Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular

[1 April 2010]

By Richard Elliott

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)

(Getty; 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.

The Wide Scope, Narrowed

The Wide Scope, Narrowed

Crow places Smith’s early ‘50s collage work as a precursor to the return of folk and popular motifs in the avant-garde practice of Pop Artists such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg.

The next part of the book consists of two essays on Smith’s last formal film project, Film #18: Mahagonny, an ambitious split-screen affair based loosely on the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Paul Arthur’s essay examines Smith’s film from a variety of perspectives: as an avant-garde “last film”; as an example of “paracinema” (Smith enjoyed interfering in various ways with the projection of his films, and wished Mahagonny to be projected onto four billiard tables enclosed in a boxing ring); as a “cinema of structure” (Smith’s interest in structuralism of various kinds being reflected in his use of symmetrical structures for his films); and as a representation of urban space. This last aspect connects Smith’s practice to those of flâneurs such as Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, and Walter Benjamin, and also to the more recent “psychogeography” of Louis Aragon, Guy Debord, and Iain Sinclair. Rather than trace these mostly literary connections, Arthur looks to parallels in earlier films such as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Ralph Steiner’s The City, and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, and contemporaneous cinema such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Musicologist Stephen Hinton focuses on Weill’s music, arguing convincingly that it is a more important reference point for Smith than Brecht’s libretto. Hinton locates the opera within a number of Weill’s “city pieces”, which, taken together, “amount to essays on the human condition… at once formed and endangered by the city”. Smith’s setting of the music to American imagery is a reminder that the specificity of the city in these texts is unimportant—Mahagonny was always a mythological site, a place set aside for the analysis of human nature, as in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village or Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Hinton sees in Mahagonny an attempt at “the musicalization of visual art”, citing Smith’s references to “contrapuntal images” and “rhythmic patterns”. This is an interesting idea and one that seems to set itself against the presentation of Smith (by Singh, amongst others) as someone who made films inspired by music. Perhaps, though, rather than looking for an antagonism here, we should take this as an opportune moment to remember Smith’s own multifaceted interests. It is possible, after all, to imagine him as someone who “saw” film musically and “heard” music visually.

The essays by Greil Marcus and Robert Cantwell which make up Part 4 of the book cover ground familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in the Anthology of American Folk Music, or indeed with the work of these two writers (Cantwell’s essay has appeared before, in his If Beale Street Could Talk). Marcus delivers a piece steeped in hauntology and psychogeography as he tracks down the house in Berkeley where Smith lived and where he collected many of the records that would make up the Anthology. As well as being interested in ghosts (Smith’s ghost and those of the singers on the old 78s), Marcus takes up the issue of structure again. Smith’s quest for structure aimed for something more creative than the pedestrian categorization of “region, period, style, genre, instrumentation, song family, and, most of all, race”, seeking happenstantial correspondences instead.

Cantwell traces parallels between Smith and the romantic poets, quoting liberally from Keats and following a set of binarisms, from Coleridge’s imagination/fancy through Foucault’s spontaneity/reflection to his own mimesis/agency, in an attempt to “guess the Folkways Anthology into existence, listen it to life”. Those not convinced by Cantwell’s more extreme flights of poetic imagination may still find much of interest in his exemplary discussion of the recorded work. He deals excellently with the implications of recording for performance and vice versa and highlights the way in which we are aware that we are hearing the sound of records when we listen to the Anthology, the mediation of the medium always at the forefront of the musical aesthetic, always refusing transparency. At the summary, Cantwell makes a neat return to Keats, pointing out the proximity of the “wild heath” of the poems to the suburban home of the poet and noting a parallel in the constant nearness of the “old, weird America” (Marcus’s phrase for the territory that Smith’s project seems to map).

If the Anthology, as recorded object, represents a set-aside place, so too does the museum, as Thomas Crow reminds us in one of two chapters that make up the book’s final part, “Collage”. Crow’s focus is on the place (and particularly the exclusion) of American folk objects in museums and in US avant-garde visual art, at least that part of it selected for exhibition and critical appraisal. Despite an early promotion by the MOMA of folk objects, the artists celebrated in the ‘50s (such as Pollock and Rothko) represented a universal vision divorced from folk origins.

Crow places Smith’s early ‘50s collage work as a precursor to the return of folk and popular motifs in the avant-garde practice of Pop Artists such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg. Stephen Fredman, meanwhile, examines Smith’s use of collage by comparing his work to that of three poets with whom he was associated, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, and Jack Spicer. Like these poets, Smith used collage to privilege “momentary conjunctions” over “fixed ideas”. Here, Smith the obsessive collector meets Smith the artist, or rather, Smith exemplifies the art of collecting, of “turning a collection into a work of art”.

This is an excellent, thought-provoking book, one that should appeal to anyone with an interest in the role of the vernacular in the contemporary arts. It is beautifully produced and contains numerous well-reproduced plates featuring Smith’s artwork. The labor of love that has gone into the look of the book is also evident in the rigorous editing of the essays. It seems as though, following her own observation about the elusiveness of the volume’s subject, Singh has sought to pin down the factual and verifiable within even the most anecdotal or speculative contributions. The text is generously studded with footnotes that are enlightening and reassuring rather than obtrusive.

As for the stated desire to bring together all the facets of Smith’s life and work, these essays succeed very well, though it should be noted that much of the book remains multidisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary. For all the rhetoric that abounds in the academy in praise of interdisciplinarity, there are still few figures who exemplify the practice quite like Harry Smith himself. This book comes very close, however, to being a faithful mirror of its fascinating subject and, like its subject, will provoke, educate, and entertain in equal measure.

Richard Elliott is a writer, university teacher, and journal editor based in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of the book Fado and the Place of Longing: Loss, Memory and the City (2010), as well as articles and reviews covering a wide variety of popular music genres. Richard is currently working on a co-authored book on ritual, remembrance, and recorded sound.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/122780-harry-smith-the-avant-garde-in-the-american-verrnacular-by-andrew-pe/