Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume 4 [Revenant, 2000]
It's true. Half a century after it redefined folk music, the official rerelease can still sound like tombstone rubbings, not to mention tales from the crypt, while this previously unheard two-CD reconstruction is suitable for a PBS special or community sing: blues balancing bluegrass, gospel stylings elevating parlor sentiment, "John Henry" into "Nine Pound Hammer," Lead Belly and Robert Johnson, Joe Louis and Haile Selassie, and hovering over the whole shebang, the Great Depression. That means it's down to whether the individual performances induce the known past not merely to live again but to get up and strut around, and hot dam they do. My very favorite is the Blue Sky Boys' sugary-creepy murder ditty "By the Banks of the Ohio," a maneuver worthy of Harry Nilsson or Robbie Fulks, but I note as well many moments of momentum and interaction--most impressively on Minnie Wallace's "The Cockeyed World" only because the Memphis Jug Band we figured and Jesse James the songster rolls Casey Jones the engineer down the fast track to hell all by his solo self--with no parallel in the earlier recordings. Those who regard self-consciousness as a curse will mourn past glories. Those who consider it quintessentially human will take this present as it comes. A