Sunday, January 16, 2011

The amazing Harry Smith

'I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music.'
– Harry Smith, 1991

I've been meaning to do a post on Harry Smith for some time, so what better (and easier) way than to direct you to one of my favourite (and most prolific – and he's got a day job!) bloggers, designer John Coulthart, who goes by the name Feuilleton.

John's recent post on Harry Smith gives a link to one of his films, Heaven and Earth Magic, which can be viewed on Ubuweb, a great website I look at occasionally and have mentioned previously, such as here and here.

To a certain extent Harry Smith reminds me of Paul Bowles. Bowles had two distinct careers: one as a composer and one as a writer – and never the two shall meet. Likewise with Harry Smith; those who knew his experimental films didn't know about his music; those who knew his music didn't know about his films. Also like Bowles, Smith seemed to always be in the right place at the right time, socialising and/or working with the glamorous and avant-garde, including Jimmy Page, Allen Ginsberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Janis Joplin and Robert Mapplethorpe; though his chameleon-like personality made him equally at home with, say, American Indians (with whom he lived for a year and produced a record of the peyote songs of the Kiowa) and local drug dealers.

Filmmaker, collector, artist, ethnomusicologist, magician, genius and bohemian, Harry Everett Smith was born in Portland, Oregon in 1923 and died in the Chelsea Hotel, New York, in 1991. In 1952 Folkway Records released what is arguably Smith's most important and influential contribution to mankind: The Anthology of American Folk Music. This six record set of old blues, folk and country songs Smith had compiled from his huge collection of records from the 1920s and 30s. Without Smith, these songs would have been forgotten and a significant slice of American history would have been erased. The anthology was important for reviving American folk music in the 1950s and 60s; for folk singers such as Dylan, Baez and Dave Von Ronk, it was the Bible.

But this is only one aspect of Smith's legacy. He was an important underground filmmaker, exploring techniques of stop-motion animation and hand-painting directly onto film. He collected obscure things like Seminole textiles and Ukrainian Easter Eggs and apparently had the largest paper airplane collection in the world. He was a leading authority on string figures. He compiled the only known concordance of the Enochian system (forward and reverse)*. In his last years, Smith was a 'shaman in residence'. Now you can't get a better job title than that.

*Though I have no idea what this means.

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