This month, proto-hippie shaman and Portland-born polymath Harry Smith turns 90, and his hometown is throwing him a party. Several, in fact. Never mind that he died in 1991: Considering the man’s resume, the milestone deserves a celebration, regardless of where his spirit resides. Along with being an accomplished experimental filmmaker, in 1952 Smith compiled The Anthology of American Folk Music, a groundbreaking collection credited with sparking the folk revival that produced Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among many others, and which continues to have a profound effect on the music scene today, particularly in Portland.
A multitude of events—including a screening of his animated films, a concert and, yes, a séance—are planned this week in commemoration of Smith’s birthday. We spoke to two of the people involved with the festivities about Smith’s enduring legacy: Rani Singh, Smith’s personal assistant in the last years of his life who now manages his archives at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; and Joe McMurrian, the Portland musician behind One Kind Favor, a tribute concert to The Anthology of American Folk Music. A full list of events is presented below the Q&As.
Director of the Harry Smith Archives at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles
Willamette Week: When did you meet Harry Smith?
Rani Singh: I was a student at Naropa Institute [in Boulder, Colo.] and Allen Ginsberg brought Harry to Boulder to get him out of his house in the Lower East Side of New York. So that’s when I met him, on the Fourth of July, the opening weekend of the summer program at Narope Institute. Harry was somewhat indigent and peripatetic his whole life. He was supported by friends and Ginsberg and different grants here and there, and was a bit of a wheeler and dealer in terms of getting by. I helped him, as a secretary and assistant in Boulder, driving him to bookstore runs and getting him liquid supplement and driving all over the place to go visit the rodeo or the state fair or different concerts, things like that. I was paid by Ginsberg to take care of Harry, and eventually that grew into getting him state assistance, and getting him on his feet again, which was really an effective thing. It was great to see him gain weight and have a bit of income and all that. That was my role while he was alive.
Was Harry Smith a known figure at that time in his life?
It was very strange. In the film world, he was really well known as an abstract filmmaker. In the history of experimental and avant-garde filmmaking, he’s a major figure. In the music world, he’s also extremely well known. The Anthology of American Folk Music really transformed the whole folk movement of the 1960s and influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to the Grateful Dead. It was a major impact and shift and lightning bolt in that history. But those two worlds didn’t often connect. Also, in the bohemian New York jazz circle and the Chelsea Hotel circle, Harry was an integral part of those scenes, and yeah, there was some overlap, but he did his best to keep those worlds apart.
At the time when the anthology first came out, was he a celebrated figure?
I think he was more mysterious than celebrated. People didn’t even know who he was, and some people may even have thought that was a pseudonym for somebody else.
So was there ever a point where he had a certain level of celebrity? Could you say the name Harry Smith and the average person would know who you were talking about?
It depends on what circle you ran in. In the Chelsea Hotel—if you read Patti Smith’s book Just Kids—there was a real aura around Harry Smith, and certainly in New York. There were a bunch of kids in the ‘70s who called themselves “Harry Heads,” who’d dress like him and imitate him. When Ginsberg brought him to Boulder, I only knew the films. I couldn’t even believe he was still alive. In my mind, I thought he was someone from the 1940s and ‘50s and that it could not be the same guy. I had no idea of the music or the wide range of other interests he had. It was only after I met him and realized what a character he was that I was totally drawn to him as a person, and also the other interests and how he approached connecting all those interests. In his mind, all those things are interconnected, and that was really what the crux of his life’s work was about.
What was he like on a one-on-one level?
He was irascible, brilliant, funny as hell, and could jump from one disparate subject to another—talking about some ethnographic review of 1927 to discoveries in Tierra del Fuego in the 1600s to Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come. His range of references and the way he made those connections were mind-boggling. It left you spinning.
Was there anything you learned about him after he passed away, from managing his archives?
Well, it’s sort of a sad commentary in that, often times, people we’re close to, we find out so many more different angles and facets about them after they’re no longer around. That’s definitely the case with Harry Smith. If you’re asking me specifically, I don’t think I realized the work he did in the Pacific Northwest with the Native American peoples; his interests in linguistics; and how advanced he was, from being in high school and junior high and being able to drag these huge recording machines onto Indian land and make these recordings, and being so committed and open and smart as such a young man.
Was there a catalyst for interest in pre-war American folk?
We did a series of oral history interviews with some of his classmates in grade school, and they said even at that time he had an incredible knowledge of different types of folk music. One of the kids—obviously an adult at this point, in their 70s—said Harry could have a pretty intelligent conversation with their father about different musical styles and different musical tastes of the era and historically. He obviously showed a real sense of that from an early age.
What can you tell me about the project he was working on when he passed away?
As I said before, in his later years, he really didn’t have much money or resources. He turned to an audio recording project, and we have hundreds of those tapes here at the Getty. He made these audio cassette recordings of everything from jump rope rhymes to kids playing in the street to hardcore punk shows to people leaving voice messages on his answering machine and out the window at Ginsberg’s apartment that he lived in at the time.
It sounds almost an urban version of what he did back in the ‘50s.
It was a little more various sounds and ambient sounds. Also, he made them in Boulder, too, so it was like crickets at dawn, crickets at midday, crickets in the evening. It was more an awareness of what was around him and trying to make sense of those patterns and put those connecting points together.
Did he maintain an interest in pre-war American music later in his life?
No. My sense of it is, once he finished with the anthology, after the project was done, he put it away and moved on to something else. There’s a great story in the reissue of the anthology where Chuck Pirtle, who was a student at Naropa when Harry was in Boulder, went to the public library and got the box set out, the original 1952 recording, and brought it to Harry. Harry hadn’t seen it in decades and was so overwhelmed by it that, according to Chuck, he had tears in his eyes, because it hadn’t really been at the forefront of his mind for a long time.
What are the misconceptions about Harry Smith?
You know, he was a real fabulist. He would make up things, and I think the things Harry made up were just as good as the things that were actually real. I almost would go out on a limb and say the same thing about what people might say or think or whatever. He was a real believer in creating, and just going out there and doing, so I think the misconceptions are probably just good as the truth.
Portland musician, organizer of One Kind Favor.
Willamette Week: Where did your fascination with Harry Smith and the anthology begin?
Joe McMurrian: I’m not really fascinated with Harry Smith, per se. In short, I’m a fine artist, and I learned about him in art school way back in the day. He’s a similar renaissance guy. I’m a painter, musician, all that stuff. So in that way he turned me on. Not to downplay what he did [with the anthology]. He made a revolutionary sort of package that was meant to subversively change the consciousness of people regarding old American music, and he did. It really worked, and it changed the face of folk music.
How did discovering the anthology shape your own artistic path?
It took me away from modern music immediately, basically. I was listening to stuff post-1950, for instance, and I don’t listen to that stuff anymore. I just don’t go there. I love it—I mean, I grew up with everything from Hendrix to Zeppelin to Sabbath to Metallica. I was in thrash metal bands in the ‘80s. Then someone gave me [the anthology] and a Robert Johnson CD. I had a religious conversion. I seriously did. I lost years of my life, and a couple jobs in the process. I was obsessed, completely mesmerized by it.
What do you mean you lost jobs?
For instance, one time I was working at Disney [as an illustrator]. I just always had my guitar with me, and every break or at lunch I’d be studying or doing this or that—and you know how it is, corporate America. It just doesn’t blend. One time, I was out in the parking lot playing my guitar and Whoopi Goldberg comes up to me and goes, “What are you doing? Do you work here?” I go, “Yeah, I work here. I’m just on break.” She goes, “They let you do this?” It made think, “Oh shoot. I’m not playing the game right.”.…So I left Disney and started traveling through the south, through Mississippi and stuff, painting murals. I’d just be down there, tweaking on the music. That’s what I mean by I lost a couple years of my life, in a good way. Like that beautiful book John Fahey wrote, How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life.
What was it, sonically, that drew you to that pre-war folk music?
I think it has to do with my family line. I took to it so easily, meaning that I think it’s in my genes. My family was whisky runners from Oklahoma. We got kicked out of Oklahoma for running whisky. Then I find myself here, and my grandfather gave me an old banjo, and my dad used to pick a little guitar. Sonically, it just plays on my genetic code. I think it’s also the fact that someone with a guitar, or even without an instrument, can just sing these tunes, and they have this lasting message in them. They have a story in them. There’s plenty of room for poetry. In fact, I think that’s what I really got off on. In pop music, we’ll call it, it seems to inhibit that. You can’t be too poetic or subversive or personal, where the old traditional music can be footloose or fancy-free, meaning nothing—you can just sing about a dog, and it’s just as respectable as singing a murder ballad.
How is the anthology relevant to today’s music?
I don’t know if the general public can get it easily unless they really spend some time with it. It’s like real strong coffee. But half the musicians on this show had heard the songs before, but never spent time with the actual anthology. Then when they go to it, they’re like, “Oh my God.” They start freaking out, and they start to really get it. It reminds you what America was. I don’t mean to be harping on the same stuff [Harry Smith] was after, but I think it’s a very similar time right now as when he put it out in ’58, ’59. There’s this big push of traditional music going on—and Portland seems to be one, if not the top, capitals of it—and everyone is really disillusioned as to what America means. Unless you’ve got your grandparents to tell you about running whisky in the hills of Oklahoma, you don’t really think back to 1940, let alone 1920. We have no clue. It’s like a collective unconscious memory lapse going on. If this anthology was in everyone’s hands, then everyone would go, “Oh, America was the most beautiful place on earth during that time.”
EVENTS CELEBRATING HARRY SMITH’S BIRTHDAY
Thursday, May 16
“Harry Smith in the Pacific Northwest,” featuring presentations by Michael Munk (Portland Red Guide), Gus Frederick (historian), Rich Wandschneider (Joseph Library of Western History and Culture) and a screening of an untitled experimental short documentary about Harry Smith’s Bellingham years by director Kaveh Askari. Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd. 3-5 pm. Free.
“Harry Smith Séance,” preceded by a screening of Smith’s animated films and presentations from Anne Richardson (Oregon Cartoon Institute), writer Sheldon Renan and Rani Singh. Hollywood Theatre. 7 pm. $10.
For more information on both events, visit harrysmithpdx.wordpress.com.
Saturday, May 18
“One Kind Favor: A Tribute Concert to the Anthology of American Folk Music,” featuring performances by too many local artists to list here. Go here for the full schedule. Mission Theater, 1624 Glisan St. 7 pm. $15 advance, $20 day of show. 21+.
Sunday, May 19
“Harry Smith Free For All,” a series of presentations on Harry Smith and his legacy. Go here for more a full list of presentations. The Cleaners at the Ace Hotel, 403 SW 10th Ave. 11 am. Free.