When the filmmaker, painter, ethnographer, occultist, and occasional vagrant Harry Smith died in New York's Chelsea Hotel in 1991, he left behind 166 boxes of belongings. They contained such treasures as Chinese papier-mâché masks, an illustrated manuscript on string figures (which he noted were "produced by all primitive societies" and "the only universal thing other than singing"), and countless sets of collectible cards, among them Iran-Contra Scandal Trading Cards, the Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot Deck, and Stardust Casino Playing Cards. The work of the collector is never done, and Smith seemed determined to turn his single-room home into a museum of all the world's indigenous relics and pop-culture junk, so that he might decipher the codes connecting them.
During his lifetime, Smith was known almost exclusively for the Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-LP set of prewar blues, hillbilly, and gospel recordings culled from 78s he had tracked down in California, Oregon, and Washington. Accompanied by a catalogue that juxtaposes information about the performers with invented newspaper headlines, Platonic imagery, and alchemical invocations, the set was released by Smithsonian Folkways in 1952, when Smith was twenty-nine and newly arrived in New York City. Within a decade, the Anthology and its musicians (Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, and Chubby Parker among them) had acquired a cult following—one devotee was Robert Zimmerman, who used it as the template for his transformation into Bob Dylan (he memorized all the songs and has performed them ever since). Few even knew the name of the man who had put the music together; after revealing what Greil Marcus has dubbed "the old, weird America," Smith moved on to other projects.
Smith was born in 1923 and raised in the Northwest by theosophists, who instilled in him the idea that all elements are derived from one another. This notion guided his life's work, which aimed to "synthesize universal patterns into a unified theory of culture," writes Rani Singh, Smith's former assistant and one of the editors of Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular: Smith's heroes were alchemists and anthropologists, and his goal was "the magical conversion of common materials into precious objects." Singh and coeditor Andrew Perchuk are striving to canonize Smith; the question is, which canon?
While the Anthology was provoking a tectonic shift in American culture, Smith labored in bohemian obscurity, embarking on grand experiments with painting and film. The contributors to this volume—all academics, though hailing from disciplines as varied as Smith's output—make a compelling, if overbearing, case for his status as a modern artist with outsider tendencies. The Anthology may be the foundational document of the Greenwich Village folk scene and the nationwide revival of old-time music it spawned, but it is also a signal achievement of modernist collage, "one of the first times that a collection of music was curated and presented as a unified work of art," Singh writes. It's an argument that has been made before, yet this is the most comprehensive book on the subject to date, and the most strident in its claims (the best single volume for Smith study remains 1999's Think of the Self Speaking, a collection of interviews with him). According to Singh, a new label is necessary to describe Smith's chronic hoarding in relation to his erratic creative output: "ethnographic modernist." Thus the collector redeems the artist.
Although he recorded everything from the peyote songs of Kiowa Indians in Oklahoma to the sounds of the street below Allen Ginsberg's Lower East Side apartment (where he was a regular guest), Smith's best fieldwork was done in the bookshop, the record store, the flea market, and the Dumpster. Unlike the generation of song collectors that had searched America's backwoods for variations on British ballads, Smith was less interested in preserving cultural traditions than in finding songs he thought were "exotic in relation to what was considered to be the world culture of high class music" at the time: Appalachian hillbilly songs colored by an African dulcimer, a blues that takes a line from a Scottish folk song, a Creole polka sung with a Magyar accent. And rather than fret about the popularization of folk music and the possibility of traditions being diluted, Smith believed that these records—made for commercial labels between 1927, when electric recording was introduced, and 1932, when the Depression halted sales—were evidence that "as you increase the critical audience of any music, the level goes up." The original Anthology devotees held up folk music as an antidote to commodity culture, but Smith saw little contradiction between the two. His raw materials were not the voices of the musicians, but the original vinyl records that froze them in time.
In Smith's experimental films, his collages grew to epic proportions. The hour-long black-and-white animation Heaven and Earth Magic (ca. 1957–62) makes use of Seminole textile patterns, figures from fin de siècle exercise manuals, and cutouts from Victorian shopping catalogues, among other materials. Uncanny relationships emerge as the patterns march across the screen, but rarely is the sum greater (or less confounding) than the parts. "It must be kept in mind that, for the collector, the world is present, and indeed ordered, in each of his objects," Walter Benjamin wrote, but those objects in turn are ordered "according to a surprising and, for the profane understanding, incomprehensible connection." For Smith, the pleasure taken in experiencing an object was eclipsed by that taken in cracking its code.
The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular makes much of Smith's universalist posturing but too often elides the inward-looking nature of his project. Smith acknowledged this: "The reason for looking at objects is to perfect the self," he told an interviewer in 1969. "It's a kind of selfish thing." That selfishness made the financial conditions of his life precarious, and if his few friends and patrons hadn't taken the precaution of buying much of the little he produced, there might have been nothing left. In 1964, he traveled to Oklahoma to record the Kiowa and ended up in jail, broke and stranded. He neglected to pay rent during his absence, and by the time he made it back to New York his landlord had evicted him, trashing his artworks, films, and collections. Smith was moribund for weeks, combing through Fresh Kills Landfill by day, drinking himself into a stupor at night. Eventually, though, he moved into a new hotel room and started collecting again. "It's proof of everything working out all right, that a person accumulates too much stuff," he reflected. "It's very fortunate that very often [your possessions are] thrown out, because it gives you the inclination to work further."
The greater the effort to understand Smith's output, the more one runs up against these tensions between ambition and ambivalence, hermeticism and playfulness. Smith's interpreters often seem engaged in a kind of Pascal's gambit: better to assume Smith's works are veritable gnostic texts in need of decipherment than risk calling them mazes without ingress or egress. In doing so, the essayists fixate on minutiae or resort to interpolation. Film scholar Annette Michelson proposes in her essay that Heaven and Earth Magic be seen as "the representation of an elaborate working through . . . of the spectrum of infantile development through paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions." Folk historian Robert Cantwell suggests using Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" as a "prolegomenon to the act of listening" to the Anthology.
This threatens to lose sight of what is most exciting and enduring in Smith's work: the push and pull of delusions and illusions. His experiments were as often interesting failures as they were successes. Smith's magnum opus, Mahagonny (1970–80), was based on Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1930 opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, but in reworking it he abandoned the narrative. Instead, he focused on "translating, as nearly as I can, images of the German text into universal, or near universal, symbols and synchronizing the appropriate images with music." For years he edited the film in accordance with an arcane score: Numbers, letters, and dots dictated the placement of images, which were divided into innumerable categories, including animations, floating geometric forms, portraits, and landscapes. He stopped working only after a donor gave him funds on the condition that he finish. Smith had hoped Mahagonny would be "just as intelligible to the Zulu, the Eskimo, or the Australian Aborigine, as to people of any other cultural background or age." Instead, the completed film, like so much of Smith's work, is a monologue in a language we don't quite know, but that beckons us to learn it all the while.
Alexander Provan is the editor of the online magazine Triple Canopy and a contributing editor of Bidoun.