Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Cosmic American

Harry Smith

As any alt-country fan will tell you, "cosmic American music" was Gram Parsons' term for the hybrid of country, gospel and hard-living rock music that he forged in the sixties, first in with the Byrds, then the Flying Burrito Brothers, then solo, before helping launch Emmylou Harris and mysteriously dying in the California desert.

What was exactly cosmic about it, I wondered? It couldn't mean cosmic as in psychedelic, because it wasn't a particularly psychedelic sound. No, it must mean cosmic as in mythic - raising elements to mythic significance. Cosmic American music meant taking a nicely worn musical vernacular and not trying to repeat it or copy it, but elevating it to something else, poeticizing it. "Exile on Main Street" by the Rolling Stones is also cosmic in this way. So, I should add, is "There's A Riot Goin' On" by Sly and the Family Stone. "Riot" is soul but it isn't soul, it uses soul as a means to express something else. Gavin Russom's record, "Black Meteoric Star," sounds just like acid house, but it's not, it's the cosmic version.

The original cosmic American in the 20th century isn't Parsons, however, but Harry Smith, the ethnographic genius who slid so effortlessly between collecting and creating. Because cosmic music means not only writing songs but first gathering them, collecting a history that you work out from. Smith, of course, most famously produced the American Anthology of Folk Music, which in the early sixties influenced an entire generation of musicians, including Bob Dylan, to turn towards the roots of American musical expression.

Harry Smith operated at what seems like unfathomably deep levels of mythic structures, turning everyday vernaculars and images into uncanny hieroglyphs. This is an excerpt from one of his master works, "Heaven and Earth Magic." Videogames still haven't caught up its level of surrealist juxtaposition.

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