Harry Smith Centennial

May 29, 1923 in Portland, Oregon, Harry Smith, the great American polymath was born.
So today is that momentous day – (day one of) The Harry Smith Centennial.

Previous postings on The Allen Ginsberg Project – (for our most recent postings – see here and here)
(and (for a (semi-) comprehensive listing of past posts relating to Harry  – see  here)

Big news is the immanent (and eagerly awaited) publication of John Szwed’s biography  (pub. date – August 22nd) – “an overdue comprehensive biography of a strange singular man”, Kirkus Review declares it, “a revelatory portrait of a unique pop-culture figure”.

Further advance-of-publication praise:

Lucy Sante writes:

“Harry Smith was a mythic figure in plain sight, a twentieth-century counterpart to Athanasius Kircher or John Dee, and he always seemed more legend than fact, even in his lifetime – even in the same room. John Szwed‘s dedicated and hard-nosed biography gathers all the evidence, weighs it judiciously, and delivers a nuanced portrait of the mass of contradictions that was Harry.”

and Sean Wilentz

“Harry Smith was one of those underground geniuses who truly was a genius, a maddening, willful, unkempt scrounger of immense intellect whose greatest achievement inflected modern culture and who achieved much more besides. Smith’s mercurial life should have defied any biographer, yet John Szwed, amazingly, has pulled it off, with discrimination as well as sympathy.”

David Hajdu:

“With quirky brilliance fitting the subject, John Szwed shows how Harry Smith was much more than a bohemian caricature. He was an early master of creative curation and a pre-digital influencer: a profound influence on people who influenced people we recognize as profoundly influential.”


Yesterday in Brussels (Centennial celebration)  – Rani Singh, Bret Lunsford and Phil Elverum

Today – Mount Erie and The Golden Glows 


Harry Smith- “Aleph (Inkweed Studios)”, circa 1953, ink on paper 7 ins. x 5 ins. Collection of Raymond Foye, Woodstock, New York

And more hot news – October 4 at The Whitney Museum in New York, Harry’s first solo exhibition!

As the Whitney declares:  “This exhibition (will introduce) Smith’s life and work within a museum setting for the first time and includes paintings, drawings, experimental films, designs, and examples of Smith’s collecting alongside his historic folk music collection. Seen throughout this hybrid display of art and ephemera are signs of the esoteric, fantastic, and alternative cosmologies basic to Smith’s view of culture…”

“…designed in partnership with artist Carol Bove, (it) distills his remarkable and varied production into a number of distinct sculptural spaces. Smith’s early hand-painted abstract films, his film of Seminole textiles, and Andy Warhol’s Screen Test of Smith will be presented alongside stills from the liner notes of the Anthology of American Folk Music. The exhibition will zig-zag through displays of Smith’s personal collection of ephemera and archival materials to survey the artist’s life.”

More images from Harry (in anticipation of the show):

Harry Smith – “Untitled (Study for Inkweed Studios Greeting Card)”, circa 1953,  8 ins x 6 ins,  Collection of Raymond Foye, Woodstock, New York

Harry Smith – “Untitled”, October 19, 1951 – ink, watercolor and tempera  on paper, 34 ins x 27 1/2 ins, Collection of Raymond Foye, Woodstock, New York

So that’s one very good reason to be in New York in October.    We can’t wait.

Raymond Foye, currently at work on an in-depth study of Harry’s contemporary (and sometime friendly rival) Jordan Belson, is responsible for a significant amount of the most lucid and intelligent writing on Harry that has appeared so far, starting with his catalog note for his pioneering 2002 group show The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward (the other two participants in that show,  Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli, some years later, can be found discussing Harry and his art work  – here)
Must-reads – Harry Smith – The Alchemical Image  and  Delineators – Jordan Belson and Harry Smith

Bret Lunsford’s deeply-researched dive into Harry’s Anacortes, Oregon roots, Sounding For Harry Smith – Early Pacific Northwest Influences  is also a “must-read” – (see also here for more on that title)

as are two further essential Harry books –   Think of the Self Speaking (interviews) and the (recently-reissued in a revised and expanded version) anthology, American Magus

Paola Igliori, editor of the latter, interviews Allen in that book about Harry.  She also has her own memoir out (Red Flower Vision)
and her film documentary on Harry is available – free for downloading – here 
(Ann Lewinson interviews her on Harry – here)

Paola’s film is complimented by another fine documentary, Rani Singh, director of the Harry Smith Archives’  The Old Weird America – Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music

The Anthology of American Folk Music   (see also its 2020 addendum)

sections of Rani’s film can be viewed – here

Rani, it was who co-edited (with Andrew Perchuck) the essay collection, Harry Smith – The Avant-Garde In the American Vernacular (among the contributors, the great film scholar P.Adams Sitney – hear the audio of his 1965 interview with Harry – here)


Here’s two more obscure Harry titles (from J&L Books, back in 2015) –
Paper Airplanes –The Collections of Harry Smith, Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 1 and String Figures The Collections of Harry Smith, Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2

Harry Smith – String Figures (drawn from the collection of John Cohen) were exhibited in Brooklyn in 2012.     Harry, the collector (the hoarder?), see also – here – and here
– and, of course, here


Allen took a zillion photos of Harry (one of his favorite subjects!) – See here for a just few of them


Also on The Allen Ginsberg Project –  Ed Sanders on Harry Smith, Gerd Stern on Harry Smith

Walker Brents III’s talk on Harry in San Francisco a few weeks back is well worth catching

Harry’s three-fishes symbolism for Allen (learn more about that symbolism – here)

Irascible, Unforgettable Harry!

Harry Smith and Allen Ginsberg, 437 East 12th Street, New York City, 1986 – photo: Brian Graham

“Why, thank you, I’m glad to say that my dreams came true – that I saw America changed by music – (and all that stuff that the rest of you are talking about). Thank you..”
(Harry Smith’s Grammy acceptance speech, 1991)

One comment

  1. Harry Smith was, of course, brilliant, and planted one hell of a seed in our culture. He planted numerous seeds, in fact, but I’m thinking now specifically of The Anthology of American Folk Music. I’m proud to have played a very small part (as a volunteer proofreader of the liner notes, while also working as a cataloger of the Folkways documents archive) in the 1997 reissue of the Anthology by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. May it never again go out of print.

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