WESTWOOD, California — Nowadays, taking songs from various sources and rearranging them into a new, coherent whole is no big deal. Anyone who's made a mix tape can tell you that.
But back in 1953, the act of putting together a greatest hits collection was revolutionary.
Take the seminal six-LP set Anthology of American Folk Music, which Harry Smith culled from his enormous and eclectic archive. Nearly half a century later, musicians and musicologists continue to worship Smith's collection, which won two Grammies upon its re-release on CD in 1997.
Many say Anthology is the cornerstone of the folk music revival that began in the late 50s and, in turn, helped elevate rock and roll into an art form. And some even find in Anthology the roots of the sample-reliant music of today.
Among the musicians who claim it as a sacred text are Marianne Faithfull, Beck and Richard Thompson — who were among the 35 disciples who took the stage at UCLA's Royce Hall Wednesday night for a concert that sought to re-examine the Anthology's influence.
The concert, The Harry Smith Project, helped demonstrate the deep imprint Smith's work has left.
Elvis Costello, who sang several songs from Anthology, called Smith's collection "the secret script of so many familiar musical dramas."
It's clear the music — church songs, blues, gospel, folk songs, instrumentals and ballads recorded between 1927 and 1932 — has entered the canon.
According to singer/songwriter Steve Earle, nearly every musician, knowingly or not, references Anthology. Earle teaches a folk music class that has traced Anthology's legacy, from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to Townes Van Zandt.
"We identified where each musician had stole their material from," said Earle after performing three Anthology songs. He also sang backup, along with Beck and Todd Rundgren, for a Marianne Faithfull set.
"We finished the course by listening to some of my music," Earles said, "because I knew exactly where I stole everything from."
Smith's influence doesn't end with the provision of source material.
A modern collagist like Beck, who sang four songs at the show, also might acknowledge his debt to Smith.
Smith re-arranged a startling range of music — black and white, sacred and profane, vocal and instrumental, and from the far corners of the country — into something singular. Beck, along with most DJs and hip-hop artists, might claim the same.
As demonstrated at the more-than-five-hour-long concert, Anthology seems to have seeped into nearly every American genre, old and new. The gifted young clarinetist Don Byron jazzed up Anthology tunes with Percy Heath, former bass player for the Modern Jazz Quartet. Musical avatar Philip Glass wrote and played a piano score for a series of Smith's animated films.
Musicians from Canada's Daniel Lanois to Ireland's Gavin Friday put their ethnic spin on American folk tunes. The Folksmen — the latest incarnation of the boys from Spinal Tap — demonstrated how satire can be a true form of flattery. And DJ Adam Dorn mixed sounds as backdrop to one of Smith's films.
Smith's work also may serve as a tonic for celebrity egos. Considering the star wattage, the entire evening seemed remarkably collegial. U2's Bono, bandmates in tow, dropped in backstage for a long, animated discussion with Beck. Rundgren introduced The Band's Garth Hudson to Elvis Costello. David Johansen applauded his fellow performers as they came off the stage.
For one night, it was all about the music. Philip Glass, known best for his visionary, convention-shattering oeuvre, was thrilled to pay homage to Smith, whose collection he bought in 1958.
"Looking back, I don't doubt that the sound of the violin songs (from Anthology) is in the violin music for operas I wrote, like Einstein on the Beach," he said backstage after his set. "I know those songs were somewhere in my ear.
"Just as I picked things up and moved them on, until they became mine, I think the Anthology continues to have a huge impact on musicians far younger than Harry ever could have imagined. It's a body of work that has been truly nourishing."