Harry Smith: The Most Important Artist You’ve Never Heard Of
Another archival piece from March 2001 that is well worth a look in March 2011
At the 1991 Grammys, a bent, frail looking, little old man needed assistance to climb onstage to receive the Chairman’s Merit Award for his contributions to American music. Upon reaching the microphone, he surveyed the crowd of industry bigwigs, musical performers, and other assorted A-list celebrities, voiced his thanks in a phlegmy, high-pitched weary-tone for the assistance onstage and said, “I’m glad to say that my dreams came true . . . that I saw America changed through music.” That man was Harry Smith and despite the fact that it is likely that you have never heard of him, he probably had more to do with why you are surfing around this website than any other human of the past 50 years.
The reason that Harry is so important to you is because he compiled a collection of music in 1952: The Anthology of American Folk Music on Folkways Records. 84 songs spread across six records (now CDs) that had the effect of reminding American musicians who they were and where they came from. All of the songs had been recorded and released commercially between 1927 and 1933; a brief period after the invention of electronic recording but before the Great Depression essentially destroyed the market for nearly all styles of music besides pop songs and big band jazz. Following that small window of time, worlds of American music disappeared and might have been completely forgotten had it not been for the efforts of this strange little man from the Pacific Northwest.
Born in Oregon in 1923 and raised in a small town near Seattle, Harry Smith began a quest to preserve and understand the essence of humanity at a young age. He described how as a young boy his father built him a blacksmith shop for a gift and told him to go turn lead into gold. By doing so, Harry’s father had introduced his son to a symbol that came from a world of obscure ancient knowledge dating back at least as far as the ancient Greeks and possibly a far as the ancient Egyptians. Turning lead into gold was much more than an effort to turn a base metal into one of value. The process embodied a search for a pure essence that existed in common in all things. Beginning in his early teens and continuing for the rest of his life, Harry engaged in anthropological, artistic, musicological, and cinematic projects that acted as pan-disciplinary examples of that symbolic search for a universal essence.
At 16, Harry took advantage of his location in the Pacific Northwest by establishing a rapport with local Indian tribes that to that point had managed to avoid much contact with western society. Upon gaining their trust, they allowed Harry to witness and record their language and sacred rituals, becoming the first white man to do so. He continued his cultural and anthropological studies at the University of Washington where his professors soon found that they had more to learn from Harry than he did from them. Realizing this fact and also discovering the effects of pot on his artistic endeavors, Harry decided that college was not the place for him, at which point he relocated to Berkeley, California around 1940.
In Berkeley, Harry experimented in avant-garde animated film, created abstract and surrealist paintings, and began collecting the records that would eventually become The Anthology of American Folk Music. After the start of World War II in 1939, preparations had begun in the event of America’s entry into it (which eventually happened at the end of 1941). Part of the effort involved collecting material that could be used for military purposes. Among the items that could be used was the wax and vinyl that made up the 78 rpm records of the day. Unsold records by the thousands found their way to warehouses all over the country where they would eventually be melted down for military use. This was also a heyday for record collectors who could go to these warehouses and buy entire stocks of hundreds of records at a time for pennies. By the time he started compiling The Anthology, Harry’s collection reputedly numbered approximately 22,000 records.
In 1950, Harry relocated to New York City. Habitually destitute, he approached Moe Asch of Folkways Records, offering to sell him his entire record collection. Asch instead suggested Harry put together what eventually became The Anthology. The records themselves ended up getting donated to library in NYC.
Everyone who has ever put together a mix tape/CD for a friend will appreciate the variety and style of presentation of The Anthology. Depending on how it’s approached, the music can be appreciated from any number of perspectives. To begin, the six discs are separated into three sets of two. Volume one is called “Ballads,” comprised of variations of traditional tunes altered to conform to the musicians’ situation or format. Volume two is called “Social Music,” split between party tunes and religious songs. Volume three is called “Songs,” comprised of material that may or may not have had any coherent origin in the past or may have been composed of random lines from any number of lyrical sources. Together they describe the realm of human experience without sentimentality. Within this music is the playfulness of childhood, the heavy expectations of adulthood, love, hate, triumph, tragedy, humor, sorrow, life, and death —- lots of death.