Harry Smith’s painting of Manteca by Dizzy Gillespie.
Though rightfully well-known as an archivist of American music traditions, Harry Smith the conservator never staked out a static position on the musical spectrum. He started his polymath’s journey into the universal languages inherent in music as a young, conspicuously crewcut kid recording the songs of a Lummi ceremony.
Harry Smith photographed by American Magazine in 1943, recording songs on a Lummi reservation.
At the dawn of bebop, he was at Jimbo’s Bop City in San Francisco, painting Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca stroke-for-note and creating experimental films to sync with the flight patterns of Charlie Parker’s saxophone. In the 50s he recorded a fifteen LP set of liturgical songs by Orthodox Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia. In ‘65, he produced The Fugs First Album, one of the earliest documents of garage rock. By the 80s you could catch him at punk shows around the East Village.
His was a life lived steadfastly out of place, always avoiding the paths worn by less wanderous feet. He paid a price — it was the life of a hermit, a true starving artist and visionary from another time. Yet he was recognized during his lifetime — for the influence of his Anthology of American Folk Music on 60s culture and of his experimental films, which you can still see shades of today in, say, the stage show of Flying Lotus.
Harry Smith with Harley Flanagan, later of the Cro-Mags.
It’s hard to imagine his grapples with esoterica, his obsession with the inscrutable systems underlying things, if you aren’t wired the way he was, and probably not many of us are. His life itself and the cultures that shine through in his work though stand as an exemplar of polyculture in action. He was never prone to mass monoculture from above or provincialism from below. The cosmogony he left behind is like some vast temple where you may never unlock the mysteries of the rites but the door is open to all. We’re celebrating his too-brief stay on this planet next Wednesday at Ace Hotel New York — on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday — with music, reading and reflections by some people who knew him and some of the many more changed by his work.
Typewriter drawing by Harry Smith.