “Well, this is a lot of fun. I have no responsibility here, and it is your show.” I get the blame. It’s cool because everyone just goes out on the stage without the pressure. An artist can look at it that way, which he and a handful of others do. It brings something together. Beth Orton said to me, “When I do these shows, I remember why I wanted to be in this business.” It is all about music at that point. It has nothing to do with selling records.
It’s all about the great musical moments.
David Thomas’ “Fishing Blues,” where David Thomas is bringing his own unique vision to “Fishing Blues.” Which he looked at as angry song, as opposed to a happy song. “You’re going fishing? Well I’m going fishing too! You bastard.” Then Van Dyke had his arrangement. Put Percy Heath on bass and have Phil Glass watching this. Elvis was sitting there watching and Beck was there with PJ Harvey. You are looking at this onstage and loving it. The Folksmen were there watching it. It was like getting to do Night Music [the television show Willner produced in 1989 that adopted a similarly eclectic approach to presenting musical talent.] again.
There is a particular radio station that changed my life at 14 in Philadelphia. The disc jockey at two in the morning played Ornette Coleman, the one at six-played Dylan, and someone a midnight played Orson Welles radio shows. A record that came out at that perfect time was the Beatles’ White Album, and there is a vaudeville show right there. We had variety shows, which I loved. I loved seeing the plate spinners before the Rolling Stones. I watched Hollywood Palace the other day with Nat King Cole, Jimmy Durante, George Carlin, and the Turtles. That is where a lot of this comes from. That’s what I try to do.