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Harry Smith papers, 1888-2010, bulk 1987-1990

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Smith (Harry) papers

Biographical Note

Harry Smith, polymath filmmaker, painter, and collector of American vernacular art, music, and artifacts, was born on May 23, 1923 in Portland, Oregon. Smith grew up in Washington state, moving between the small rural towns of Anacortes and Bellingham, in the center of Pacific Northwest Coast Indian territory. Smith's father, Robert James Smith, worked in the salmon industry successively as a marine engineer, boat captain, and night watchman. His mother, Mary Louise Hammond, taught on the Lummi Indian Reservation from 1925 to 1932.

Inspired by his mother's work on the Reservation, Smith became fascinated with local Native American cultures. By age 15, Smith had recorded songs and rituals of the Lummi, Salish and Swinomish peoples and compiled a dictionary of Puget Sound dialects. He also began collecting early American folk records. This was the beginning of a lifelong interest in documenting the art and language of diverse cultures on audio, film, and canvas. In 1944, Smith took a brief trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, attended a Woody Guthrie concert and smoked marijuana for the first time. This proved a life-altering experience for him, and Smith decided soon after to leave his studies at the University of Washington to move to San Francisco.

In the following two decades, Smith made the unique abstract experimental films that remain landmarks in the history of film. He also compiled the influential Anthology of American Folk Music, a compendium of vernacular music that emanated from a range of professional and non-professional, rural and urban musicians who recorded for local audiences. This collection of heart-wrenching musical narratives from "the old weird America" would become the foundation of the 1960s revolution in American folk and rock music.

Throughout the 1970s Smith focused on the four-screen film Mahagonny, an imaginative reworking of the Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht opera. The film is Smith's portrait of New York City, where he spent most of his adult life, otherwise recording the city's ambient sounds and collecting its detritus, always applying the anthropologist's method together with his keen sense of aesthetics to gather items of unexpected beauty and fascination.

An itinerate who flaunted normative social expectations, Smith lived most of his life in cheap New York hotels like The Breslin or The Chelsea, surrounded by his friends, acolytes, and collections. During the last few years, he moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he taught at the Naropa Institute at the instigation of his longtime friend and colleague Allen Ginsberg.




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