Harry Everett Smith (May 29 , 1923, Portland, Oregon – November 27, 1991, New York City City) was an American archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, bohemian and mystic. Besides his films, Smith is widely known for the Anthology of American Folk Music.
Anthologist of American folk music
The Anthology of American Folk Music was a compilation of recordings of American folk and country music commercially released as 78 rpm records between 1926 and 1932. The anthology was released in 1952 on Folkways Records as three two-LP sets. In 1997, the album was re-released as a boxed set of six compact dics on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. A fourth installment of the anthology, conceived of in the ’50s but abandoned, became available on Revenant Records in 2000.
This document is generally thought to have been enormously influential on the folk & blues revival of the ’50s and ’60s, and brought the works of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Dick Justice and many others to the attention of musicians such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and featured such legendary acts as The Carter Family and Clarence Ashley. The Harry Smith Anthology, as some call it, was the bible of folk music during the late 1950s and early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. As stated in the liner notes to the 1997 reissue, the late musician Dave van Ronk had earlier commented that “we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.”
Smith edited and directed the design of the anthology, including the cover art, which featured a Theodore de Bry etching of a monochord which Smith had taken from a mystical treatise by scientist/alchemist Robert Fludd. Smith also penned short synopses of the songs in the collection, which were made to resemble newspaper headlines—for the song King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O by Chubby Parker, Smith notes: Zoologic Miscegeny Achieved Mouse Frog Nuptials, Relatives Approve.
Smith culled selections from his amassed personal collection of 78 rpm records, picked for their commercial and artistic appeal within a set period of time, 1927 to 1932. Smith chose those particular years as boundaries since, as he stated himself, “1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Depression halted folk music sales.”
Smith earned a belated Grammy, the Chairman’s Merit Award, for his contribution to this collection shortly before his death in 1991.
In addition to compiling, Smith also recorded music: Allen Ginsberg’s (who he also lived with for a while in the 90′s) long player New York Blues: Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs released in 1981 was captured by Smith at the Hotel Chelsea in 1973. He recorded the first album by The Fugs in 1965, recorded and released a multi-LP set of Kiowa Peyote Meeting songs on Folkways, and, in the 80s, recorded thousands of hours of “field recordings” for a project called “deonage.”
Critical attention has been most often paid to his experimental work with film. He produced extravagant abstract animations. The effects were often painted or manipulated by hand directly on the celluloid. Themes of mysticism, surrealism and dada were common elements in his work.
Click on this YouTube link to view the entire film of “Heaven and Earth Magic” ~ 1 hour and 6 minutes.
Information especially about Smith’s early films is very contradictory. This is partly due to the work-in-progress nature of experimental film making. Films are often reedited (hence the different run times),and occasionally incorporate reassembled footage of different films sometimes to be viewed with varying music tracks. For instance, the handmade films now known as No. 1, 2, 3, and 5 were accompanied by an improvising jazz band on May 12, 1950 when they premiered as part of the Art in Cinema series curated by Smith’s friend Frank Stauffacher at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
Initially Smith intended to use Dizzy Gillespie songs. Later he showed the films with random records or even the radio as accompaniment. Smith stated that his films were made for contemporary music, and he kept changing their soundtracks. Smith also re-cut Early Abstractions to sync with Meet the Beatles! picked out by his wife, Rosebud Feliu-Pettet. After Smith’s death, artists such as Phillip Glass or DJ Spooky provided musical backgrounds for screenings of his films: Glass at the 2004 summer benefit concert of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and DJ Spooky at several venues in 1999 for Harry Smith: A Re-creation, an embroidered compendium of Smith’s films put together by his close collaborator M. Henry Jones who tries to screen the films in the manner intended by Smith – as performances – using stroboscopic effects, multiple projections, magic lanterns, and the like.
The present-day numbering system which Smith introduced some time between 1951 and 1964-5 (the year the Film-Makers’ Cooperative started distributing 16 mm copies of his films) includes only films that survived up to that point. Thus this filmography is in no way a comprehensive list of all the films he has ever made, all the more as he is known to have lost, sold, traded or even wantonly destroyed some of his own works. The dating of the film presents another puzzle. Since Smith frequently worked for years on them and kept little to no documentation, the information varies considerably from one source to another. Therefore all available information has been added to the following list, inevitably resulting in a loss of clarity but having the advantage of giving the whole picture. The films are also known by variant designation, i.e. Film No. 1, Film # 1 or simply # 1.
Smith’s early efforts in the field of fine art painting were free form abstractions intended to visually represent notes, measures, beats and riffs of the beatnik era jazz music that inspired him.
There is photographic evidence of Smith’s large paintings created in the 1940s, however the works themselves were destroyed by Smith himself. He did not destroy his work on film (although he did misplace a few) and this legacy supplements the nature and design of his paintings. Smith created several later works, some of which have been serially printed in limited editions. Much of his imagery is inspired by Kabbalistic themes such as the Sephirah, where the Planetary Spheres are distributed like musical notes upon a staff—details that Smith would find very important to note here—and is reflected in his choice of graphics and cover art of the Anthology of American Folk Music.
Smith’s parents, Robert James Smith and Mary Louise, were influenced by the early modern Spiritualist movement in the United States. They were, reportedly, Pantheist Theosophists, interested in the work of Madame Blavatsky. His grandfather was founder of a fraternity that was an off-shoot of the Freemasons in the US. From this we can surmise an early exposure to this type of material. His mother taught on the Lummi Reservation where Smith claimed to receive a shamanic initiation at a young age. Smith recorded many Lummi songs and rituals, with equipment built by himself and with notation of his own devising, and developed an important collection of religious objects.
In the late 1940s he began work with Charles Stansfeld Jones and Albert Handel. Smith also created a set of irregularly-shaped Tarot cards, one of which was adapted for the color Ordo Templi Orientis degree certificates, and used with several others for the paperback Holy Books of Thelema which Smith designed. He also studied the Enochian system in depth, compiling a concordance of the Enochian language with the aid of Khem Caigan, his assistant throughout much of the 70s and early 80s. Smith was a familiar figure in the New York Ordo Templi Orientis from the late 1970s on and, although he was never a member of the O.T.O., in 1986 he was consecrated a bishop in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica.
Smith suffered a bleeding ulcer followed by cardiac arrest in 1991 in Room 328 at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City. By some accounts, Smith died in the arms of poet and friend Paola Igliori, “singing as he drifted away”. He was pronounced dead one hour later at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Smith’s ashes are in the care of his friend, Rosebud Feliu-Pettet, writer and longtime participant in New York’s Beat scene, who has been described by Igliori as Smith’s “spiritual wife.”
- Early Abstractions (1939-56 or 1941-57 or 1946-52 or 1946-57) (assembled ca. 1964) 16 mm, black & white and color, 22 min. Originally silent, then accompanied by a reel-to-reel tape with songs by The Fugs — whose first album Smith produced —and subsequently by an optical soundtrack featuring Meet the Beatles!. The 1987 video release features Teiji Ito’s musical piece Shaman. At first, the anthology included only No. 1-4, later No. 5, 7, and 10 were added. The individual films however are not divided, they play as one. This anthology, in 2006, was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
- No. 1: A Strange Dream (1939-47 or 1946-48) hand-painted 35 mm stock photographed in 16 mm, color, silent, 2:20 or 5 min. Initially intended to be screened with and synchronized to Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca or Guarachi Guaro. “…the history of the geologic period reduced to orgasm length.”
- No. 2: Message From the Sun (1940-42 or 1946-48) hand-painted 35 mm stock photographed in 16 mm, color, 2:15 or 10 min. Initially intended to be screened with and synchronized to Dizzy Gillespie’s Algo Bueno. This film “takes place either inside the sun or in… Switzerland” according to Smith. To produce this film he used a technique that involved cutting stickers of the type used to reinforce the holes in 3-ring binder paper. These were applied to 16 mm movie film and used like a stencil. Layers of vaseline and paint were used to color each frame in this manner. The effect is hypnotic, psychedelic and is something like a visual music.
- No. 3: Interwoven (1942-47 or 1947-49) hand-painted 35 mm stock photographed in 16 mm, color, 3:20 or 10 min. Reportedly cut down from about 30 min. Initially intended to be screened with and synchronized to Dizzy Gillespie’s Guarachi Guaro or Manteca. “Batiked animation made of dead squares…” (Available on the DVD collection Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986) .)
- No. 4: Fast Track a.k.a. Manteca (1947 or 1949-50) 16 mm, black & white and color, 2:16 or 6 min. Silent though possibly intended to be screened with Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca. The film starts with a color sequence showing Smith’s painting Manteca (ca. 1950) with which he tried to subjectively depict Gillespie’s song, every brushstroke representing a music note. The film concludes with black & white super-impositions.
- No. 5: Circular Tensions (Homage to Oskar Fischinger) (1949–50) 16 mm, color, silent, 2:30 or 6 min. Sequel to No. 4.
- No. 6 (1948-51 or 1950-51) 16 mm, color, silent or mono, 1:30 or 20 min. Untraced red-green anaglyph 3-D film.
- No. 7: Color Study (1950-51-52) 16 mm, color, silent, 5:25 or 15 min. “Optically printed Pythagoreanism in four movements supported on squares, circles, grillwork, and triangles with an interlude concerning an experiment.”
- No. 8 (1954 or 1957) 16 mm, black & white, silent, 5 min. Untraced collage. Later expanded to No. 12.
- No. 9 (1954 or 1957) 16 mm, color, 10 min. Untraced collage.
- No. 10: Mirror Animations (1956–57) 16 mm, color, 3:35 or 10 min. Study for No. 11. “An exposition of Buddhism and the Kabbalah the form of a collage. The final scene shows Agaric mushrooms growing on the moon while the Hero and Heroine row by on a cerebrum.”
- No. 11: Mirror Animations (1956–57) 16 mm, color, 3:35 or 8 min. Features Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso. Cut-up and collage animations. Later expanded to No. 17.
- No. 12: Heaven and Earth Magic a.k.a. The Magic Feature a.k.a. Heaven and Earth Magic Feature (1943-58 or 1950-60 or 1950-61 or 1957-62 or 1959-61) (reedited several times between 1957–62) 16 mm, black & white, mono, initially 6 hours, later versions of 2 hours and 67 min. Extended version of No. 8. Collage animation culled from 19th century catalogs meant to be shown using custom-made projectors fit out with color filters (gels, wheels, etc.) and masking hand-painted glass slides to alter the projected image. Smith explains, “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon , her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Jonas Mekas gave the film—which is often regarded as Smith’s major work—its title in 1964/65.
- No. 13: Oz a.k.a. The Magic Mushroom People of Oz (1962) 35 mm widescreen (scope), color, stereo, 3 hours or 108 min. but only 20-30 min. are known to survive. Unfinished commercial adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which was shelved after Harry’s close friend, the executive producer and primary financial backer Arthur Young died of cancer. Portions released as No. 16, 19, and 20. From the reported three to six hours of camera test footage (rushes) only ca. 15 minutes, in the form of non-color-corrected rushes, is known to be extant. The only completed bit is The Approach to Emerald City, a 5 (other sources say 9 resp. 12) minute sequence set to music from Charles Gounod’s Faust.
- No. 14: Late Super-impositions (1963-64-65) 16 mm, color, 29 min. Structured 122333221. Features the beginning of the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht as recorded in 1956 by Lotte Lenya, the Norddeutscher Radiochor (Max Thurn) and the Norddeutsches Radio-Orchester (Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg). Later expanded to No. 18. “I honor it the most of my films, otherwise a not very popular one before 1972.” Shot in New York City and Anadarko.
- No. 15 (1965–1966) 16 mm, color, silent, 10 min. Animation of Seminole patchwork.
- No. 16: Oz – The Tin Woodman’s Dream (1967) 35 mm widescreen (scope), color, silent, 14:30 min. Consists of The Approach to Emerald City (cf. note on No. 13) followed by about 10 minutes of kaleidoscopic footage shot ca. 1966. See also No. 20.
- No. 17: Mirror Animations (extended version) (1962-76 or 1979) 16 mm, color, 12 min. Features Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso. Extended version of No. 11 printed forward-backward-forward.
- No. 18: Mahagonny (1970-1980: shot 70-72, edited 72-80) 16 mm, color, tetraptych screen (initially with four 16 mm projectors, now composited onto a single 35 mm strip), 141 min. (edited down from over 11 hours of material). W,ith Allen Ginsberg, Jonas Mekas, Patti Smith and images of Robert Mapplethorpe installations. “A mathematical analysis of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, expressed in terms of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” upon which it is loosely based. Smith divided the images into four groups (Portraits, Animations, Symbols and Nature) and, with the assistance of Khem Caigan, arranged them as a series of procedural permutations in relation to the opera: every reel contains twenty-four scenes forming the palindrome PASA-PASNA-PASAP-ANSAP-ASAP-N. Note that the entire series hinges on Nature. Extended version of No. 14 (it also uses the same 1956 German language recording) Smith considered this film to be the ground-breaking harbinger of his unfinished masterwork, which was to have been an explication of the Four Last Things.
- No. 19 (1980) 35 mm widescreen (scope), color, silent. Untraced excerpts from No. 13. See also No. 20.
- No. 20: Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (1981) 35 mm widescreen (scope), color, silent, 27 min. Consists of No. 16 and No. 19.