Harry Smith was an artist whose activities and interests put him at the center of the mid twentieth-century American avant-garde. Although best known as a filmmaker and musicologist, he frequently described himself as a painter, and his varied projects called on his skills as an anthropologist, linguist, and translator. He had a lifelong interest in the occult and esoteric fields of knowledge, leading him to speak of his art in alchemical and cosmological terms.
Harry Smith was born May 29, 1923, in Portland, Oregon, and his early childhood was spent in the Pacific Northwest. Smith’s father, Robert James Smith, was a watchman for the local salmon canning company. His mother, Mary Louise, taught school on the Lummi Indian reservation. Robert Smith’s grandfather had been a prominent Freemason who was a Union General in the Civil War. Harry’s parents were Theosophists, who exposed him to a variety of pantheistic ideas, which persisted in his fascination with unorthodox spirituality and comparative religion and philosophy. By the age of 15, Harry had spent time recording many songs and rituals of the Lummi and Samish peoples and was compiling a dictionary of several Puget Sound dialects. He later became proficient in Kiowa sign-language and Kwakiutl. In addition to developing complicated systems for transcription, he also amassed an important collection of sacred religious objects, one of a number of museological endeavors that occupied Smith throughout his life.
Smith studied anthropology at the University of Washington for five semesters between 1943 and 1944. After a weekend visit to Berkeley, during which he attended a Woody Guthrie concert, met members of San Francisco’s bohemian community of artists and intellectuals, and experimented with marijuana for the first time, Smith decided that the type of intellectual stimulation he was seeking was unavailable in his student life.
It was in San Francisco that Smith began to build a reputation as one of the leading American experimental filmmakers. He showed frequently in the “Art in Cinema” screenings organized by Frank Stauffacher at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Smith not only became close with other avant-garde filmmakers in the Bay Area, such as Jordan Belson and Hy Hirsh, but traveled frequently to Los Angeles to see the films of Oskar Fischinger, Kenneth Anger, and other Southern Californians experimentalists. Smith developed his own methods of animation, using both stop motion collage techniques and, more uniquely, hand-painting directly on film. Often a single film required years of painstakingly precise labor. While a few other filmmakers had employed similar frame-by-frame processes, few matched the complexity of composition, movement, and integration in Smith’s work. Smith’s films have been interpreted as investigations of conscious and unconscious mental processes, while his fusion of color and sound are acknowledged as precursors of sixties psychedelia. At times, Smith spoke of his films in terms of synaethesia, the search for correspondences between color and sound and sound and movement.
Smith’s films cannot be easily separated from his paintings, and in both he was influenced by the abstract work of Kandinsky, Marc, and others who formed the foundation of the collection of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum) in New York. Smith developed a relationship with Hilla Rebay, the museum’s director, and she arranged for Smith to come to New York and to receive a Solomon Guggenheim grant in 1950. He moved to New York permanently in the early fifties. In need of money, he offered to sell his extraordinary record collection of American vernacular music to Folkways Records. Instead, Moses Asch, the label’s president, challenged Smith to cull his collection into an anthology.
In 1952 Folkways issued Smith’s multi-volume Anthology of American Folk Music. The Anthology was comprised entirely of recordings issued between 1927 (the year electronic recording made accurate reproduction possible) and 1932, the period between the realization by the major record companies of distinct regional markets and the Depression’s stifling of folk music sales. Released in three volumes of two discs each, the 84 tracks of the anthology are recognized as having been a seminal inspiration for the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960 (the 1997 reissue by the Smithsonian was embraced with critical acclaim and two Grammy awards). Traditional American music was only one of Smith’s musical interests. From the late 1940s, he was a passionate jazz enthusiast, going so far as to create paintings that are note-by-note transcriptions of particular tunes. He spent much of the fifties in the company of jazz pioneers like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. Smith’s involvement with recording continued into the sixties and seventies as he produced and recorded the first album by the Fugs in 1965. His long term friendships with many of the Beat writers led to the release of Allen Ginsberg’s First Blues in 1976 as well as unreleased recordings of Gregory Corso’s poetry and Peter Orlovsky’s songs. Smith spent part of this era living with groups of Native Americans, and this resulted in his recording the peyote songs of the Kiowa Indians (Kiowa Peyote Meeting, Folkways, 1973).
Smith’s broad range of interests resulted in a number of collections. He donated the largest known paper airplane collection in the world to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. He was a collector of Seminole textiles and Ukrainian Easter Eggs. He also considered himself the world’s leading authority on string figures, having mastered hundreds of forms from around the world.
Smith spent his last years 1988-1991) as “shaman in residence” at Naropa Institute, where he offered a series of lectures, worked on sound projects, and continued collecting and researching. In 1991 he received a Chairman’s Merit Award at the Grammy Awards ceremony for his contribution to American Folk Music. Upon receiving the award, he proclaimed, “I’m glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by music.”
Harry Everett Smith died at the Chelsea Hotel on November 27, 1991.
ALLEN GINSBERG- JUNE 1993
Harry Smith‘s field was visual art as well as ethnomusicology. One day he had no money, and he offered to sell me a rather dark version of this film Heaven and Earth Magic for $100. Every time we’d go up there he’d get me high, and then he’d ask me for money because he was starving. And apparently he went around and did that with everybody. He had no source but he was a genius, like the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. So I got to be scared of going up there because he’d get me tremblingly high on grass, and he’d show me these amazing movies, and I’d be totally awed by the universality of his genius in music and painting. In addition he could write mad, long, long poems, rhymed. But he’d always hit me up for money if he could capture me and get me up there and hypnotize me with his films.
In 1965 he recorded the first Fugs album. He did it on his own and then gave it to ESP, who released it. Maybe he gave it to Folkways first. Asch had constantly supplied him with money. If Harry wasn’t near someone else, he’d always hit up Moe Asch, who dreaded his coming. Or Harry said he dreaded his coming. Asch was the guy who invented and subsidized and managed Folkways Records.
By 1970 at the Chelsea Hotel I was working with Barry Miles on the gigantic project of putting together all of my recorded poetry. Miles was living at the Chelsea, so I was there listening to tapes. This was the point where Miles had assembled all the tapes, copied them, and was playing me variant versions of ‘Howl’ and ‘Sunflower Sutra’ so we could decide which was the earliest, best emotionally, and the best recorded in terms of sound. And Harry was on another floor, or down the corridor, engaged in a long recording project called ‘Materials for the Study of Relgion and Culture in the Lower East Side,’ which included murderers babbling on amphetamine in the streets, jump rope rhymes, bawdy songs, rap, the complete canon of Gregory Corso’s early poetry, and all of Peter Orlovsky’s songs- which are still at Folkways- at a time when Peter was absolutely great-voiced. I remember his rubric ‘Materials for the Study of Religion and Culture in the Lower East Side,’ which was a great idea. That was the period- 1968 to 1975- when the Lower East Side was really cooking and bubbling.
Harry was also part of a project of recording all of my songs. At that time I was making up a lot of songs and still prolific in that area. The songs we recorded were basically the songs from the book First Blues. Later I put them all out because it was the first time I’d written songs. I guess I was inspired to music first by mantra chanting, then setting Blake to music, then Dylan put his hand in and got me interested, and then meeting Happy Traum. Harry recorded me a cappella, or with just my Benares harmonium, as it says on the Folkways LP liner notes. He actually recorded every single song I’d written several times until we got the right one he liked. We recorded ina drag room in the Hotel Chelsea on his Wollensack that he’d gotten either from me or from Moe Asch. It cost a couple of hundred bucks, and he really used it. He was a master of the microphone. The entire first Fugs album, which is a classic one, was recorded with just one microphone on the Wollensack.
But I think he dumped my tapes off at Folkways. When he got kicked out of the Chelsea he probably brought all of his tapes up to Moe Asch and they were sitting more-or-less unlabeled or only partially labeled in the reel-to-reel boxes. Years later Asch approached Charters and said ‘We’ve got all this material from Ginsberg and we’ve wanted to put out a record of this since the ’60s.’ Asch was an old lefty, and he thought I was reviving the spirit of the American left-wing rebellion. But Harry was too tangled up in amphetamine, or whatever he was taking, to do anything with all the material he’d amassed, so Moe gave it over to Sam and Anne Charters. The album was issued in 1981 as Folkways Records FSS 37560, called Allen Ginsberg: First Blues, Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs. Harry as usual was cantakerous and perfectionist and said ‘Well, they got all the wrong takes.’ There’s a much better on of ‘Prayer Blues,’ he kept saying, but I never had access to the tapes, so I don’t know what he preferred. ‘Prayer Blues’ is pretty amazing because it’s kind of long, but I had good breath there. I started off a little bit on the wrong key or something and he had to stop and correct me. One thing I remember that he kept saying was ‘It’s all right.’ I was tapping my foot and he said, ‘Do that heavier.’ And I said ‘Won’t the tape pick it up?’ And he said ‘Yeah, that’s what the old blues people used to do- bang. Make little drum notes on the guitars or bang their foot on the floor as part of the rhythm thing.’ I was amazed at this openness to whatever happened. But he did have a good ear, better than me, so he got me straightened out and we started over again. The interesting thing is that I had to take all the parts on the call and response on that, and I had the strength and breath to do that. It’s a pretty amazing performance when I hear it now. I’m on pitch properly, I think. But nowadays it sounds like some funny old geezer folksinger doing this thing that he’s been doing for 50 years, like you find on old folk records. The one thing Harry liked most of all on that album was ‘Bus Ride Ballad Road to Suva.’ He thought it was the most interesting song because it was a ‘Come-all-ye’ and sort of a classical thing. Like a shanty.
The amazing thing is that in the last year of his life he was awarded a Grammy for the advancement of American folk music. He was dressed up in a tuxedo without a tie, and he stumbled trying to climb on the stage. He was given a moment to make a speech and said very briefly that he was happy to live long enough to see the American political culture affected and moved and shaped somewhat by American folk music, meaning the whole rock-n-roll, Bob Dylan, Beatnik, post-Beatnik youth culture. It was a beautiful speech because it very briefly said that he’d lived long enough to see the philosophy of the homeless and the Negro and the minorities and the impoverished- of which he was one, starving in the Bowery- alter the consciousness of America suffiently to affect the politics.