Anthology of American Folk Music, originally released in 1952 and reissued in boxed-set form in 1997, is among the most influential recorded collections of the past century. Musical anthropologist Harry Smith's assemblage of raw, heartfelt acoustic obscurities such as Chubby Parker's "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" became the sonic bible for a generation of sincere strummers and ambitious troubadours of the sort who turn up throughout The Folk Years. In a sense, this eight-CD package provides a populist look at what Mr. Smith wrought.
Any compilation that kicks off one of its discs with "If I Had a Hammer" as crooned by Trini Lopez wasn't put together with academicians in mind. After all, Lopez is remembered today more for being the cleanest member of The Dirty Dozen -- he dies early and little mourned -- than for his recording career. Instead, the focus is on hits, with the format kept flexible enough to encompass folk rock (the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn"), bubblegum (the Cyrkle's "Red Rubber Ball"), soul (Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay") and even satire of the very genre being celebrated ("My Old Man," by the Smothers Brothers). Christ, there's even a Cher song ("All I Really Want to Do"), not to mention a rendition of "Universal Soldier" by, of all people, Glen Campbell. The mind reels.
Still, if the scattershot tenor of the programming doesn't connect the movement's dots, it provides plenty of raw material for those who'd like to do so themselves. The freshly scrubbed, overtly Caucasian school of folk harmonizers is represented by the New Christy Minstrels, the Rooftop Singers, the Brothers Four and the Silkie, whose Formica-shiny rendition of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" could pass for an outtake from the A Mighty Wind soundtrack. Also on tap are Joan Baez, Janis Ian and Judy Collins, from the sorority of crystalline songstresses; Barry McGuire, representing protest warblers; Scott McKenzie, leading the hippie contingent; and, for good measure, the Singing Nun. Strangely enough, Bob Dylan's on hand, too, checking in with "Boots of Spanish Leather," which probably wasn't the producers' first choice. Then again, maybe they really believe that the finest "Blowin' in the Wind" was performed by the Kingston Trio.
Such curious choices prevent Folk Years from providing a definitive portrait of an era that already seems to date back several millennia. Instead, it casts a light on the occasionally wonderful, sometimes embarrassing, frequently inexplicable things that can happen to a grassroots musical style after it's embraced by the commercial mainstream. Betcha Chubby Parker never saw it coming.