Harry Smith’s Project Meltdown; Royal Festival Hall, London: Star collective pays homage to folk collector

WHO IS Harry Smith, and why would Bryan Ferry, Beth Orton, Nick Cave and others want to pay tribute to him?

The films shown at the start of the evening show an old man in New York. But pictures from the Fifties, when he completed his epic Anthology of American Folk Music, show a sharply dressed young man with shades and a goatee, cooler then than many of the rock names who last night played some of the old songs he salvaged from 78rpm obscurity.

Beth Orton provided a personal interpretation of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” and Eric Mingus delivered “Gonna Die With A Hammer In My Hand” accompanied by his own upright bass. Gavin Friday contributed an epic version of “When That Great Ship Went Down” (Lyrics) at the end of which veteran crooner Jimmy Scott intoned “Nearer My God To Thee”.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle introduced some more recognisable “folkiness” but confounded expectations by playing a bizarre cover of a song by The Fugs, whose first album Smith produced.

There was a spirit of mutual support throughout butthere was a special thrill in seeing Van Dyke Parks provide a sensitive accompaniment to Eliza Carthy and Bryan Ferry and perform his own romantic arrangement of “East Virginia”, returning it to its source in what he described as the “Celtic diaspora”. Finally Nick Cave, the Festival’s curator, strode on to perform a terrifying “John The Revelator” with the McGarrigle’s on stirring backing vocals.

John L Walters