Cosmic Scholar – Harry Smith, Outlaw Polymath

Harry Everett Smith (1923-1991) was a folklorist, filmmaker, painter, music scholar, record producer, anthropologist, collector, archivist, poet, occultist, translator, and important member of the Beat Generation. Respected in various fields, he remained outside public awareness, yet extremely influential. If you’re familiar with the name it’s likely due to his seminal, 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music mined by an entire generation.

Smith held perhaps two jobs-for-pay in his life – both mere days. He neither voted nor paid taxes. Living off friends, occasional funding, the kindness of strangers, in flophouses, and sometimes on the street, he wore predominantly cast off clothes (suits), yet miraculously garnered enough for books, art supplies and concerts. He was, depending on whom one talked to, “impatient, insulting, helpful, insightful, talented and funny.”


American Magazine photo of Harry Smith, nineteen, at home with Lummi Indian Nation guests, 1943 (Photograph by K. S. Brown. Courtesy of the Harry Smith Archives

Interest in iconoclastic music, especially that of Native Americans, began young. From ages 15 to 20 in Washington state, he was one of the first to record their narratives, songs and games. (After the 1940s, the practice was forbidden by tribes.) During WWII, Smith was exempted as being undersized with a curvature of the spine. While working as a bomber mechanic, he amassed 20,000 original recordings of Blues, Irish, and hillbilly music. His writings replaced the term “primitive” with “traditional.” He dropped out of an anthropology major at Berkeley and moved to San Francisco.

In the late 40s and 50s, poets began to read aloud accompanied by out of sync jazz. Smith immersed himself in the scene. His painting, often “describing” a particular music composition, was influenced by the likes of Charley Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He was also experimenting with innovative animation techniques – drawing on film. Artists Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, poets Kenneth Rextroth and Andre Breton, and writer Paul Bowles were his friends. In one Film Makers Cooperative catalogue, Smith labeled what drugs he had taken while creating which films. Signing up for unemployment, he labeled himself a duck decoy painter in order to be unhirable.

Untitled painting by Harry Smith, 1951 (Courtesy of the Harry Smith Archives)

Back in New York, Smith went through a period of mysticism. He sought out poet, artist and Kabbalah scholar Lionel Ziprin. Visiting rare bookshops and libraries, he copied mystical engravings, translating texts from Latin, German, Hebrew and Medieval French. New friends included musicians Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Stanley Turrentine, poets Alan Ginsberg, Kenneth Koch, Lee Roi Jones, and Frank O’Hara.

Moses Asch, who owned Folkways Records proposed that 27-year-old Smith edit a multi-volume anthology of American folk music in new, long playing (33 1/3 rpm) format. The Anthology of American Folk Music consists of recordings made between 1928 and 1932, none of which Smith personally put on tape (as had Alan Lomax). Performers included The Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes…Annotations avoided localized historical and social commentary, consisting instead of terse, evocative synopses – riffs.

Fifty sets sold the first year, mostly to schools and libraries. With little money coming in, Asch and legendary producer John Hammond arranged to sell thousands to The New York Public Library. “I felt social change would result from it. I’d been reading Plato’s Republic. He’s jabbering about music, how you have to be careful about changing the music, because it might upset or destroy the government.” (Harry Smith)

Harry Smith with his “brain drawings,” circa 1950 (Photograph by Hy Hirsh. Courtesy of the Harry Smith Archives)

The Newport Folk Festival, Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and Friends of Old Time Music began to track down original songwriters (long retired, if alive) and hire them to perform. Smith never attended a concert. His anthology became a bible for Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Dave Van Ronk, The New Lost City Ramblers, The Holy Modal Rounders, Joan Baez and others.

Through his film work, Smith got involved with Jonas Mekas and The Maysles Brothers. Ravi Shankar, Ornette Coleman, The Fugs (whose first recording he arranged), Philip Glass, and Moondog were among those who scored his work. Ginsberg brought psychedelic pied piper Timothy Leary to a showing. He in turn alerted author William Burroughs. Names will be familiar to those cognizant of Counter culture.

Smith would periodically disappear – to avoid debt or because some intriguing pursuit seemed paramount – leaving possessions behind. As a result, little remains of what seems to have been a large output. Drugs and alcohol took over his life. At 54, he was working on his magnum opus, an impressionistic cinematic translation of Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht’s Mahagonny. In later years, Alan Ginsberg subsidized him. In order to provide bed and board, Ginsberg got him a “Shaman in Residence” position at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Harry Smith died at The Hotel Chelsea from a bleeding ulcer followed by cardiac arrest. He said he couldn’t move because he owed too much money.

Harry Smith with his murals at Jimbo’s Bop City, San Francisco, circa 1950 (Photograph by Hy Hirsh. Courtesy of the Harry Smith Archives)

“Genius, shaman, pain in the ass, peerless paragon/We’ll never see his likes again, Harry Smith is gone/And his tapes roll on, and they’ll never, never stop ‘til, they roll all over the world/Over, under, sideways down…”
Song lyrics by Peter Stampfel

To say John Szwed’s biography is exhaustive doesn’t come near the detail included. Every chapter and tangent is described, explained, and/or analyzed. The book can be something of a slog. Still, there’s no question it illuminates the life and pursuits of an unusual contributor to the arts as well as brushing with alternative culture over decades. Should a single field of endeavor – say film or music – intrigue, one can pick through to those sections.

Photo of John Szwed courtesy of the author

Cosmic Scholar by John Szwed
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

About Alix Cohen (1722 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.