Spit Happens

Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith By John Szwed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $35.

The cover of Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith

COME BACK WITH ME, children, to a New York before David Zwirner was Robert Moses, when nobody was watching and a “slightly hunchback, short, magical-looking” buddy from the Pacific Northwest could flood the caves of independent film with color and mayhem. Care was different then—the Hotel Chelsea wouldn’t kick you out for setting off the fire alarm and Allen Ginsberg was keeping visionaries in milk and blankets on 12th Street. The buddy from Washington State was Harry Smith, and John Szwed has ably shaped his chaos for the first full biography, Cosmic Scholar. What remains to be determined—and will be partly addressed by the Whitney Museum’s upcoming Smith exhibition, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten—is what this “Harry Smith” represents to anyone looking for him. And what did Smith himself think Smith was doing?

Smith was a loud ghost running wires between worlds, a “gnomish” saint who made connections more often than he made stuff. Hostile to the existence of galleries and museums and other obstacles to free circulation, Smith spent his life feeling for a pattern that might connect all the holy detritus in his ark: crushed Coke cans, paper airplanes, Seminole quilts, Ukrainian eggs, books, records, dead birds, string figures. The movies he painstakingly built from Vaseline and dye and paper cutouts changed how filmmakers saw the material of film itself. The problem for the historian is that Smith excelled in eliminating his own “excreta” (his word), throwing films under buses and tossing projectors out of windows. His close friend during the “Berkeley Renaissance” of 1948, the artist Jordan Belson, said that Smith “had nothing but insults and sarcasm for most art and most artists.” (This quote comes from the fantastic American Magus, a collection of interviews with those in Smith’s close circle first published in 1996, and one of Szwed’s sources.) 

Smith preferred to think of himself as “an anthropologist.” Photographer Robert Frank thought that Smith was “a genius,” and “the only person I met in my life that transcended everything.” The idea of transcendence unlocks something in Smith’s self-encrypting system. His activities had the rhythm of devotional acts and spiritual offerings, none of which left behind the elegant incline of a career. Much of the Smithness that did reach the outside world got there as a by-product of his looking for money (not among the things he collected). Little of what he did happened because he needed to prepare for an exhibition or record release. The paintings and films and indexes he worked on were labor-intensive meditations. His student and friend, the filmmaker M. Henry Jones, reports that Smith felt that finishing projects was not important: “It’s important that you’re always doing it.” 

Harry Smith with his jazz mural at Jimbo’s Bop City, San Francisco, CA, ca. 1950. Hy Hirsh, courtesy of the Harry Smith Archives.
Harry Smith with his jazz mural at Jimbo’s Bop City, San Francisco, CA, ca. 1950. Hy Hirsh, courtesy of the Harry Smith Archives.

The reason most people know Harry Smith is something called The Anthology of American Folk Music, released as a three-LP set on Folkways in 1952. New to the just-forming world of folk-music collectors, Smith worked in part from a document called “List of American Folk Songs on Commercial Records” compiled in 1940 by very well-known folklorist and recordist Alan Lomax. Jug bands, blues singers, minor stars, unknown performers, family choirs—all of them are in the Anthology. The compilation was strong enough that “Harry Smith” was briefly thought to be a pseudonym for Lomax. Smith was, in fact, someone with thousands of records from the ’20s and ’30s, and a deep enough commitment to anthropological study to annotate the entire batch. The Anthology brought up as many questions as it answered: What is a professional musician? What is a spontaneous, authentic expression? In the decades since the Anthology came out, people have projected lifetimes of energy onto the compilation, looking to it for evidence of a “real” or (per Greil Marcus) “weird old America.” The belief in a lost era of transcendent and commercially untainted music has sometimes taken over, even if Smith never believed in a good old days, ever. There’s even a Harry Smith Frolic now, twenty-first iteration just completed, where musicians play acoustic instruments and re-create the entire compilation in order at midnight. If Smith would likely not have liked the idea of the Anthology becoming a prescriptive standard, the prospect of people playing live versions of these songs in real time would have appealed to him.

His “spiritual wife,” Rose “Rosebud” Feliu, told Paola Igliori that Smith’s work was “an out-welling of this incredible compassion he had for everything that lived.” Possibly true, but Smith’s friend Debbie Freeman said what Smith really loved was “taking drugs” and “putting people down.” Jonas Mekas, Smith’s booster and de facto archivist, said that Smith “used to spit, and act very bad and nasty” in order to “mask his sweetness and goodness.” Of himself, Smith once said, “I received my original education in my mother’s womb and found that other scholastic organizations were inferior. The object is to record.”

Szwed takes Smith at his word, and Cosmic Scholar is a mammoth recording of Smith’s movements. Szwed is sharp enough to not play judge and takes no sides in the Compassionate Harry versus Nasty Harry debate. He knows that Smith’s social interactions, the spitting and kicking, are crucial to his legacy, in part because Smith destroyed so much of what he produced. If you get excited about Smith’s films, your only resources are VHS rips on YouTube. His catalogue raisonné so far has produced only two volumes, the first documenting his paper-airplane collection and the second presenting forty-five of the string figures he mounted. “String figures are the only universal thing other than singing,” Smith said, and he put in years learning how to record and re-create the figures he either heard about or came across. The Moon and The Moon Gone Dark were two figures he found in California, attributed to “Central Africa” on his accompanying index card. The string shapes look more like exploded eggs than traditional moon shapes, all to the credit of the original, unknown string artists.

What Smith did leave behind was enough, though. If he had only been responsible for The Anthology of American Folk Music? Dayenu. If he had only assembled stop-action hallucinations like Heaven and Earth Magic? Dayenu. I am devoted to one particular Harry Smith: the anti-supremacist. Under the protective layer of insults and digressions, Smith harbored a deep belief that communication was happening everywhere all the time and that no kind of language was better than others. He told Dawn-Michelle Baude that he did believe in “some creative force.” “I hesitate to call it ‘God,’ because that’s too limiting,” Smith concluded.

Smith’s pursuit of patterns—in string figures, dances, needlework, piano improvisation—was a search to understand all the various hymns to that God, and he undermined hierarchy even when it paid the bills. As he told John Cohen in 1969, “Any kind of popular trend is infinitely more wholesome than listening to old records and trying to institute changes. It’s more important that people know that some kind of pleasure can be derived from things that are around them, rather than to catalogue more stuff.”

BORN IN PORTLAND, Oregon, in 1923, Harry Everett Smith was the only child of Robert James Smith (not the occultist Aleister Crowley, as he said for kicks) and Mary Louise Hammond. His father worked in the canneries and his mother was a schoolteacher who sometimes taught children from the Lummi and Swinomish tribes. During their time in Anacortes, Washington, Smith’s parents lived in “identical” houses at either end of one block, with Smith living in a tree house between them. In a quote not reproduced by Szwed, Smith told P. Adams Sitney that during this time he “mostly” lived with his mother. “I performed what might be considered sexual acts with her until I was eighteen or nineteen maybe,” Smith said. “No actual insertion or anything, but I would always get up in the morning and get in bed with her, because she had a long story she would tell me about someone named Eaky-Peaky.” I understand the risks of reproducing this claim, but Smith’s story is poorer without it. We learn from Cosmic Scholar that Smith “boasted that he might be the only person on earth who had never had sex,” but we hear little else about Smith’s libido, suggesting he was asexual. Other Smith sources establish clearly that he masturbated and was found in bed with at least one person (though not with the dog that Smith sometimes claimed to have fucked). The story of his libido may not have been as appealing to Szwed as his tall tales, but it ultimately seemed, God forbid, sort of average, even if Smith’s celibacy was odd in the context of ’60s and ’70s New York. His few moments of being normal—or normative, as his sex drive seems to have been—are as important as his confabulations and omissions, which are admittedly better copy. It is hard to forget this less salacious but much weirder comment about his mother from Think of the Self Speaking (an essential collection of interviews with Smith): “My posture is derived from trying to be exactly her height, for she was shorter.”

Smith’s adult journey was presaged by some of his childhood missions. There was a stash of Masonic documents in the attic that young Harry was told to avoid—a directive ignored. When he was fifteen, Smith went to record and interview the Lummi, using a “disc-cutting machine” and a film camera to document their ceremonies. 

I got interested in the designs in relation to music. . . . It was an attempt to write down the unknown Indian life. I made a large number of recordings of that, which are also unfortunately lost. I took portable equipment all over the place long before anyone else did and recorded whole long ceremonies sometimes lasting several days. Diagramming the pictures was so interesting that I started to be interested in music in relation to stuff.

Our Harry’s juvenilia didn’t end up producing a book or album, but that doesn’t diminish his vision. How many white teenagers were documenting the cultural language of First Nation peoples in the 1930s? 

Once Smith got hold of his parents’ photos of the Alaskan wilderness, he created his own homemade movie show: “I can remember the amazement that I felt when I took the lens of the flashlight and was able to see one of the snow scenes on the walls of the hall.” He made camera obscuras and pinhole cameras and eventually created some of the first American “non-objective films” (images without stories or representation of known objects). Smith’s tumbling cubes and circles convey the sorts of images you get when you shut your eyelids and stare at the sun. “It is more interesting being alive and observing the perfect 3-D widescreen effect produced by the central nervous system than sitting in a theater watching some kind of myth,” Smith said.

After moving down to Berkeley, there was a brief moment of employment in 1947, when Smith acted as the assistant to anthropology professor Paul Radin, a student of Franz Boas. After that, Harry Smith was in charge of being Harry Smith, with God and his friends picking up the tab. In 1947, a film curator introduced Smith and his films in a letter: “Harry is an artist with a background in New Orleans jazz and anthropology, and his work is very exciting.” 

When Smith hit New York in 1951, he ended up on the doorstep of poet Lionel Ziprin, one of his earliest protectors, a job Ziprin tired of quickly. Ziprin said Smith had come to New York for three reasons: “To see Marcel Duchamp, to see the Baroness Hilla Rebay of the Guggenheim Museum, and to listen to jazz and go to Birdland.” Rebay had been sending Smith $50 a month to continue his film work, before there even was such a thing as the Guggenheim. That the films survived, even in part, is a blessing, but it also represents a sort of scriptural glitch, since so much of the work is gone and we have only a handful of clues to figure out why Smith made anything. Smith said, famously, that the films are “minor accessories to my painting.” I have never seen a single of these paintings in person, and if I cobble together all the books and catalogues I have, I can see maybe ten decent reproductions of Smith’s paintings, arrays of almost always symmetrical symbols, several truly sublime, others fairly childish. Smith’s explanation? “It just happened that I had the films with me when everything else was destroyed. My paintings were infinitely better than my films, because much more time was spent on them.”

Smith met his final angel, Allen Ginsberg, in 1958. Thelonious Monk was doing an eight-week run at the Five Spot, and Smith was often there, drawing marks on paper while Monk played. When Ginsberg noticed him—Smith was already sort of a legend—he approached Smith and asked what he was doing. Smith said he was “trying to notate the syncopation of Thelonious Monk’s piano” in order to “synchronize collages and hand-drawn frame-by-frame abstractions with Monk’s music.” It is key to stop and consider that Smith did this also with his paintings, sometimes subbing in Dizzy Gillespie’s music as the source for his images. This is the same work he had done with the dances of the Lummi and would go on to do with the rhythms of Kiowa peyote ritual songs: notation in order to create an aggregate he could then study. Smith may have destroyed his films and paintings not simply because he was perverse or lit on Dexedrine or drunk as an old potato. If his visual works were part of a larger project to, as he said, record, then the thing he was recording was the point, not his notes. Monk and Dizzy and the world would keep playing, which is much more to Smith’s ultimate point:

I would prefer to see this technological thing knocked out, because all the things I’m interested in, like singing, poetry, painting and stuff can all be done just as well without this large number of can openers, eggbeaters, Empire State Buildings and things. I would like to see smaller communities that are self-supporting spring up. 

The thing that actually made him famous was The Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952. Smith sold off a stack of records to Folkways founder Moe Asch and wrote the liner notes, refusing to categorize the records by race, or by its traditional proxy, “blues” and “hillbilly,” all of which led to the larger catch-all of “folk music.” “I wanted to see how well certain jazz critics did on the blindfold test,” Smith said. “They all did horribly. It took years before anybody discovered that Mississippi John Hurt wasn’t a hillbilly.”

Though it represents a fairly brief moment in Smith’s work, the Anthology was, as Ginsberg described it, a “bomb.” Bob Dylan went on to record at least fifteen of the eighty-four songs in the Anthology, some of them appearing on his very first album in 1962. How scholars and musicians perceive the popular music of the early twentieth century is in no small part formed by this collection of songs, and by Smith’s loony mash of typefaces and symbols and arcane syntax. The surreal juxtaposition of unexplained symbols and quotes echoed European Dada and Surrealism, but little else in the American music business. The packaging of the Anthology is a little like one of his films frozen and then spat out onto paper. Smith would have been the first to point out that the recordings themselves are an arbitrary selection of what America’s self-supporting communities were up to. 

It is important to remember that Smith and Folkways and his more glamorous friends were all, as far as America was concerned, obscure. Before the internet, small cohorts stayed small and didn’t collide unless someone really put in the work. Film critic J. Hoberman said that when Smith was awarded a “Merit Award” from the Grammys in 1991 and appeared (very briefly) on television, it was a shock to his friends in the film community. 

“We had no idea that was the same Harry Smith!” Hoberman told me.

Smith died later that year, back at the Chelsea Hotel for a final haunting.

The Whitney Museum show will feature Smith’s most elaborate film, a four-projector symphony called Mahagonny, completed in 1980. (Smith’s rendering of the Wizard of Oz was more expensive, involving detailed dioramas and interpolations of both Hieronymus Bosch and Ernst Haeckel, but it was never finished and only nine minutes survive.) Though Smith began as a pioneer of non-objective aesthetics, creating many films that never even used the lens to capture live action, Mahagonny features many human beings doing their thing, and serves as an unintentional documentary of life at the Chelsea Hotel. Rosebud and Patti Smith and various denizens of the hotel appear, with the whole thing (sort of) synchronized to a recording of Brecht and Weill’s Mahagonny. The Whitney show will also feature string figures and a Dock Boggs record from the Anthology and Smith’s notation of Native American dance, none of them things you’d normally categorize as art tied to a single artist. 

What, ultimately, are we crediting Smith with? A sensibility? An ability to connect? A deep appreciation for the magic of culture? Are patterns evidence of people or deeper truths or both? Smith would never have become a collector jagoff parading a stash of 78s and droning on about the good old days, that much we know. Were Smith to pop up now, with the same eyes and ears and heart, I imagine he’d be obsessively downloading TikToks and filing them away in thumb drives all over Ridgewood. 

Sasha Frere-Jones’s memoir Earlier will be published by Semiotext(e) in October.