Harry Smith's fragmented art eludes his earnest interpreters
The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular (Issues and Debates Series)
$35.00 List Price
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