Ed Sanders on Harry Smith

In anticipation of Ed Sanders’ seventy-fifth birthday tomorrow

“Ed Sanders, poet and founding member of The Fugs, recalls his deep friendship with Harry Smith, compiler of the highly influential Anthology of American Folk Music. (Smith produced the Fugs’ first album in 1965) for Folkways Records“)

“The recording sessions for Folkways Records resulted in the 1965 album “The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction.” The album was reissued in 1966 as The Fugs First Album by the ESP-Disk Label, followed by several reissues with additional tracks”

[Harry Smith (1923-1991)]

(For more recollections of Harry – see here, here, here and here )

(Here’s a couple more Harry postings here – and – here)

From a 1997 taped  interview, recorded at the Barns, at Wolf Trap: 

ES: Well, there was this great bar in the Lower East Side of New York at Twelfth Street and Avenue B called Stanley’s Bar and all the painters went there and one night in 1962 around the Fall, I was in there with the novelist, H.L.Humes, “Doc” Humes,  and he said, “Hey, there’s a magician, I know!”, (and) so I went over and I was introduced to Harry Smith, whom I knew, not as a great ethnomusicologist or folklorist but as a film-maker. He was famous for his hand-drawn films. So I got.. I used to.. then..   I met him that night because I had Egyptian “eye(s) of Horus” painted on my gym socks which gave me a rapport with Harry immediately!  So we started hanging out, and then I started, under his influence, making films, later on in (19)63, and he.. he was my guru, he showed me what film.. what cameras to buy, (and he  said get an old Bell and Howell battle-camera from the Korean War, because you can drop it, and that’s what I did), so I always… So he showed me how to make films. And then, through him, I met Jonas Mekas, and I became, for a brief  flash, an underground-film-maker type. Then, later, Tuli (Kupferberg) and I formed The Fugs, and, by then, I knew of Harry’s musical connections. I slowly became aware of this great anthology that he’d done and we… I formed a bookstore in the Lower East Side on Tenth Street next to Tuli’s house and Harry would hang out there. My bookstore was very very well-known for its time. It was the only mecca for the avant-garde plus the Happening movement, and we were in the Civil Rights movement and we were in the Rock’n’Roll-Folk… it was like everybody came there. Well, it was a happy confluence of many rivers of Americana right at that point. The Civil Rights movement with all the songs.. you know. When I heard Pete Seeger sing “We Shall Overcome” or we sang “Down By The Riverside” when the (Ku Klux) Klan was surrounding our church in Tennessee. (We) went through all of those powerful singing experiences when you think you might die, and you sing, what do you sing? – you sing these three-chord black gospel hymns. So that was it. Then there was..the Happening movement, which was, you know, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg (My bookstore was right around the corner from where Oldenberg had his Happenings. I mean, a Happening was great, you got a loft, you got fourteen stocked tanks full of grapes, you had two naked people, and the rest were jumping up and down in the grapes, and you were all yodelling and you could call it art! Harry would hang out too. And then, he said, “Well I know this guy named Moe Asch, who has Folkways Records and I have a connection”, and he said,  “but we’ve got to float it by Mo’.” So he.. he told Moe that we were “the Fugs Jug Band, not just The Fugs, so, you know, he floated this by Moe, and then, in the Spring, in April of (19)65, we – through Harry Smith – got into a little recording studio on up 46th or 48th Street. And we didn’t know.. we didn’t even know that you were supposed to face the microphones! – and Harry was in the recording studio and (showing) us his ethnomusicologist bent, in that he had the sound engineer record everything, not just our takes. So all our babble, all our conversation, (even when Folkways came in for us to sign the forty-dollar cheques), that was all on tape. So, Harry had a unique method of producing – he was our producer. He did two things during the sessions (other than have the genius to record everything). He said, three words – “just/get/going”. So we sort of milled in front of the microphones and we did (non-stopped), all our songs twice,  which has been… that one..that session has been the one basis for countless CDs and re-issues. And then, we even put the babble, the inter.. the babble in between takes, now, (since he had had it all recorded). So then.. And then.. I learned from Harry. He was very professional. He told me .. you know.. he would give me really good advice. He said, if you get the best equipment you can get – and just not get very much of it, but get the best –  he says “I always wear the best shoes because they last long” – and he had really wonderful editing technique. He taught..  you know, we went up to Folkways to edit this, and, you know, he was able to.. erp-erp-erp – [Ed mimic’s calibration] – (he was)  a very sophisticated editor and he had good timing, so we’d know. You know, I didn’ t know anything about… Rock ‘n roll bands have fist fights trying to figure out how many seconds to leave between.. Harry had an uncanny sense of flow. He was a genius at rhapsody, at stitching, so he would..erp-erp-erp-erp ..he would erp these..one-takes! – we were Johnny One-Take – and he would work a flow, so it was wonderful working with him on those reel-to-reel tape recording.. tape equipment, up at Folkways. So..

And then he had an angry, dark, mean side. For instance, I would have to.. I would give him money. He would come into my bookstore. He was quite petulant, you know, he had a history of tearing up his own..  he made these wonderful hand-drawn films of .. to Thelonious Monk music and stuff, and occasionally he would get angry. He was the type of artist.. (it was as if (Leonardo) da Vinci said “Oh, I’m angry!” and he’d tear up “the Mona Lisa“, or “The Temptation of Saint Anne” [editorial note – Ed is perhaps referring here to “The Temptation of Saint Anthony“], or something) ..
So he came into my bookstore on June 8 1965, (that was the Peace Eye bookstore where we founded The Fugs), and wanted two dollars, and he had with him a book called Cheyenne and Arapahoe Music” by Frances Densmore. He had another book called North American Indian Musical Styles”, and then he had one of the most unusual books ever carried into the Peace Eye Bookstore by anybody – Place Names of the Kruger National Park”. Anyway, so he got angry (and) tore these up and I thought, “Gee I ought to save these” [and did] – And he also tore up..he had this..wonderful..what was it..history of the world, that print that he had? [editorial note – Ed is perhaps referring to Harry’s hand-drawn “Tree of Life” print here] , and he went [Ed mimics quick tear], that’s torn up too, (that’s..) – Harry cost me ten grand by doing that, but…so to Harry [Ed touches torn book to his forehead]. I’ve still got it, my man, I think of you all the time. That was Harry’s…

And then, my wife [Miriam] knew him more. And then he was a collector. He went to Anadarko, Oklahoma, after he did the Fugs thing, in that summer, (1965) and he would call up for bail money and stuff. We would..we were always mailing him bail money, because he’d always get picked (up), because.. he told me, he liked to be in the drunk-tank with the Indians, because that’s where he really got…  and, you know, he became.. became conversant with their peyote rituals, so he had quite a memory. And he would come into  my bookstore with these string games, (saying), “Here’s, what I learned, you know, from the aborigines”, and he would tell these long involved mythological tales, doing these incredible.. – we’re not talking cats-paw (sic), we’re talking complicated spider-web type things he would do in my bookstore. It was like a.. he had a really top-rank mind, he would.. .. Then, later, he would come to our house, he collected quilt-patches. He had these… So we’d go to his hotel room at the Chelsea (Hotel) and he’d have these file drawers of.. these cabinets full of these patches. And then he collected, I don’t know, Mennonite, or Pennsylvanian Dutch, tools – he had a collection of those. He gave Miriam stuff.  So he was always sharing, he would always give. So in our house, still, in Woodstock, New York, we have all kinds of..  We have his Egyptian spoon he gave us, we have an old plane from the Mennonites or Quakers or..somewhere in Pennsylvania. So it was like a..  And just like when he did the anthology for Folkways, he was like this gigantic data-swirl.. he would go.. I’ve read stories how he would go out at like.. the equivalent of people who go out to garage-sales now looking for first editions of Hemingway, (that) somebody’s great-Aunt died and they didn’t know, (and) so.. He did the same thing with very obscure things from the (19)20’s and (19)30’s, and (he) was the only one. That’s.. Because, it’s a difference – it’s all out there, but it’s the person who can gather it into a proper sequence, there’s the genius – sequencing is the twentieth-century genius (in the era where there’s so much stuff,   the genius is gathering the stuff and creating a web of it, or stitch, or rhapsody). So here was Harry Smith. I salute you Harry. You were kind of grumpy, but, hey, so was Charles Dickens!

He would look at.. he would look at.. Tuli (Kupferberg) and I came into my bookstore. We were poets and in the course of about four weeks, in early 1965, we wrote about eighty or ninety songs. Harry would hang out  too. And then he mentioned this whole Folkways, Moe Asch (place). See, I was coming out of poetry, and I’d just graduated from New York University.  I was.. My mind was not attuned, like, as, was (say) John Sebastian and others, to the nuances of this great collection.. I didn’t even know Sam Charters, I didn’t know any of these people, but I knew of him as a great mind because I could see how.. because..he came into my bookstore, you know, holding… He was studying the Crow language (he had a Crow dictionary, you know) and then, when he did those string games. And then when I saw.. I went to his house up on.. wherever it was, up on the “Seventies, and I saw his..he had this furniture, the hand-painted furniture with lightning-bolts hanging.., so I knew this guy was.. I knew.. I’d known Allen Ginsberg by then. So I knew that he had a mind – and I also began to know other people, like (William) Burroughs, and Robert Duncan, and I was corresponding with Charles Olson, with these really.. with Diane di Prima, for instance,   I knew these really intelligent people and he fit right in with them. He had a very very top-rank mind, but he had.. he had that Kerouac factor, the un-self-confident egomania, you know, he was.. I think his self-destruction, and the way.. you know, why he would..why he would destroy a great thing like he did, (on the wall), it showed.. He had a terrible conflict somewhere in his mind about his own worth, I think, because (otherwise), why would he tear..why would he destroy such great art if he didn’t have a real inner conflict? . Harry liked the idiosyncratic wild-man aspect of our tunes. He liked a good..I mean, you can see it in his anthology. You can...”See That My Grave is Kept (swept) Clean” . I mean, the.. He had the.. He had a fine sense for it. Of course, the Indians had it – “If you told a good story then the whole world would listen”. So you want (a) good little story, tell it with a little flair – you don’t have to be (Enrico) Caruso or (Luciano) Pavarotti or have a voice as good as the early Joan Baez, you can sort of belt it out and make a few mistakes – (and then) turn around. and it was still art. We were grateful to Harry (wherever you are, Harry).

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