Smith, Harry Everett (1923-1991)

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 2/05/2006
  • Essay 7635
Dubbed by one interviewer an “intellectual mischief-maker,” artist Harry Smith was a man of varied interests who was alternately an anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, abstract painter, experimental filmmaker, and full-time eccentric. Smith’s interest in exposing unseen connections -- his own form of artistic alchemy -- drew him to create artwork that brought together diverse elements in new and exciting combinations. But although his paintings and films put him in association with prominent figures such as Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, it was a temporary shortage of cash that drove him to create, almost by accident, his most lasting cultural work -- the six-record collection, Anthology of American Folk Music.

A Whatcom Boyhood

Harry Everett Smith was born on May 29, 1923, in Portland, Oregon, but spent most of his childhood in Whatcom County.  Smith’s father, Robert James, first brought the family to Bellingham, where he took a job at Pacific American Fisheries, a cannery founded by his own father shortly after the turn of the century.  At the same time, Smith’s mother, Mary Louise, took a teaching position on the Lummi Indian reservation, where she would work from 1925 to 1932.  In the late 1930s, Robert Smith lost his job at Pacific American and the family relocated to Anacortes, where he became night watchman for another cannery.  Eventually the Smiths would return to Bellingham in the 1940s, when Harry Smith was in high school.

Although the Smiths had characteristic Northwest jobs, they were far from the characteristic Northwest family.  Both Robert and Mary were believers in the occult and self-proclaimed Theosophists, a nineteenth-century offshoot of Hindu and Buddhist teachings which held that the search for the Divine was an individual one.  In that sense, Theosophists believed that all organized religion held some measure of truth, since each laid a pathway for the individual to become closer to God. 

If the family’s spiritual beliefs didn’t set them apart from others, their living arrangements certainly did.  Robert was frequently absent from home (sometimes due to work, sometimes to avoid family duties), and Mary was frequently in the company of other men.  Harry Smith himself would remember many days in which he was plunked down at the local movie theater while Mary entertained her male friends.  In fact, one of the men Mary may have seen (albeit before Harry was born) was the occultist/mystic Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), who spent some time in the United States. 

(Although Mary may have been acquainted with Crowley, there is no evidence of any romantic relationship between the two.  Nonetheless, later in life Harry Smith would sometimes claim that he was Crowley’s illegitimate son, one of many myths and exaggerations he was prone to tell.  Another was that Mary Louise was actually the Grand Duchess Anastasia who escaped the Russian Revolution in 1918 after being spirited through Siberia and sailing across the Bering Strait to Alaska.)

Amateur Anthropology

Stemming in part from his mother’s work on the Lummi reservation, as a young man Harry Smith became interested in tribal languages and customs, in particular those of the Lummi, Swinomish, and Samish.  By age 15, in 1938, he was a frequent visitor amongst these tribes while working on a dictionary of local tribal dialects -- it was remarkable that such a young boy could get access to these closed societies where white contact had been very limited.  He also recorded their songs and dances, the beginning of a lifelong fascination with capturing the language and art of others on audio, film, or canvas.  (Virtually all of Smith’s early Indian recordings are now lost, and the few surviving pieces were recorded with such crude equipment that they are now difficult to decipher.)

Even before he was out of high school, Harry Smith had learned Kiowa sign language, spoke the Kwakiutl language, and was in regular correspondence with academics from the University of Washington’s newly founded anthropology department.  (UW professor Melville Jacobs once noted that, at the mere age of 19, Harry Smith was “years ahead of his chronological age, in mental attainment” [Daniel, p. 17]). 

In 1943 his work was even featured in American Magazine; the article, reprinted in Darrin Daniel’s Harry Smith: Fragments of a Northwest Life, shows a bespectacled young Harry recording a Lummi spirit dance on a portable phonograph-recording machine.

It was also during his teenage years that Harry Smith began collecting -- first Pacific Northwest Indian artifacts (many of which he donated to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington), then early American folk records.  Smith’s obsessive appetite for objects that fascinated him -- which over the years included paper airplanes, string art, Seminole Indian textiles, and Ukrainian Easter eggs -- would become a major part of his life.

Bohemian Rhapsody

After graduating from high school, Harry Smith entered the University of Washington in 1943 to pursue his anthropology studies full-time.  He had already done impressive work even before entering the University, but although his courses mirrored his personal interests at the time, he was eventually to abandon them.

In 1944 Smith took a short trip to California, where he was introduced to the Berkeley and San Francisco areas, attended a Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) concert, and smoked marijuana for the first time. It was a visit that would change his life.  Convinced that he could not return to his studies, Smith dropped out of the University, did a brief stint on the Boeing assembly line at the tail end of World War II, and in 1947, moved to the Bay Area. 

When Harry Smith returned to Washington in 1949 for his mother’s funeral, it would be his last known visit to the Pacific Northwest. Yet in later years he often spoke of his upbringing here and in his work frequently returned, in various ways, to the anthropological studies he began in Anacortes and Bellingham.  (Long estranged from his father, Smith did not attend Robert’s funeral in 1959.)

An Artist Emerges

After settling near San Francisco, Smith took a job as an anthropologist’s assistant and began circulating amongst the area’s Bohemian set.  He also began to flex his creative muscles, first by experimenting with film.  Smith was a slow worker, but eventually some of his films were presented at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the late 1940s as part of its Art in Cinema programs. This led to contact with other experimental filmmakers, including Jordan Belson (b. 1926), and later Kenneth Anger (b. 1927), and Stan Brakhage (1933-2003).

Smith’s early filmmaking style involved a painstaking, laborious process of primitive animation.  His first film (today known as No. 1 -- A Strange Dream) took two years to complete and consisted of Smith drawing patterns of circles and rectangles directly onto the film stock, frame by frame -- no camera, therefore, was required.  Silent, and running a little over two minutes, No. 1 told no formal story, offering instead a series of abstract colors and shapes.  This was not necessarily a new form of filmmaking (similar types of abstract films had been done as far back as the 1920s), but it wasn’t a method particularly familiar to artists in the United States.  

Smith’s made his next two films by batiking, a method in which he coated the filmstrip with multiple layers of dye and, using masking and scratching techniques, was able to depict his abstract shapes in more colorful and complex ways.  No. 2 -- A Message from the Sun also took two years to make (1946-1948), and was to be screened in synch with Dizzy Gillespie's recording “Guacha Guero.”  No. 3 -- Interwoven (1947-1949) was much along the same lines. 

Harry Smith would eventually graduate from hand-drawn animation to stop-action and collage in his films, but nonetheless these techniques kept him from being prolific.  All of his films from the 1940s and 1950s were under 10 minutes in length, and frequently took several years to complete, particularly because he planned such complex visuals on little to no budget.  As a result, he had no choice but to plug away, little by little, to create his films, which he sometimes claimed were never really finished -- they became what they were simply because he ran out of time, money, or interest. 

The results, however, were groundbreaking.  Harry Smith’s early films had much in common with the type of paintings he was beginning to make during this period, which used imagery, color, and collage (and in the case of Smith’s later films, sound) to create new sensory effects.  It was this characteristic of the artist’s work that brought Rani Signh, of the Harry Smith Archives, to call Smith a " 'proto-psychedelic ... who saw the world through a grand schema of alchemical connections that was this all-inclusive aesthetic -- the desire to show that everything connects -- that he felt best revealed the elemental structure of human existence” (quoted in “Harry Smith: Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular”).

Go East, Young Man

On the West Coast, Harry Smith’s films got him noticed; on the East Coast it was his accomplishments in abstract painting.  Smith, in fact, was always more interested in his painting than in his other artistic endeavors -- his initial work in film was more of an effort to use the film stock as his canvas.  (Although he had no formal training in art, Smith claimed to have known several artists during his boyhood who taught him some of their techniques.) 

Smith applied similar artistic principles to both film and canvas.  His painting Manteca (ca. 1950), for instance, was inspired by a Dizzy Gillespie song of the same name, with each brush stroke representing a specific note from the song.  Such was the “alchemical” characteristic of Smith’s work -- painting a song, or creating screen images to enhance particular piece of music -- that found him making unique connections between seemingly disparate concepts.

It was work like Manteca that helped Smith win a grant in the early 1950s through the help of Hilla Rebay, director of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Guggenheim Museum).   The award prompted Smith to move, more or less permanently, to New York. 

Harry Smith is not well remembered today as a painter, perhaps only because of the casual approach he took to his work.  As is the case with many artists and writers, critical acclaim never pays the bills, and he was constantly in need of money.  As a result, he would often sell or trade his artwork (or portions of his collections) to stay afloat, and depending on his growing drug and alcohol intake, would sometimes destroy his creations in fits of rage.  “Well, most of [my paintings are lost],” Smith once told an interviewer, “but I assume that life in the universe will continue to the point that anything can be recreated.  It’s only an illusion anyhow.  There isn’t anything here except some kind of weak magnetic field” (Singh, p. 36). 

An Accidental Masterpiece

Ironically, it was one of Harry Smith’s fundraising efforts that inadvertently led to what may have been his most important contribution to the arts.  Reportedly short on cash in early 1952, Smith went to visit Folkways Records president Moses Asch (1905-1986) in order to sell some of his early American folk records from the 1920s and 1930s.  Smith had long been a collector of early jazz and folk music 78s, scouring shops in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York, and occasionally advertising in record magazines for particularly hard-to-find discs.  He was also known to swoop in on shops that were going out of business, almost all his available cash to buy up rare selections at rock bottom prices.  (Material drives during World War II, as well, found thousands of records being abandoned in piles, so Smith was able to bolster his collection for free with selections that had been discarded.)  At any given point, Harry Smith’s vintage record collection numbered in the thousands, perhaps more.

Moses Asch was indeed interested in the collection, but had a much better idea: Instead of selling his records, Asch persuaded Smith to assemble a compilation album providing an overview of the genre and period, with liner notes and background material to be researched and written by Smith himself.  Smith contracted with Folkways in May 1952 and threw himself into the project, which was eventually released as the three volume (six record) set Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952).  

Anthology concentrated on music made between 1927 and 1932, with 84 separate tracks by artists who had seemingly vanished from the American scene.  Harry’s song selection helped introduce the larger public to these (until then) forgotten artists, which included cuts from performers such as Buell Kazee, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Carter Family, Dock Boggs, and Mississippi John Hurt.  Interestingly, his method for selecting these tracks was unusual -- it wasn’t always the best version of a song that Smith chose, but rather an early performance or a song in which he felt the singer brought something “extra” to the track that distinguished it from other versions.  "[Songs] were selected to be ones that would be popular among musicologists, or possibly with people who would want to sing them or maybe improve the version," Smith would later remark.  "They were basically picked out from an epistemological [and] musicological selection of reasons" (Singh, pp. 68-69).

Although never a big seller, Anthology would become an influential collection that established Harry Smith’s name in the world of music.  It also inspired a new generation of folk artists in the 1950s, including a rising young singer named Bob Dylan (b. 1941).  Dylan, in fact, covered several tracks from Anthology on his 1961 self-titled debut album, and was still drawing on this material for albums released during the 1990s.

A Man and a Microphone

Although much of Harry Smith’s later career found him concentrating on visual artwork, the world of music and recording never seemed far away.  In the mid-1960s, Smith helped record and produced the first album by the Fugs, and began to experiment with ambient and spoken-word recordings, such as capturing works of Beat poetry on tape. For example, he worked with his friend Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) on recordings of the poet’s work. 

Then in 1973, Harry Smith revisited his early anthropological work in the Northwest when the Folkways label released Kiowa Peyote Meeting, Smith’s recording of songs related to various peyote ceremonies performed by the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma.  Smith had become acquainted with the Kiowa while serving as an advisor on the experimental film Chappaqua (1966), starring William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) and Allen Ginsberg, which was shot in Anadarko, Oklahoma.  Smith was arrested on charges of public drunkenness in the middle of the shoot and eventually struck up a friendship with two Kiowa men who shared the same cell (Daniel, p. 19).

Movie Magic

In the early 1960s Harry Smith took a huge leap forward with his 12th film, commonly known today as Heaven and Earth Magic (1957-1962).  Smith was no longer relying on animation (although animated sequences continued to appear in his films), but was now using a collage technique that allowed a greater use of familiar images in new and unusual associations.  The loosely structured film follows a woman who has visions after receiving an anesthetic from her dentist. 

As noted by film historian Jamie Sexton, the setup provides Smith with a unique opportunity to incorporate his particular visual style, with specific references to such diverse sources as medical texts, Jewish mysticism, and the London sewer system, not to mention a recurring oval motif.  Viewed by many as Smith’s greatest film achievement, Heaven and Earth Magic was shot in black and white but designed to be shown using a special projector equipped with colored filters and masking slides to alter the screen visuals. 

Harry Smith followed up Heaven and Earth Magic by getting investor backing for a new film version of The Wizard of Oz, although much of the budget was squandered and only a handful of scenes were ever completed.  Beginning in 1970, however, he embarked on an ambitious epic called Mahoganny, loosely based on the Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny.  Described by Jamie Sexton as a picture in which “autobiographical film, animation, street symbols and images of nature are combined into a sensual, fluctuating flow,” the picture (with the screen divided into four separate quadrants) would occupy Smith’s creative endeavors for a full decade (Sexton). 

Smith himself had high hopes for Mahogonny, as he boasted to an interviewer in 1972.  "It's going to be so beautiful that no one can brush it aside," he stated. "It's going to be a miracle of motion pictures. It'll get people interested in motion pictures again and I'll have enough money to buy a studio and really make some spectacular things with, you know, enormous sets and beautiful actresses and handsome actors, gymnasts and things" (Singh, pp. 178-179).  At nearly two and a half hours in length, Mahoganny has been viewed by many as a challenging film that did not live up to the earlier success of Heaven and Earth Magic, and although dividing the screen into separate images made for some interesting relationships, such moments seem few and far between. Its most noteworthy characteristic, in fact, may be that the picture (shot largely in and around New York) captures glimpses of the city throughout the 1970s.

Getting By With a Little Help From His Friends

By the time he completed Mahoganny in 1980, Harry Smith’s careless lifestyle began to catch up with him.  His income had always been negligible, and he typically made ends meet only through the generosity of friends.  Smith had also spent most of his life in a series of cheap New York hotels, giving little thought to his own health and well-being.  Money came and went, and oftentimes Smith would use what little he could come across on his various collections, or on drugs or alcohol, with scant concern for rent, food, or proper health care. "Whilst [Smith] was adept as perceiving and treating everything creatively," remarked Jamie Sexton, "he was at a loss when dealing with the more rational, mundane things in life, such as financial matters" (Sexton). "I don’t know how I’ve supported myself," Smith told interviewer Gary Kenton in 1983. "It’s one of the things that gives me a belief in some creative energy beyond that of human hands ..." (Singh, p. 39).

Smith was in such a state by the late 1980s that Allen Ginsberg intervened -- in part to help a friend, but also to stop the constant requests for money.  Ginsberg helped secure a place for Smith at the The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where he became a part-time lecturer and full-time resident of the campus (a "shaman in residence," according to Rani Singh).  It marked yet another return to Smith’s early work with Native Americans that had sparked his intellectual journey way back in the 1930s.

A Reevaluation

Yet despite his painting, filmmaking, or anthropological studies, it was his early contribution to music -- with Anthology of American Folk Music -- that secured his legacy.  Harry Smith earned a Lifetime Achievement Grammy at the 1991 ceremonies, an honor he received shortly before his death.  Smith was uneasy before the large industry crowd that evening, but remarked in his speech, "I’m glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by music" (“Harry Smith [1923-1991]”).  Anthology was reissued in 1997, this time with additional tracks that had been cut from the original 1952 release, and again received strong critical praise almost 50 years after its debut.

Shortly after receiving his Grammy, time caught up with Harry Smith.  On November 27, 1991, at the age of 68, Smith died at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, which for years had been his familiar haunt. 

Although his films and paintings have remained largely inaccessible to the public (in contrast to Anthology, which remains in circulation thanks to reissues), this has begun to change in the years since his death.  In fact, the total works of this talented but oddball artist are starting to undergo a major critical reevaluation, in part due to the efforts of Rani Singh, curator of the Harry Smith Archives.  In recent years, for instance, symposiums and film retrospectives have been held at The Getty Center in Los Angeles and at Cinematheque Ontario.  And in February 2006, the Northwest finally celebrated one of its own when the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle organized a retrospective of Harry Smith’s films -- including the rarely-seen features Heaven and Earth Magic and Mahoganny -- to play that group’s Capitol Hill venue.

Sources: Darrin Daniel, Harry Smith: Fragments of a Northwest Life (Seattle: Elbow Press, 2000); Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith -- Selected Interviews, ed. by Rani Singh (Seattle: Elbow/Cityful Press, 1999); Peter D. Goldsmith, Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998); "Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular ...," press release, April 4, 2001, The Getty Center (J. Paul Getty Museum) website accessed December 15, 2005 (; Jamie Sexton, “Alchemical Transformations: The Abstract Films of Harry Smith,” Senses of Cinema website accessed February 1, 2006 (; “Harry Smith: Connections and Transformations,” Northwest Film Forum website, accessed February 1, 2006 (; Doug Harvey, “Dismembering Harry Smith,” LA Weekly, May 4, 2001, reprinted on the Harry Smith Archives website, and Tony Stasiek, “Ahead of His Time: Bellingham Youth's Folk Recordings Reverberate Through the Years,” Bellingham Herald, December 2, 2001, reprinted on the Harry Smith Archives website accessed February 5, 2006 (http://www.harrysmitharchives).

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