Anthology of American Folk Music

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Anthology of American Folk Music
Compilation album by
Various Artists
ReleasedAugust 9, 1952[1]
ProducerHarry Smith
Anthology of American Folk Music chronology
Anthology of American Folk Music
Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4

Anthology of American Folk Music is a three-album compilation, released in 1952 by Folkways Records, of eighty-four recordings of American folk, blues and country music made and issued from 1926 to 1933 by a variety of performers. The album was compiled from experimental film maker Harry Smith's own personal collection of 78 rpm records.

Upon its release the Anthology sold relatively poorly and had no notable early coverage besides a minor 1958 mention in Sing Out!. It is now, however, generally regarded as a landmark release in the history of the album as well as an influential release during the 1950s and 1960s American folk music revival. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked the album at number 276 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,[3] and, in 2005, the album was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.[4]


Harry Smith was a West Coast filmmaker, magickian, bohemian, and eccentric.[5] As a teenager he started collecting old blues, jazz, country, Cajun, and gospel records and accumulated a large collection of recordings,[6] 78s being the only medium at the time.

In 1947, he met with Moses Asch, with an interest in selling or licensing the collection to Asch's label, Folkways Records.[7] Smith wrote that he selected recordings from between "1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Great Depression halted folk music sales."[8] When the Anthology was released, neither Folkways nor Smith possessed the licensing rights to these recordings, many of which had initially been issued by record companies that were still in existence, including Columbia and Paramount. The anthology thus technically qualifies as a high-profile bootleg. Folkways would later obtain some licensing rights, although the Anthology would not be completely licensed until the 1997 Smithsonian reissue.[9] It seems that Folkways founder Moses Asch had a "reputation for releasing copyrighted songs without going through the proper legal channels."[10]


Clarence Ashley playing "The Coo Coo Bird", the first track of the third volume of the Anthology

The compilation was divided by Smith into three two-album volumes: "Ballads," "Social Music," and "Songs." As the title indicates, the first "Ballads" volume consists of ballads, including many American versions of Child Ballads originating from the English folk tradition. Each song tells a story about a specific event or time, and Smith may have made some effort to organize to suggest a historical narrative, a theory suggested by the fact that many of the first songs in this volume are old English folk ballads, while the closing songs of the volume deal with the hardships of being a farmer in the 1920s.

The first album in the "social music" volume largely consists of music that was likely performed at social gatherings or dances, with many of the songs being instrumentals. The second album in the "Social Music" volume consists of religious and spiritual songs, including some Gospel songs.

The third "Songs" volume consists of regular songs, dealing with everyday life. Critic Greil Marcus describes its thematic interests as being "marriage, labor, dissipation, prison, and death."[11]

Smith's booklet in the original release makes reference to three additional planned volumes in the series, which would anthologize music up until 1950.[8] Although none were released during his lifetime, a fourth volume was released posthumously in 2000.[12] Entitled "Labor Songs", this volume is themed around songs about work and mainly featured union songs. The album contains later material then the original three volumes, anthologizing material recorded as late as 1940.


Track 57 description from Harry Smith's Liner Notes Booklet
Example from Smith's Liner Notes: #57 – The Coo Coo Bird

The design of the anthology was edited and directed by Smith himself. He created the liner notes himself, and these notes are almost as well known as the music, using an unusual fragmented, collage method that presaged some postmodern artwork. Smith also penned short synopses of the songs in the collection, which read like newspaper headlines—for the song "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" by Chubby Parker, a song about a mouse marrying a frog, Smith notes: "Zoologic Miscegeny Achieved Mouse Frog nuptials, Relatives Approve."[13]

Each of the three two-record sets carried the same cover art, a Theodore de Bry etching of an instrument Smith referred to as the "Celestial Monochord,"[14] taken from a mystical treatise by scientist/alchemist Robert Fludd. This etching was printed over against a different color background for each volume of the set: blue, red and green. Smith had incorporated both the music and the art into his own unusual cosmology, and each of these colors was considered by Smith to correspond to an alchemical classical element: Water, Fire, and Air, respectively. The fourth 'Labour' volume (released later by Revenant) is colored yellow to represent the element earth.

Release and reissues[edit]

Cover for 1960s reissue
Folkways FA 2951, featuring a poor Depression-era farmer

The Anthology was originally released as three double-LP box sets on August 9, 1952.[15] It sold relatively poorly when it was first released – by 1953, Folkways had sold only fifty albums, forty-seven of which went to libraries and colleges – and for a time, it was out of print because of copyright issues.[10]

One of the first notable reissues was in the 1960s, released as three individual volumes like the original release. Irwin Silber replaced Smith's covers with a Ben Shahn photograph of a poor Depression-era farmer, over Smith's objections, although others have considered this a wise commercial choice in the politically charged atmosphere of the folk movement during that decade.[16]

In 1997, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, having acquired Folkways Records in 1986, reissued the collection on six compact discs, each disc corresponding to each album of the original set on vinyl, including replicas of Smith's original artwork and liner booklet. An additional booklet included expanded track information for each song by Jeff Place, excerpts from Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus, essays by Jon Pankake, Luis Kemnitzer, Moses Asch, and Neil Rosenberg, and tributes and appreciations by John Fahey, John Cohen, Elvis Costello, Peter Stampfel, Lucy Sante, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt, Chuck Pirtle, and Allen Ginsberg. The back cover to this booklet closes with a quote by Smith: "I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music." At the 40th Grammy Awards, the reissue won awards for Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album.[17]

In 2006, Shout! Factory and the Harry Smith Archive released a tribute album titled The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited, a 2-CD/2-DVD box set culled from a series of concerts staged by Hal Willner that took place in 1999 and 2001.[18] The album features artists such as Beck, Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Beth Orton, Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, Richard Thompson, Wilco and others, covering the songs of the original anthology.

In 2020, Dust-to-Digital released a compilation containing the B-Sides of the records included on the Anthology entitled The Harry Smith B-Sides. Some songs were not included due to the racist or offensive nature of the lyrics,[19] which drew criticism from reviewers.[20]

Reception and legacy[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Entertainment WeeklyA[22]
Rolling Stone[24]
The Village VoiceA+[26]

Writing for AllMusic, critic John Bush wrote the compilation "could well be the most influential document of the '50s folk revival. Many of the recordings that appeared on it had languished in obscurity for 20 years, and it proved a revelation to a new group of folkies, from Pete Seeger to John Fahey to Bob Dylan... Many of the most interesting selections on the Anthology, however, are taken from [obscure] artists... such as Clarence Ashley, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and Buell Kazee."[21] In his review for The Village Voice, music critic Robert Christgau wrote "Harry Smith's act of history... aces two very '90s concepts: the canon that accrues as rock gathers commentary, and the compilations that multiply as labels recycle catalogue. In its time, it wrested the idea of the folk from ideologues and ethnomusicologists by imagining a commercial music of everyday pleasure and alienation—which might as well have been conceived to merge with a rock and roll that didn't yet exist... Somebody you know is worth the 60 bucks it'll run you. So are you."[26] Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times, said that the songs "still sound marvelous and uncanny."[27]

In 2003, the album was ranked number 276 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and 278 in a 2012 revised list.[3] It is the earliest-released album on that list and also includes the oldest recordings (dating back to Uncle Dave Macon's recording of "Way Down the Old Plank Road" in April 1926). In 2005 the album was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, aesthetically, or historically significant".[4] In 2007, the album was listed in The Guardian's list of 1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die.[28] The album was included in the 2008 book 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die,[29] as well as the 2009 book 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music.[30] In 2012, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.[31]

Though relatively little was written about the Anthology during the first years after release (the first known press reference to the collection was in the folk music magazine Sing Out! in 1958, which focused on Clarence Ashley’s "The Coo Coo")[32] musicians and writers relate how much of an impact it had on them at the time.[33] The music on the compilation provided direct inspiration to much of the emergent folk music revival movement. The anthology made available music which previously had been largely the preserve of marginal social economic groups. Many people who first heard this music through the Anthology came from very different cultural and economic backgrounds from its original creators and listeners. Many previously obscure songs became standards at hootenannies and folk clubs due to their inclusion on the Anthology. Some of the musicians represented on the Anthology saw their musical careers revived, and made additional recordings and live appearances. This release is generally thought to have been massively influential on the folk & blues revival of the 1950s and 1960s, and brought the works of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Dick Justice and many others to the attention of musicians such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The "Harry Smith Anthology," as some call it, was the bible of folk music during the late 1950s and early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. As stated in the liner notes to the 1997 reissue, the late musician Dave van Ronk had earlier commented that "we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated."[34]

The Anthology has had major historical influence. Smith's method of sequencing tracks, along with his inventive liner notes, called attention to the set.[35] This reintroduction of near-forgotten popular styles of rural American music from the selected years to new listeners had impact on American ethnomusicology and was both directly and indirectly responsible for the American folk music revival.[36]

Sing Out! published a full article on the whole release in 1969.[32]

In surveying the critical writing on the Anthology, Rory Crutchfield writes, "[t]his is one of the strangest aspects of the critical heritage of the Anthology: its emergence from relative obscurity to prominence as a revivalist manifesto without much transition. In terms of academic credibility, this partly came from the work of [Robert] Cantwell and [Greil] Marcus, which was published fairly close to the reissue of the collection."[37]

Track listing[edit]

Volume One: Ballads (Green Singing)
1."Henry Lee" (1932)Dick Justice3:26
2."Fatal Flower Garden" (1930)Nelstone's Hawaiians2:55
3."The House Carpenter" (1930)Clarence Ashley3:14
4."Drunkard's Special" (1929)Coley Jones3:16
5."Old Lady and the Devil" (1928)Bill & Belle Reed3:02
6."The Butcher's Boy" (1928)Buell Kazee3:02
7."The Waggoner's Lad" (1928)Buell Kazee3:02
8."King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" (1928)Chubby Parker3:08
9."Old Shoes and Leggins" (1929)Uncle Eck Dunford2:59
10."Willie Moore" (1927)Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford3:13
11."A Lazy Farmer Boy" (1930)Buster Carter and Preston Young2:57
12."Peg and Awl" (1929)The Carolina Tar Heels2:57
13."Ommie Wise" (1929)G. B. Grayson3:09
14."My Name Is John Johanna" (1927)Kelly Harrell3:12
15."Bandit Cole Younger" (1930)Edward L. Crain2:54
16."Charles Guiteau" (1927)Kelly Harrell3:03
17."John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man" (1930)The Carter Family2:55
18."Gonna Die with My Hammer in My Hand" (1927)Wiliamson Brothers and Curry3:24
19."Stackalee" (1927)Frank Hutchison2:58
20."White House Blues" (1926)Charlie Poole w/ North Carolina Ramblers3:31
21."Frankie" (1928)Mississippi John Hurt3:25
22."When That Great Ship Went Down" (1927)William and Versey Smith2:55
23."Engine 143" (1927)The Carter Family3:16
24."Kassie Jones" (1928)Furry Lewis6:13
25."Down on Penny's Farm" (1929)The Bently Boys2:47
26."Mississippi Boweavil Blues" (1929)Charlie Patton (under the pseudonym "The Masked Marvel")3:07
27."Got the Farm Land Blues" (1932)The Carolina Tar Heels3:16
Volume Two: Social music (Red Singing)
1."Sail Away Lady" (1926)Uncle Bunt Stephens2:56
2."The Wild Wagoner" (1928)Jilson Setters3:14
3."Wake Up Jacob" (1929)Prince Albert Hunt's Texas Ramblers2:52
4."La Danseuse" (1929)Delma Lachney and Blind Uncle Gaspard2:54
5."Georgia Stomp" (1929)Andrew & Jim Baxter2:44
6."Brilliancy Medley" (1930)Eck Robertson and Family2:59
7."Indian War Whoop" (1928)Floyd Ming and his Pep-Steppers3:10
8."Old Country Stomp" (1928)Henry Thomas2:52
9."Old Dog Blue" (1928)Jim Jackson3:01
10."Saut Crapaud" (1929)Columbus Fruge2:47
11."Acadian One Step" (1929)Joseph Falcon2:57
12."Home Sweet Home" (1933)The Breaux Freres (Clifford Breaux, Ophy Breaux, Amedee Breaux)3:00
13."Newport Blues" (1929)Cincinnati Jug Band2:55
14."Moonshiner's Dance Part One" (1927)Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra2:39
15."Must Be Born Again" (1927)Rev. J. M. Gates1:28
16."Oh Death Where Is Thy Sting" (1927)Rev. J. M. Gates1:26
17."Rocky Road" (1928)Alabama Sacred Harp Singers2:42
18."Present Joys" (1928)Alabama Sacred Harp Singers2:50
19."This Song of Love" (1932)Middle Georgia Singing Convention No. 12:56
20."Judgement" (1927)Sister Mary Nelson2:23
21."He Got Better Things for You" (1929)Memphis Sanctified Singers2:52
22."Since I Laid My Burden Down" (1929)Elders McIntorsh and Edwards' Sanctified Singers3:16
23."John the Baptist" (1928)Moses Mason3:02
24."Dry Bones" (1929)Bascom Lamar Lunsford2:58
25."John the Revelator" (1930)Blind Willie Johnson3:18
26."Little Moses" (1932)The Carter Family3:11
27."Shine on Me" (1930)Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers3:01
28."Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" (1931)Rev. F.W. McGee2:40
29."I'm in the Battle Field for My Lord" (1929)Rev. D.C. Rice and His Sanctified Congregation3:19
Volume Three: Songs (Blue Singing)
1."The Coo Coo Bird" (1929)Clarence Ashley2:54
2."East Virginia" (1929)Buell Kazee2:58
3."Minglewood Blues" (1928)Cannon's Jug Stompers3:05
4."I Woke Up One Morning in May" (1929)Didier Hebert3:01
5."James Alley Blues" (1927)Richard Rabbit Brown3:05
6."Sugar Baby" (1928)Dock Boggs2:56
7."I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" (1928)Bascom Lamar Lunsford3:19
8."Mountaineer's Courtship" (1926)Ernest Stoneman and Hattie Stoneman2:42
9."The Spanish Merchant's Daughter" (1930)The Stoneman Family3:15
10."Bob Lee Junior Blues" (1927)The Memphis Jug Band3:08
11."Single Girl, Married Girl" (1927)The Carter Family2:44
12."Le vieux soûlard et sa femme" (1928)Cleoma Breaux and Joseph Falcon3:08
13."Rabbit Foot Blues" (1927)Blind Lemon Jefferson2:55
14."Expressman Blues" (1930)Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell3:01
15."Poor Boy Blues" (1929)Ramblin' Thomas2:22
16."Feather Bed" (1928)Cannon's Jug Stompers3:13
17."Country Blues" (1928)Dock Boggs2:56
18."99 Year Blues" (1927)Julius Daniels3:04
19."Prison Cell Blues" (1928)Blind Lemon Jefferson2:44
20."See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (1928)Blind Lemon Jefferson2:52
21."C'est si triste sans lui" (1929)Cleoma Breaux and Ophy Breaux w/ Joseph Falcon2:59
22."Way Down the Old Plank Road" (1926)Uncle Dave Macon2:58
23."Buddy Won't You Roll Down the Line" (1930)Uncle Dave Macon3:15
24."Spike Driver Blues" (1928)Mississippi John Hurt3:14
25."K.C. Moan" (1929)The Memphis Jug Band2:31
26."Train on the Island" (1927)J.P. Nestor2:57
27."The Lone Star Trail" (1930)Ken Maynard3:12
28."Fishing Blues" (1928)Henry Thomas2:44


Production personnel[edit]

  • Moses Asch: Liner Notes, Transfers
  • Peter Bartok: Transfers
  • Joe Bussard: Transfers
  • Philip Coady: Producer
  • Pat Conte: Transfers
  • Evelyn Esaki: Art Direction
  • John Fahey: Liner Notes
  • David Glasser: Mastering, Audio Restoration
  • Amy Horowitz: Executive Producer, Reissue Producer
  • Luis Kemnitzer: Liner Notes
  • Kip Lornell: Liner Notes
  • Michael Maloney: Producer, Production Coordination
  • Greil Marcus: Liner Notes
  • Mary Monseur: Producer, Production Coordination
  • Steve Moreland: Producer
  • Jon Pankake: Liner Notes
  • Charlie Pilzer: Mastering, Audio Restoration, Transfers
  • Chuck Pirtle: Liner Notes
  • Jeff Place: Liner Notes, Reissue Producer, Transfers, Annotation
  • Pete Reiniger: Mastering, Transfers, Compilation Producer
  • Neil V. Rosenberg: Liner Notes
  • Lucy Sante: Liner Notes
  • Peter Seitel: Editing
  • Harry Smith: Producer, Editorial
  • Stephanie Smith: Research
  • Peter Stampfel: Liner Notes
  • Alan Stoker: Transfers
  • Scott Stowell: Art Direction, Design
  • Jack Towers: Transfers
  • Eric Von Schmidt: Liner Notes


Certifications for Anthology of American Folk Music
Region Certification Certified units/sales
United States (RIAA)[39] Gold 500,000^

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Folkways Issues 'Anthology' Series" (PDF). Billboard. 16 August 1952. Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  2. ^ a b Blender Staff (May 2003). "500 CDs You Must Own Before You Die!". Blender. New York: Dennis Publishing Ltd. Retrieved April 3, 2023.
  3. ^ a b "500 Greatest Albums of All Time Rolling Stone's definitive list of the 500 greatest albums of all time". Rolling Stone. 2012. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
  4. ^ a b "Librarian of Congress Names 50 Recordings to the 2005 National Recording Registry". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2022-02-16.
  5. ^ "Hole in the Ace". New York Post. 2011-03-20. Retrieved 2022-04-27.
  6. ^ "Full Biography – Harry Smith Archives". Retrieved 2022-04-26.
  7. ^ Asch, Moses. "The Birth and Growth of the Anthology of American Folk Music," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
  8. ^ a b Smith, Harry. "Foreword," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1952 edition, Folkways Records.
  9. ^ "Notes on Harry Smith's Anthology," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
  10. ^ a b Skinner, 63
  11. ^ Marcus, Greil. "The Old, Weird America," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
  12. ^ "Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk MusicVolume Four « Revenant Records". Retrieved 2022-04-28.
  13. ^ Smith, Harry. liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1952 edition, Folkways Records.
  14. ^ "Tuning the Terrestrial Monochord". Sothis Medias. Retrieved 2022-04-27.
  15. ^ "Folkways Issues 'Anthology' Series" (PDF). Billboard. 16 August 1952. Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  16. ^ Melzer, Arthur M.; Weinberger, Jerry; Zinman, M. Richard, eds. (1999). Democracy & the Arts. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. p. 197 n. 2. ISBN 9780801435416. Retrieved 2020-09-07. In the context of the time, when folk music was linked to protest, specifically to the civil rights movement and the 'national shame' of Appalachian poverty ... it was a smart commercial move.
  17. ^ "1998 Grammy Awards". Retrieved 2022-02-18.
  18. ^ "The Harry Smith Project". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2022-04-27.
  19. ^ Roberts, Randall. "For music archivists, a contemporary dilemma: Should racist songs from our past be heard today?". LA Times.
  20. ^ "Music Review: The Harry Smith B-Sides: Precursor to The Harry Smith C(ensored)-Sides?". The Arts Fuse. 2020-10-31. Retrieved 2022-02-19.
  21. ^ a b Bush, John. "Anthology of American Folk Music > Review". AllMusic. Retrieved July 9, 2011.
  22. ^ Grad, David (September 19, 1997). "Anthony of American Folk Music Review". Entertainment Weekly. No. 397. New York. p. 85. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  23. ^ Currin, Grayson Haver (February 5, 2023). "Various Artists: Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 1–3 Album Review". Pitchfork. Retrieved February 5, 2023.
  24. ^ "Review: Anthology of American Folk Music". Rolling Stone. New York. September 18, 1997. pp. 101–2. 5 Stars (out of 5) – is impossible to overstate the historic worth, sociocultural impact and undiminished vitality of the music in this set, and of Smith's idiosyncratic scholarship and instinctive wisdom....a bedrock of our national musical identity...
  25. ^ Christgau, Robert (October 1997). "Anthology of American Folk Music". Spin. New York. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  26. ^ a b Christgau, Robert (December 30, 1997). "Consumer Guide". The Village Voice. New York. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  27. ^ Pareles, Jon (December 14, 1997). "Pop/Rock/Soul; A Flurry of Boxed Sets Wraps Up the Year". The New York Times. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  28. ^ Guardian Staff (2007-11-21). "Artists beginning with S". the Guardian. Retrieved 2022-04-28.
  29. ^ Moon, Tom (2008). 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. United States: Workman Publishing Company. pp. 803–804. ISBN 978-0-7611-3963-8.
  30. ^ Smith, Chris (2009). 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 3–5. ISBN 978-0-19-537371-4. Retrieved February 22, 2011 – via
  31. ^ "GRAMMY Hall Of Fame |". 2015-06-26. Archived from the original on 2015-06-26. Retrieved 2022-04-23.
  32. ^ a b Katherine Skinner (Jan 2006). "'Must Be Born Again': Resurrecting the 'Anthology of American Folk Music'". Popular Music. Cambridge University Press. 25 (1): 61. JSTOR 3877543.
  33. ^ Katherine Skinner (Jan 2006). "'Must Be Born Again': Resurrecting the 'Anthology of American Folk Music'". Popular Music. Cambridge University Press. 25 (1): 60. JSTOR 3877543.
  34. ^ Marcus, Greil. "The Old, Weird America," liner note essay. Anthology of American Folk Music, 1997 reissue, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
  35. ^ Piazza, Tom (1997-08-24). "A Folk Album That Awakened A Generation". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-04-28.
  36. ^ Havers, Richard (2020-04-13). "'Anthology of American Folk Music': Harry Smith And The Music of Mystical Gods". uDiscover Music. Retrieved 2022-04-27.
  37. ^ Hair, Ross; Smith, Thomas Ruys, eds. (2017). Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music: America Changed through Music. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 53. ISBN 978-1-315-58625-0. OCLC 965826651.
  38. ^ "Anthology of American Folk Music". Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  39. ^ "American album certifications – Various – Anthology of American Folk Music". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved October 27, 2022.

External links[edit]


Because of their potential public domain status, some of these recordings are legally available on the Web: