LOS ANGELES Long before Eminem rapped about killing his wife and
disposing of her body in Lake Michigan, folkies were singing a traditional tune
called "Down on the Banks of the Ohio," about a man named Willy who drowns
his girl in the Ohio River.
Subject matter like that is why memorizing every song from Harry Smith's
1952 Anthology of American Folk Music series might not be such a good
idea at least not for Beck.
"There's some disturbing music in this collection, and this is one of them,"
Beck said as he introduced the murder ballad during a tribute concert to Smith at UCLA's Royce Hall Thursday.
As he fumbled with a cheat sheet of the lyrics, the eclectic rocker quipped,
"I was going to memorize it, but I don't think I want it in my head."
Beck joined Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Steve Earle, the Folksmen
and a cast of other artists to perform their favorite works from Smith's six-LP
anthology, which was reissued on CD in 1997. The collection is often credited with sparking the folk music boom of the '50s and '60s.
An extra CD volume, which includes the Blue Sky Boys' "Down on the Banks of the Ohio," was released last year.
Beck's two-song performance also included Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal
Gone Down," which he said he was too afraid to attempt playing as a youngster
fascinated by the anthology.
Costello, whose mini-set came near the close of the show, made an early
appearance to support Canadian singer/songwriters Kate and Anna McGarrigle
on "Ommie Wise," another tune about a man drowning his lover. Complaining
that the song brought no justice to the killer, Costello proceeded to play
his own version of a sequel to the song, which ended with the guy digging
up his wife's grave to find that the coffin was empty.
Faithfull took the stage for a rendition of the blues and folk standard "John the Revelator" Smith's anthology includes the Blind Willie Johnson version with Beck, Earle and Todd Rundgren shouting out the backing vocals.
Thursday's show was the second of two consecutive nights at Royce Hall
saluting the folk anthologist Smith, who died in 1991. The event was held in London and New York in 1999 with different performers, including Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and Nick