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Dismembering Harry Smith 

Wednesday, May 2 2001

Seminal experimental animator, trickster anthropologist, psychedelic pioneer, self-taught scholar in a dozen fields, abstract painter, editor of the most important recorded collection of American folk music ever, occult master, legendary parasite, curatorial genius, shaman, Skid Row drunkard: People have called Harry Smith a lot of things. And these are the nicer ones. Known as much for his aroma, mercurial temper and confrontational table manners as for his actual art and scholarship, Smith himself -- his entire way of being -- was a sort of transgressive artwork designed to sift the groovy people from the phonies and set the latter scurrying. The result was, of course, lots and lots of pissed-off phonies and a handful of deeply loyal groovies, many of whom gathered at the Getty Research Institute two weeks ago for “Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular.”

The second in a series of conferences initiated by fledgling GRI director Tom Crow, “Harry Smith” quickly banished reservations left from the recent pedantic “Media Pop” conference by interspersing the delivery of scholarly papers with rare-film screenings, non-academic speakers and several musical events, including an all-star folk-veteran jamboree and a sensational live-soundtrack performance by Modern Jazz Quartet founder Percy Heath‘s trio. Producer Hal Willner, who orchestrated the Getty concert, also assembled a typical lineup of impeccably credentialed popular artists (Beck, Elvis Costello), chops-heavy pros (Bill Frisell, Daniel Lanois) and outsider weirdos (Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, and Mary Margaret O‘Hara, who delivered an operetta-like “personal breakdown”) for the “Harry Smith Project,” a pair of concerts at UCLA. The opening-night performance was pushing six hours when Garth Hudson sat down at the Royce Hall pipe organ and played a gut-rattling cartoon-gothic recessional as the survivors stumbled to their cars. (For more on the concert, see Music Reviews.)

The Getty conference brought together for the first time scholars, researchers and colleagues who have been wrestling with Smith’s dense and rhizomic legacy since his death 10 years ago. Like the shamanistically dismembered magical creatures in Smith‘s more allegorical collage films, the severed limbs of his own scattered body of work were brought together in a tentative attempt at reconstituting the whole. Sifting truth from both rumor and Smith’s own penchant for whole-cloth fabrication, especially in light of the tragic dissipation of the material legacy of his various practices, is a dicey proposition. Much of the conference was devoted to just this, and there were more than a few contradictory chronologies. Any biographical account of Smith has to be taken with a liberal sprinkling of allegedlys and reputedlys.

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Harry Smith was born May 29, 1923, in Portland, Oregon, to a schoolteacher and a salmon-cannery watchman who were practicing members of theosophy -- the occult society founded by Madame Blavatsky in the 19th century. Unless, that is, you credit his various deadpan claims to being the spawn of Aleister Crowley and Czarina Anastasia. His great-grandfather was a founder of the U.S. franchise of the Knights Templar, an offshoot of the Freemasons and central to some of the most baroque conspiracy theories going. His mother taught on the res, and young Harry subsequently spent a lot of time among the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, participating in shamanic initiation while developing keen interests in ethnography and anthropology, making copious recordings of Salish and Lummi ceremonies while still a teenager. (This unlikely autobiographical detail is improbably documented in a 1943 issue of American Magazine, which shows the geeky, bespectacled Smith fiddling with a primitive disc recorder before a group of bemused Lummi elders posed in front of an American flag. The caption reads “Injuneer.”)

Smith studied anthro at the University of Washington for a couple of years, but then he went to Berkeley and smoked a marijuana cigarette, and it was game over for academe. Hanging with the proto-beatnik elite of the postwar Berkeley Renaissance, Smith began creating elaborate abstract paintings in which every element corresponded to a sound in a particular jazz recording. At the same time, he began making abstract animated films, each jittery whorl and blob hand-painted directly on the film stock and originally synchronized -- as was demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt thanks to the restoration work of William Moritz and Cindy Keefer of the Iota film archive in Culver City -- to bootleg recordings of Dizzy Gillespie playing Latin-flavored bebop. All the while, he continued assembling and organizing a massive collection of “race” and “hillbilly” 78s from the 1920s -- the basis for the landmark 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music for which Smith is today best known.

Smith‘s Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1991 (the year of his death) and the 1997 reissue of the Anthology on CD garnered him more press than did his fairly stellar 40-year underground film career. One of the ongoing motifs of the GRI conference was the first-time meeting of two waves of scholarship -- a more disorganized recent one focusing on the Anthology in the wake of Greil Marcus’ obsession, and a long-entrenched contingent from the tightly policed playground of underground cinema. Understandably, the cinephiles seemed a little perturbed at their usurpation as authority figures. But not only were they good sports about it, they provided the most substantial new scholarship presented, as well as many of the most exciting visual and theatrical moments of the weekend.

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