Think Of The Self Speaking: Harry Smith — Selected Interviews
Most people who know of Harry Smith know him as the mastermind behind Folkways’ Anthology Of American Folk Music, the sprawling 1952 compilation that tapped the primitive side of pop music’s Depression-era zeitgeist and inspired such latter-day troubadours as Bob Dylan and Beck. Smith also recorded the Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, Sacred Harp singing, and the peyote rituals of the Kiowa Indians.
But his alchemy went far beyond music. This autodidact and bona fide mad scientist was an anthropologist; a student of the occult; a painter; an experimental filmmaker responsible for innovations in animation and collage techniques; and a collector of everything under the sun — from paper airplanes and Ukrainian Easter eggs to Seminole quilts and old 78s.
As the seven freely associative interviews in this collection attest, Smith saw connections between all of these things. His was a pluralism, albeit an organic one, that presaged the crazy-quilt consciousness of post-modernism.
Smith was also a world-class kook. Among other things, these waggish, yet disarmingly intimate, Dexedrine- and drink-addled ramblings find him sponging off friends, downing beer swimming with cockroaches, detailing how he destroyed his own paintings, and playing the role of trickster to the hilt.
“I’m just trying to be funny for the sake of the readers,” Smith explains at the close of an interview with John Cohen that first appeared in Sing Out! in 1969. “I wish I’d stuck on the business about Engels pointing out the relation between machine and thought. The reason for looking at objects is to perfect the self. It’s a kind of selfish thing.” Indeed, these last lines could just as well describe the impetus for Smith’s life and work.
The contents of this slim volume (186 pages) span 25 years and, as such, offer a panoramic view of Smith’s singular genius. We learn of his childhood on Puget Sound, where he spent time with the Lummi Indians; of the first time he saw Dizzy Gillespie, an epiphany that inspired him to make films; of the films he hand-painted frame by painstaking frame; of his involvement with the secret fraternity of Aleister Crowley; of his record collecting; of the evolution of Mahoganny, the film he considered to be his masterpiece; and of his years as a “shaman in residence” at the Naropa Institute in Boulder.
Born Harry Everett Smith to Theosophist parents in Portland, Oregon, in 1923, Smith died in New York’s Chelsea Hotel in 1991, just months after winning a Grammy Award for his contributions to American folk music.