Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular

by Richard Elliott

1 Apr 2010


Harry Smith is known to many music fans as the man behind the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music (often referred to as “The Harry Smith Anthology”), the six album set of ‘20s recordings that would go on to influence the ‘60s Folk Revival and become a cultural reference point for musicians and historians alike.

Yet Smith is also well-known to followers of avant-garde film as the man responsible for some of the most fascinating animated films of the post-war era. He was, additionally, an ethnomusicologist, an avid collector of vernacular art, a painter, and a noted, if not always coherent, expert on a range of subjects from Native American ritual to early modern cosmology and the occult.

This collection, the result of two symposia held on Harry Smith in 2001 and 2002, is an attempt to reflect the wide scope of Smith’s interests by bringing together scholars from a range of disciplines. The volume is edited by Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute and former curator at New York’s Alternative Museum, and Rani Singh, a researcher at the Getty Institute, who was Harry Smith’s assistant in the years leading up to his death and is now the director of the Harry Smith Archives.

Perchuk begins his introductory chapter by resurrecting the distinction made by T.J. Clark between the avant-garde and bohemia, asking which side of the divide Smith might be thought to reside. Not surprisingly, Perchuk finds Smith settling uncomfortably with both camps; Smith was a bum, both literally and artistically, gleaning what he could from the avant-garde and bohemia alike.

cover art

Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular

Andrew Perchuk and Ravi Singh (eds)

US: Jan 2010

Moving on to discuss the consistencies of Smith’s artistic endeavors, Perchuk notes a connection to structural anthropology and linguistics and suggests that it is structure, above all, that gives meaning to Smith’s work. Smith was an inveterate collector of objects, including records, string figures, Ukrainian Easter eggs, and Seminole patchwork quilts. Collecting, for Smith, was an attempt to find connections and correspondences between the disparate elements of the universe; his understanding of these connections was guided by an obsession with alchemy, the occult, and the history of esoteric thought. Perchuk quotes from a fascinating 1969 interview between Smith and John Cohen, in which Smith describes his collections as “a desire to communicate in some way”.

As an artistic bum, Smith was particularly interested in things people left behind, be they scrapped 78 rpm records, magazine adverts, or paper airplanes (which he collected from the streets of New York, faithfully noting the date and location of each find). His interest in alchemy led him to conceive of art as a way of transforming common materials into magical or precious objects; in this, he was both alchemist and ecologically aware recycler.

As in Agnès Varda’s film The Gleaners and I, Smith’s collecting work forces us to reflect on objects, practices, and people we might otherwise choose to ignore in our haste to keep up with “progress”. One of the many pleasures of this book is that it makes an attempt at just such a practice, setting out to find what can be gleaned from Smith’s often shambolic life and career.

Perchuk’s co-editor Singh provides a riveting biography of Smith in her chapter, subtitled “An Ethnographic Modernist in America”. As Singh notes at the outset, Smith is someone about whom “half-truths seem to play longer, and more colorfully, than nonfiction”, making him a troublesome candidate for biographical treatment. This is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’s recourse, in his book Sade / Fourier / Loyola, to what he termed the “biographeme”, the fragmentary and evocative glimpse of a remembered individual that seems to tell us more than a conventional chronological account could (Smith, a structuralist with an aversion to being pinned down, would doubtless have been happy to be thought of via the biographeme).

However, while Singh is aware of the potential value of taking into account the many myths surrounding Smith, she nevertheless wishes to “set at least some of the record straight”. This she does very well, with a tour through Smith’s world that is not only thoroughly enjoyable, but which will also have readers noting down their own Smithian correspondences and wanting to track down more of the man’s work.

We read about Smith’s epiphanies on discovering vernacular music, his early field recording trips to the Lummi Indian Reservation in Washington, the paintings inspired by these trips, and his move into filmmaking in the ‘40s. Musically, we move from his discovery of blues and hillbilly through a fascination with the rhythms used in Native American ceremonies, an on to a love of jazz. A 1950 screening of his films was accompanied by a live jazz band and not much later he was involved in a collaborative music and film project with Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk.

Smith also created art inspired by jazz, such as a painted “annotation” of Miles Davis’s “Boplicity” and a mural based on a solo by Gillespie. As fascinating as this love of jazz is to readers who know Smith mostly for the “folk” music of the Anthology, it is just as educational to discover that he went immediately from compiling the Anthology to recording Jewish liturgical music, producing 15 albums’ worth of material, two of which were released by Folkways. Other projects which remain unreleased include recordings of Phil Ochs, Gregory Corso, shape note singers, and various ambient sounds. Like Moses Asch of Folkways, Smith’s desire, it seems, was to record the world.

Part 2 of the book is devoted to Smith’s Film #12, generally known as Heaven and Earth Magic (c. 1957-1962). The film, or what remains of the original ambitious plan, is a one-hour black and white animation made from cuttings Smith had collected from various catalogues over the years. It is a highly symbolic piece, though quite how the symbols should be read remains open to some debate, as the interpretations offered here attest.

The first reading comes from P. Adams Sitney, author of Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde and an expert on Smith’s films. Sitney seeks to contextualize the rich iconography of Heaven and Earth Magic within the worlds of mythology and the occult, and within Smith’s own reading. From piecing together what he knows or can justifiably surmise about Smith’s literary sources, Sitney provides a believable picture of the cosmic connections Smith might have wanted viewers to make.

Cinema scholar Annette Michelson performs a different kind of detective work, giving a psychoanalytic interpretation of Smith’s film. Michelson initially promises a Kleinian reading based on part objects but gets rather distracted from this intriguing proposition, following a variety of other leads that are highly speculative (which is fine) and rather unfocused (which is not). A second contribution by Sitney, updating his earlier reading and responding to Michelson, locates Smith’s work this time in terms of cinematic precursors, not least the influential work of French filmmaker Georges Méliès. It makes for the most satisfying and convincing of the essays in this section, not least in the manner in which Sitney suggests a neat way to marry his reading with Michelson’s. Harry Smith makes a posthumous contribution to the section via the transcription of a talk he gave prior to (and during!) a screening of Heaven and Earth Magic in 1978.

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